It’s a common tale: you were always told you had a Cherokee ancestor. You can’t quite figure out exactly who it is, but you think it is your third great-grandparents. After all, you tan really easily. And your grandma had high cheekbones and dark hair, she totally looked Native American!
But hold on, there. I am about to blow to lid off your illusion about your supposed Cherokee blood. Try not to be too disappointed.
You are probably not Cherokee. It’s hard to imagine that a false story could be passed down so many generations, but unfortunately, it’s all too common.
Let me tell you my story.
I am embarrassed to admit it, but for the first 30 years of my life, I was convinced that I was part-Cherokee. Totally, completely convinced. I knew that a lot of people claimed to be Native and actually weren’t… but that wasn’t me! My mom told me she sat on her grandfather’s lap as a child and stroked his leathery cheeks, and he spoke Indian to her. My grandmother worked in the cotton fields of Texas from a young age, and had to carry her baby brother on her back. She had kinky black hair, and tiny brown eyes. She had a hard life. Her ancestors came over on the Trail of Tears, and she felt so connected to her Native American blood that she moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains in her retirement, where they were originally from, and when she was on her death bed, she listens to tribal drum beats. When she passed away, she had her ashes scattered with the wind on top of a mountainside.
Then last year, I had my mom take the Ancestry DNA test. The results were surprising:
According to a sample of my maternal mitochondrial DNA, my ancestors are from the above regions, and not one of them is in North America. Here is a more thorough breakdown of the estimate:
Ok, so the majority of her DNA is Scandinavian. That was a HUGE surprise. We thought maybe German and French, and that’s all we knew. We were right about that part, but there were so many more surprises:
For example, the fact that my mom has Caucasus, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African DNA! Um, what?! How? When? Where?
It is funny to see how family members react to and attempt to justify, explain, or discredit the DNA results. I heard, “Oh, well if you go far back enough, everyone has ancestors from Africa and the Middle East.”
Yeah, that’s true. Except that I have seen lots of other test results, including my dad’s, and his was 100% European. The only explanation for those trace regions is that I have actual ancestors in my family tree from those places.
In all likelihood, my grandmother’s tan complexion, kinky black hair, and small brown eyes didn’t come from a Cherokee ancestor at all. It probably came from an ancestor from the Iberian Peninsula region, or maybe even India, or Africa! Isn’t that fascinating?
I asked my mother if she was disappointed. She said not at all. I think we were both puzzled and mesmerized. So where the heck did that Cherokee rumor get started?
My guess is somewhere in the 19th century. It was a common story for those who lived in the South at that time. Many Cherokee lived among both whites and blacks in the Carolinas. Many people were struggling to assert their rights. Although the Native tribes were oppressed by the federal government, there was a romanticism with Native American culture that was evident well into the 20th century. Have you ever heard of Iron Eyes Cody, also known as “The Crying Indian”? Yep, not Indian. Sad to say, but everything we thought we knew about Indians- the headdresses, the “Squanto speak”, the dreamcatchers and turquoise jewelry, the cheesy pictures of wolves howling at the moon- a lot of that stuff is just romanticized, white man versions of Native culture. Like our alleged Cherokee blood, it is not what we thought at all. It is a myth.
I don’t know about you, but I have taken this opportunity to educate myself more about Native Americans, their history and their culture. Instead of appropriating it as my own, I have a new respect for Native American culture and a renewed sense of curiosity about my own ancestry, which is intriguing enough to keep me busy for quite a while.
And sure, some of you out there really are Cherokee. That is awesome, and you should celebrate your heritage. You come from a long line of courageous men and women who have no doubt passed on their strength to you.
Taking the DNA test will definitely give you some clarity, though. Just be prepared to potentially tick off your relatives.
I don’t know about you though, but I am interested in the truth, no matter how romantic a lie might sound. And I don’t blame my grandmother at all. She probably didn’t know the truth, either. Her Cherokee heritage might have been a myth, but her love and dedication to her ancestors was most certainly real.