Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Return of the Native

“Elizabeth Warren Disappointed After DNA Test Shows Zero Trace Of Presidential Material”
—Headline in The Onion, October 15
Have I mentioned that I have reason to believe I am 0.390625 percent Irish?

Feel free to be skeptical. I have not had my DNA tested, so my assertion is unhindered by the existence of chromosome evidence. It is based entirely on non-rigorous personal research into my family history by way of clan anecdotes, an old family Bible, and the conclusive authority of the internet. I have convinced myself that I may be the sixth-great-grandchild of Margaret Lewis, born in County Donegal in 1726. As I recounted on this blog three years ago, I have used this ancestral quest as a pretext for adventures both here in Ireland and in the U.S. state of Virginia. Margaret was a daughter of John Lewis, a second-generation Donegal resident (apparently transplanted from either England or Scotland, for reasons not clear) who fled Ireland after killing his new, young landlord in a dispute. John Lewis wound up in Virginia where, according to his gravestone, he “settled Augusta Co., located the town of Staunton, and furnished five sons to fight the battles of the AMERICAN REVOLUTION.”

So, once apprised of this information, my friends and neighbors here in Eire immediately accepted me as one of their own, right? Well, I have to say that they are indeed all very welcoming and have all made me feel that this country is my home, but no one seriously considers me “Irish.” Not even naturalization confers that identity in any meaningful (as opposed to legal) sense. Yes, newsreaders on RTÉ diligently do make a point of identifying every third-world-born resident and/or citizen in Ireland as “Irish” if they make the news. I have yet to hear them, though, use that term with any naturalized American or Brit. I am pretty darn sure that if I somehow got featured on the main evening news—unless I have won a Nobel Prize or something similar—I fully expect I will be described as “an American residing in Ireland.”

That will not bother me. I certainly do not self-identify as Irish—even though I happen to be the husband and father of Irish women. I do not expect the purchase of a house or the filing of a few papers to change who I am. On the other hand, if people from Ireland—or anywhere else—emigrate to my country and become naturalized, I do consider them fully American and do happily refer to them as such. That is the way I was raised to think, and that is how my country self-identifies: as a nation of immigrants. I truly believe that despite the fact that immigration has become a contentious political issue. From where I sit, the debate is a massive case of cognitive dissonance. One side thinks they are arguing about whether immigrants are good or bad. The other side thinks it’s about whether immigrants should come in legally or not.

Anyway, I understand that most other countries, such as Ireland, see themselves differently than the U.S. Irish-ness is an ethnicity as well as a legal status. What you realize here and in most countries is that the ethnicity is what matters to people. The passport you use is nearly seen as incidental. It is not uncommon, for example, to hear someone described in the news as “an Irish woman holding a UK passport.”

These musings on ethnicity and identity have been spurred, as you might have guessed, by the kerfuffle caused by Senator Elizabeth Warren when she drew attention to the results of her DNA test indicating that, “[w]hile the vast majority of the individual’s ancestry is European, the results strongly support the existence of an unadmixed Native American ancestor in the individual’s pedigree, likely in the range of 6-10 generations ago.” In other words, Senator Warren is about the same percentage (or possibly less) Native American as I am Irish.

Senator Warren comes from Oklahoma and, having grown up around a lot of people from that state and other parts of the Midwest, I always noticed how an awful lot of them proudly point to Native American or “Indian” heritage. It is nearly a badge of honor to say, “I am part Cherokee” or “my great-grandmother was Shawnee.” I always saw this pride as a positive thing and a sign of the good old American melting pot. I suppose, though, one could also view it as cultural appropriation. I certainly never felt compelled to ask question anyone’s claims of Native American pedigree or ask them for proof.

The senator’s announcement pretty much backfired, as fellow Democrats criticized her timing (right before the midterms when she is not even running), the usually non-political Cherokee Nation pointedly issued a statement that a “DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship,” and Republicans had a great time pointing out that the percentage of her Native American DNA could well be lower than the average U.S. citizen. CNN and The Daily Beast embarrassed themselves by rushing to proclaim that Warren had been vindicated in her self-identification as Native American. (She apparently once had four recipes published in a cookbook called Pow Wow Chow: A Collection of Recipes from Families of the Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek & Seminole.)

So why did she do it? She did it because President Trump baited her, and she took the bait. Observers have taken this to mean that she is definitely running for president in 2020. Lots of families have lore that is historically imprecise or apocryphal, so she should not embarrassed about that. (On the nearly-pure Swedish side of my family we used to hear about “a Spanish grandmother,” whom I have been trying to track down for years.) There is no reason to believe that she profited from designated minority status at Harvard, as her critics charge, although it appears Harvard may have used her Native American self-identification to boost its own diversity statistics. It makes no sense for her to behave defensively about a non-issue.

The real issue is what the whole episode says about her character and judgment. Of course, when it comes character and judgment, the current standard seems to be pretty malleable. I mean, look at who is in the White House at the moment. So what may really matter is what the whole #fauxcahontas episode says about the senator’s suitability for the current environment of political hardball and voters’ exhaustion with the old rules of politics.