Elizabeth Warren and What Really Makes a Native American

So what makes someone Native American? Clearly, genes alone don't do it.

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In an old sepia-toned photo, Greenberry Jenkins sits upright, unsmiling as all people had to do when exposures were agonizingly slow. But one gets the immediate sense that the camera did not matter much to him—this was a man who went through life with a poker face.

He wears the black Sunday suit typical of a mid-19th century farmer in the American South. A black, broad-brim hat adds a touch of religious modesty.

The most American thing about my great-great-grandfather, however, is his face. The Asiatic cast of his eyes, cheekbones that cut right under his eyes, a dark complexion, even the whiskers on his chin that managed a thin, white spray, speak to our ancestors who came to North America not by boat, but by walking across the Bering Strait.

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My grandmother, who inherited Greenberry's Native American features, was understandably fearful in the 1930s of how her West Texas neighbors would regard someone with a bit of nonwhite blood. So she maintained that she was of "black Dutch" ancestry (in this context, ancestry from darker-skinned Europeans).

Nowadays, except when noticing my son's straight, coal black hair, I give my distant Native American heritage no thought. It wasn't until this week's news that Massachusetts senate candidate Elizabeth Warren had listed herself as a Native American in the Harvard law school directory for nine years that I got to thinking about it again.

Did checking that box also help Warren, a Rutgers University-Newark law school graduate, get her job on the most prestigious law school faculty in the world? The professor who hired her insists that it did not. But certainly by checking that box, Warren had allowed the school to tout her as a minority hire—which it did.

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I faced a similar moral choice when I applied for college. I had, in fact, checked the box "Native American" when I took the SAT. When the time came to apply to college, I thought the better of it.

I went with "white."

Why did I make that choice? Because I am. I'm at most 12 percent Native American, meaning the great majority of my ancestors were as British as bangers and mash. One doesn't have to look far to find many white, black, and Asian-American people whose ancestry contains such whispers of an Indian past. Example: My office mate Josh Gilder, and contributor to this blog, is a novelist and former Reagan speechwriter, who now takes his family on summer vacations to canoe in New England lakes. He has roots that go deep into New York's Dutch and English colonial past. He is also a direct descendant of the Siwanoy chieftan who planted an axe in the skull of Puritan dissenter Anne Hutchinson.

Does a little blood alone make Josh a Native American? No more than it does me—a view he shares.

Elizabeth Warren's family lore held that her great-great-great grandmother was a Cherokee. Genealogists at the New England Historic Genealogical Society could not validate this claim.

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Seeking clarification, I called the Cherokee Nation and spoke with spokeswoman Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton, who said that to be a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, one must provide proper documentation of direct descent from someone listed in the Dawes Rolls (closed more than a century ago) to obtain a tribal citizenship card.

"We have a running joke in Cherokee country that when you meet someone who knows next to nothing about Indian country, but claims they're Indian, chances are they'll claim they're Cherokee," Krehbiel-Burton says.

People who have—or think they have—Cherokee ancestry may not be able to document their eligibility for citizenship, but they are encouraged to learn about Cherokee history, language, and to participate in the Cherokee National Holiday in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

So what makes someone Native American? Clearly, genes alone don't do it.

Many members of the Cherokee Nation are fairer than I am. Some are blonde and blue-eyed. But they are genuine Cherokees because they have been raised in a tradition of a people who successfully mixed European ways (and genes) with Native American life centuries ago, and invented an alphabet to express that way of life. They and their line maintained this heritage in the face of Andrew Jackson's terrible ethnic cleansing called the Trail of Tears and ever since.

Let's leave that little box for them.

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