There has been a lot of buzz and even vitriol lately about Rachel Dolezal, the white woman in Spokane, Washington, who has been passing herself off as a mixed-race black woman for the past few years. Mostly the talk has been about the disbelief that she would falsely claim black heritage. But the one part that is almost always overlooked is her dubious claim of Native American ancestry. She even claims to have been born in a teepee in Montana. Because Indians were still living in teepees in Montana in 1977, apparently.
I have heard claims of partial Native ancestry from just about every white person I know. Some claim to be directly descended from Pocahontas, while others claim some unlikely mixture such as Seminole and Aleut. Where was the media attention and outrage when Robert van Winkle, better known as Vanilla Ice, recently claimed Choctaw heritage? So proud was he of his heritage that he misspelled it “Chactaw” on Twitter. For a person who has made his entire career by misappropriating black hip-hop culture and calling himself “Vanilla,” it is quite ironic that he now self-identifies as Indian. “Neapolitan Ice” perhaps? So many times I have heard the claim from white people of having a grandmother who was a “Cherokee Princess,” a claim usually made based on nothing more substantial than the perceived height of cheekbones in some grainy old photograph.
Yes, it’s weird that this women went as far as to try to darken her skin tone, kinkify her hair and adopt a heritage that isn’t hers, but this isn’t anything new. One of the most persistent myths among black Americans is the myth of Native American ancestry. As Dr. Henry Louise Gates has shown through his work on PBS’ Finding Your Roots, the DNA evidence simply doesn’t support these claims. One of the few black Americans his research was able to tangibly link to Native American heritage was the actor Don Cheadle, whose ancestors were not Native Americans themselves, but were kept as slaves by members of the Chickasaw Nation and as such were categorized as Chickasaw Freedmen. According to extensive DNA research by the company 23andme.com, the average African American is 75% sub-Saharan African, 22% European, and only 0.6% Native American.
Many Americans, both white and black, feel absolutely no shame in claiming Native American heritage based on dubious or completely nonexistent evidence. I have even heard people claim that they just “know” they have Native ancestry because they have always “felt” Native.
Once upon a time no one who appeared to be white would ever claim to be otherwise. To do so in the first half of the 20th century would have been foolish. It only became faddish to claim Native American heritage in the 20th century. Maybe the hippy culture’s appropriation of Native traditions was partially to blame. Maybe romanticized fiction like Dances With Wolves made people want to believe that their ancestors were anything but dirt poor immigrant farmers who most likely despised and, in some cases, killed the Indians that their descendants would later claim to be. Maybe it partially sprang from a collective sense of guilt over the genocide and removal of Native people from their rightful lands. Whatever the reason, at some point many white Americans started making claims of Cherokee Princesses among their forebears. And, by and large, nobody called bullshit on those claims.
Which is why I find it all very ironic that this week the whole world is rejoicing in calling bullshit on a woman’s claim to be something she’s not. Because what makes it any more wrong for her to claim to be black than it is for Robert van Winkle or Senator Elizabeth Warren to claim to be “Chactaw” or a high-cheekboned Cherokee? Johnny Depp, Cher, Beyonce, Chris Tucker, James Earl Jones, Kim Basinger, Burt Reynolds, Chuck Norris, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Tommy Lee Jones, Val Kilmer, Miley Cyrus (and her daddy Billy Ray), Channing Tatum, Cameron Diaz, Billy Bob Thornton, Rosario Dawson, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Brad Pitt have all made public claims of Native American ancestry, mostly Cherokee, and to my knowledge none of them has any documented connection to any Native American tribe. So where is the vitriol and outrage against all of these dubious claims? People are calling Rachel Dolezal a fraud for claiming to be something she’s not. How is Johnny Depp any less of a fraud for claiming his portrayal of Tonto wasn’t culturally offensive because he has a nonexistent Cherokee Princess somewhere way back in his family tree?