Your DNA test came back. 26% Native American. And it’s a surprise to you. That’s happening a lot these days. Let’s unpack that.
What are the factors that contribute to the surprising realization that Native American ancestry is in your DNA? More interesting, I think, how is it that you have lived in the United States, where Indigenous peoples have lived since time immemorial, without knowing about your Native American ancestry?
I’m not gonna be all salty about this, because the truth is that mainstream society has done a good job of minimizing and oppressing the history of Indigenous peoples on this continent. I’m also not gonna be salty about this because of two important facts: I didn’t have any knowledge of my Ojibwe heritage until I was older and I have also submitted my DNA for analysis. But I do want to put some things down that I think are really important to consider, in this culture-appropriating, genocide-denying, dis-enrolling, white-washing-identity society we live in.
My plan is to start with my story – and hopefully this will help you understand that your ancestry is more than just how much Native American DNA shows up in your genetic material.
This is part of my oral history: “Your Nookomis (paternal great-grandmother) Velma was full blood Chippewa, but she never claimed her heritage. She was adopted by a white family.” She never claimed her heritage, and so here I am with no formal Ojibwe teachings, no formal instruction in my language or spiritual tradition. Why is that? What conditions contributed to my Nookomis not clinging to her traditions and culture?
What I hope to do is to provide context, by linking Native American history of this country to key years in her life, and to help provide insight into my family history. This work is not intended to be an exhaustive documentation of Native American history. There is so much history to know. I do hope it will help others gain perspective and insight into their history and to think critically about identity. I also hope it will help others to have a better understanding of those whose families fought and died to keep the formal traditions, languages and spiritual teachings of their Native American history alive.
1897 – The year my Nookomis was born. Her English name was Velma Luella Walker. From what I can find she was born, lived, and died in Ohio. Fifteen years before she was born, in 1882, Congress began funding the removal of Native children from their families and homes. This began what was known as the boarding school era in the US. It was known as the residential school era in Canada. I mention Canada because history tells us that Native people moved around the territories and did not recognize the border. Children were removed from their families, their homes and sent to schools where the stated mission was to “Kill the Indian, save the man”. These children were forced to cut their hair, to forsake all traditional clothing, in order to be assimilated into white culture. They were forbidden from speaking their language, stripped of their cultural and spiritual practices. Many were sexually abused. Other forms of physical abuse were also employed. Many tried to run away, to run back to their parents and families. Superintendents of these schools would forbid parents from visiting their children. So, by the time my Nookomis was born, Native children being stolen from their parents was the norm. In 1813, the Creek war began. By the end of the war in 1814, the Creek Nation had lost millions of acres of their territory. It is reported that the Creek dead were counted by removing their noses and stacking them in a pile. in 1830, a Congressional bill was submitted to remove all eastern Tribes west in order to make room for the settlers.
Between 1835 and 1842, the Seminoles engaged in a war with the Cavalry and it is reported that it was one of the most expensive wars the Army had ever engaged in. The Seminoles, along with other Tribes, fought valiantly and won many fights. But they also lost many wars.
in 1850, there were more than 20 million buffalo roaming the plains, but by 1875 they were nearly exterminated. In 1850, California made indentured servitude of Native children legal, which led to a black market for Native children.
I do not know when my Nookomis was separated from her birth family, nor do I know the circumstances of that separation. That story has been lost to time. What I am left with is to try and put together her story in the context of history. And, therefore, my story.
This story came to me when I was in my 20’s. It is important to me to remember that it is not only my link to my Ojibwe heritage that has been hidden, silenced. Many families have this same experience. But many more Native families have maintained and nurtured their stories. Many Ojibwe families have sacrificed much to preserve their families stories and to keep their traditions and culture alive.
As I wait for my DNA test to be processed, I will continue to explore these parts of my history to provide context and anchoring.
To be continued….