Some North Americans Claim a False Indigenous Identity

Darryl R J Leroux

Darryl R. J. Leroux is an Associate Professor, Department of Social Justice and Community Studies, at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He obviously is also an expert genealogist and historian. He recently published an article concerning the claims of indigenous ancestry in eastern Canada in the 1600s as made by thousands of today’s genealogists. He points out that many of these claims simply are not true and he backs up his claims with solid research.

The article is a brief summary of Leroux’s book, Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity. Leroux described his 12 years of research, including reading thousands of messages on various online genealogy forums. One of his most surprising findings was how numerous French women were transformed into Indigenous women on different forums in both French and English. This practice is called aspirational descent. It involves changing an ancestor’s identity to fit one’s current desire to shift away from a white identity. He points out that “one simply repeats false family stories passed down over the generations, ignoring the voices of Indigenous peoples along the way.”

If you suspect you have “Métis”, “Abenaki”, or “Algonquin” ancestry, you want to read Darryl R. J. Leroux’s article in TheConversation web site at: https://theconversation.com/how-some-north-americans-claim-a-false-indigenous-identity-121599.

Comment by Dick Eastman: I have no proof but I suspect the problem of people erroneously claiming descent from North American indigenous ancestors is not limited to eastern Canada. I am certain that similar false claims are common in the rest of Canada and all throughout the United States. Indeed, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren often repeated false family stories passed down in her family over the generations until she was corrected by a genealogy researcher.

In my own family, as I was growing up I was told that I had a Native American great-grandmother. She and my great-grandfather reportedly lived in northern Maine. While they lived in the United States, they lived a very short distance from the Canadian border. There were and still are many French-Canadians living in that area.

I also was told my Native American great-grandmother was bi-lingual, speaking both French and an American Indian language. Reportedly, she did not speak English. When I first started looking into the family tree, I assumed that story was 100% factual. I was wrong.

Once I dug into the original records, I found that a grain of truth had been expanded into a falsehood over the generations. In fact, I now know I had a STEP-great-grandmother who probably was Abenaki or Micmac or possibly a member of the Penobscot tribe. However, she was not my biological great-grandmother.

The christening records in the local Catholic church listed my grandfather’s date of christening and the names of his father and of his true mother, a different woman’s name from what I had been told by my elders. The marriage records in the same church also revealed that the woman I had been told was my great-grandmother was actually the SECOND WIFE of my great-grandfather. I later found a record proving that the the first wife had previously died in childbirth. The first wife obviously was my true great-grandmother.

My grandfather was four years old when his mother died. In short, my grandfather was RAISED by a Native American woman who was his step-mother. However, his biological mother obviously was a white French-Canadian.

Great-grandfather and his second wife did have more children and all the children were RAISED together by my great-grandfather and his Native American (second) wife.

In fact, I have since met a descendant of my great-grandfather and step-great-grandmother and he already knew most of the story involving two wives. Apparently he had been told the true story when he was growing up, unlike the story I had been told. While my cousin and I both share the same great-grandfather, we have different great-grandmothers. In short, my cousin has some Native American blood in his veins while I do not.

Does your family have a similar (false) story?

24 Comments

My mom always said she had NA ancestry, but I didn’t believe her because I knew many people who claimed it and there really aren’t that many. So I did my DNA and guess what. She was correct. I subsequently traced it back to a First Nations Mic-Mac tribe near Amherst, Nova Scotia with the help of a Metis Web site. My French Canadian male ancestor was a translator for the fur trade and married a Native woman.

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>U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren often repeated false family stories passed down in her family over the generations until she was corrected by a genealogy researcher.

Who was the researcher, where was the information published, and do you have a link to an online article about Warren’s real roots?

Thanks!

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Michelle Shackleton October 3, 2019 at 2:32 am

No surprises here!
In Australia, many people claim Aboriginality based on the idea that a grandparent or great grandparent was indigenous. Problem is that there is absolutely no way to prove the claim as written records are sketchy until the mid-1900s.
On a slightly different track, one thing that perplexes me is that many of these descendants have hundreds of (often) European ancestors who are suddenly ignored because of this ONE link. It seems odd to me. I can trace my heritage back several hundred years to Scotland and Ireland through my grandparents, but would never dream of claiming to be anything other than Australian!

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At least 2 of the brothers of my great-grandfather married Choctaw women and maybe 3. As a child at my grandfather’s funeral, it was easy to look around and assume that I,too, had Indian blood. (I hate pc). However, I never tried to pad my resume with that false assumption. No one in my family cared about genealogy or was even slightly interested until I came along and started putting things together.

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    Why is not using “Indian” to describe indigenous people in the Americas “pc”? Indigenous is a perfectly suitable and more appropriate word that was first used in English in 1646, according to the OED…

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    In Canada we use the term First Nations – an apt description of sovereign peoples whose presence in North America predates that of European settlers.

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My aunt, French-Canadian from Maine, always said that her father (my adoptive grandfather) was Native-American because he had coppery-colored skin and high cheekbones. When I traced all of his ancestral lines back to France, with some back into the 1400s, there was not a single Native-American in the tree. Sad part, when I told her that, she basically never spoke to me for 30 years.

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I believe that Senator Warren’s DNA test showed that she does, indeed, have native American descent.

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    Yes, Duncan Ness and JLHintz. Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test showed she had a small percentage of Native American DNA. https://www.npr.org/2018/10/15/657468655/warren-releases-dna-results-challenges-trump-over-native-american-ancestry.
    The controversy has seemed to stem from some tribes being insulted that she seemed to be claiming tribal membership without really understanding that just having some Native American DNA does not confer tribal status. Again, that was what she seemed to be apologizing for.

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    I am a card-carrying member in a Federally recognized Indian tribe. Such people have been calling each other “Indians” for over a century now, regardless of what the politically-correct thing to do is or was.
    So for what it’s worth: “The controversy has seemed to stem from some tribes being insulted that she seemed to be claiming tribal membership without really understanding that just having some Native American DNA does not confer tribal status. Again, that was what she seemed to be apologizing for.” I have been following Sen. Warren’s historic claim of native descent for many years. At best (or worst) all her claim EVER amounted to was that she carried indigenous DNA. She NEVER claimed tribal status or tribal membership, only that she had an indigenous ancestor. Just who that ancestor might have been she was never specific on. This “insult” was manufactured at the tribal level and was never worth any apology whatsoever. Note there are many known and verifiable indigenous descendants who cannot claim tribal descendancy or tribal membership due to federal and/or tribal politics. Some tribal members actually deny DNA has any bearing on one’s ancestry whatsoever, almost as if they were not DNA based lifeforms. Warren’s results were said to be 1/1024 native DNA. Warren would have been more accurate to simply apologize for claiming indigenous descent on the basis of a family history lacking evidence, and she would have been far better off not to publicize her results at all. Her tone-deaf handling of the entire issue indicates she knows hardly any actual “Indians”. I don’t think the current state of the art of DNA is accurate to this degree, considering the reluctance of known indigenous descendants to have their DNA tested.
    I once heard a native man in his twenties state he was proud of his Indian heritage. I asked him to name his native grandparents. He couldn’t name a single one. This doesn’t mean he was wrong to claim Indian heritage, but does mean that remembering his ancestors names mattered little to him.
    Natives who do genealogy research call this type of claim “I descend from an Indian Princess.”

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False claim of female NA Ancestry in my X’s family. Mother-in-Law, now in her 80’s, was baffled because she met her GGM as a child in Mountaintop, PA. Recently she had her DNA tested and there was no Native American blood. Her ancestors came from NJ and settled in NE PA after the Revolutionary War.

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As a Brit the nearest I can get is that according to Ancestry i share DNA with at least two people who descend from Pocahontas via another line and several others who also have Native American input to their DNA.

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    I have a cousin who married into a line of the Virginia Rucker family that has a legitimate, documented claim to descent from Pocahontas. No DNA samples from any of the living cousins, so I don’t know if it shows. Also, many people (Americans, at least) aren’t aware that Pocahontas died in England. I’d guess your connection to her descendants would be through the Rolfe family.

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I have traced my ancestry in the United States 1619 to 1760, none later. No one, including me, ever claimed Indian heritage. With my last name we never claimed relationship to General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson or President Jackson. My paternal 2 X Great Grandfather had the given name of Hugh, 1793-1871. He was from South Carolina. President Jackson had a brother, uncle and grandfather named Hugh. If there is a relationship it would have to be long ago in Ireland.

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My family was always told we were descended from Pocahontas. My research found that my ancestor’s first wife was indeed descended from her, but we are descended from his second wife who was not. I think my ancestor thought he was because his older brothers and sisters were. He even named his children Indian names. My grandmother’s middle name was Pocahontas.

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As a French-Canadian genealogist, I’ve researched a few claims for clients recently and have been presented with dubious reports “proving” indigenous ancestry. As you’ve mentioned, there is usually a grain of truth in family stories. In the cases I’ve looked at, there’s a native cousin, neighbour or friend who figured prominently in the ancestor’s life, but the ancestor themselves was not indigenous. Some native bands in Canada have started to look more deeply at their membership and have been requesting additional proof of native ancestry from their members as a requirement for memberships to be renewed. I suspect this will continue. It’s always difficult to debunk a story that a family has held onto for some time.
A recent opinion piece in the Globe and Mail highlighted the sensitive issues surrounding Métis identity in particular. I would encourage everyone to read it.
https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-the-confusing-world-of-metis-identity/

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Tacy A. Shoemaker Lewis October 3, 2019 at 6:53 pm

When I started researching over 40 years ago, both my grandmother and her aunt (who was in her late 80s) told me of “Indian blood” in the family. Some “family” customs were supposedly Indian customs which had been handed down through the generations. Problem was, each generation I went back, still no Indian ancestry. Finally I found the same kind of link as yours — one with a grain of truth. My ancestor had arrived very early in OH when the Shawnee and Delaware Indians were still there. He was a friend and a good hunter, so when they went out on the big fall hunts to gather food for the winter (and gone for many weeks), my ancestor would leave his wife and children with the Indian women and children — or so says an early county history. That would make sense as to how they would have acquired the customs and sayings that were passed down, at least. But, of course, no proof that is even correct.
PS I have used the term Indian here as opposed to Native or Native American, as it is used in the National Museum of the American Indian, the American Indian Movement, etc.

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Linda S.: I don’t believe that Senator Warren claimed tribal membership. She spoke about heritage. Even the degree of descent that the original genealogists noted wouldn’t have been enough.

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    Duncan, I think some Native folk thought she was claiming tribal membership just by claiming tribal heritage. So she was apologizing for confusing people. Not sure what you mean by “wouldn’t have been enough.” Her family story was that she had a Native American ancestor, and her DNA showed that to be the case.

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    Hardly confers the title of “woman of color” regarding Harvard. She has less than !% native American heritage. She is a fraud.

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Elizabeth Warren’s specially ordered DNA research was done by a scientist who published a summary of his findings. He found one 13 centimorgan segment associated with a South American or Central American Indian sample, not a North American sample. I think there was maybe 12 more cMs in two short segments. This is the source of the comments you see online about Warren having 1/1000th Indian ancestry. Many of us with all-European ancestry have similar amounts of “Indian ancestry” statistically, including me. Warren claimed relatively recent North American Indian ancestry, and her DNA results don’t support that claim in any way.

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I must raise the question: Children do not inherit all their parents’ DNA, just a portion. At some point down the line, provable descendants of a known ancestor will have NONE of that ancestor’s DNA at all. So it is likely at the 1024 level or so for actual descendants to no longer have the DNA of a particular ancestor.

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