It started while I was still an aspiring academic, nearing the end of a Ph.D. program in computer science. My mother was making a living as a stockbroker. She cold-called the chairman of the computer science department in the Denver area. It was a place I’d mentioned as one place I’d like to teach when I graduated. Over the course of several calls, she talked me up to him, and got the usual reply — there were generally about 400 resumes in for every tenure track opening, send a resume, they’d call me, don’t bother to call them.
In the course of the conversation, it came up that she — and therefore I — had Indian blood, both Choctaw and Cherokee according to family tradition, with some reason to believe it since both her parents had been born in the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations before they became Oklahoma. Mom had even received checks from the Cherokee oil money for a while.
In fact, it had even been a source of some trouble in the family, as my other grandfather, born in the Deep South, wasn’t thrilled to have a not-quite-white daughter-in-law. But then, it hadn’t always been something people talked about in Oklahoma, either. As my great aunt had put it to her, one didn’t offer that information lightly, because “to some people it was like being part ni**er”.
Now, in 1960 I just thought it was cool. When my playmates played Cowboys and Indians, I insisted on being an Indian, and cried when the other kids told me the Indians had to always lose. I watched the Westerns everyone watched, I gave show and tell talks about Indians and the Trail of Tears, and when I learned the both tribes had used blowguns, I spent a summer making a nuisance of myself by making toy blowguns and shooting darts with them.
So it wasn’t exactly a surprise that she mentioned being an Indian. She was proud of it, and unlike me, she looked the part: straight, nearly black hair; tan; and high cheekbones.
What was a surprise was the way the department chairman reacted. He was suddenly very interested, not so much in the stocks but in her Ph.D. candidate son. I went from being just another applicant to being a Prize Catch. They wanted to talk to me; they were excited to have me apply to their small but well-known school.
And pretty quickly, I caught on: they had me pegged now, not as a Ph.D. student, but as a Native American Ph.D. student.
Do you have any idea how many Native American Ph.D. candidates there were in computer science that year?
Hell, there were only a few earned Ph.D.’s of any kind being awarded to Native Americans that year, and most of them were in some kind of ethnic studies. A technical native American was golden.
This kind of pissed me off. I thought I was doing decent research, with a chance of being something important. But based on my research alone, I was just another faceless grad student in a multitude. What made me, suddenly, a star candidate was my choice in great grandparents.
Of course, this all comes to mind because of the alarums and excursions over Elizabeth Warren’s belief in her Cherokee ancestry. She’s roughly my contemporary and from the same part of Oklahoma, and in fact our maternal grandmothers shared a last name — we may be distant cousins. And her degree, while a JD instead of a Ph.D., was still a serious degree — this wasn’t my erstwhile colleague from University of Colorado, Ward Churchill, who parlayed being a parlour pink with a middle part into a career, tenure, and fame.
But when it came time to fill out EEO forms, she got to that little box, and checked Native American. I do it too.
I honestly doubt that she thought a lot about it; I wouldn’t have. Once she did it, however, she was a Find. She was a hot property. She meant Penn, and then Harvard, could fill in a box on their reports that said “Yes! We have a Native American!”
She wouldn’t have needed to make much of it, because the EEO mechanism would have done it for her. And if it meant she got hired or promoted over someone else, I’m sure no one ever said “we’re hiring you as a Native American.” No one expected her to wear buckskin and feathers, any more than they would have expected an Italian American to wear striped shirts and sing opera.
Now, of course, it’s become a big issue in her political campaign. I doubt her political beliefs and mine could be much more different, but I have to sympathize with her difficulty in documenting her Cherokee ancestry. My family members into genealogy are having the same problem, somewhat complicated by the discovery that some of the possible Cherokee ancestors were Cherokee freedmen, which is to say freed slaves. Black. (And wouldn’t my other grandfather have loved that bit of family lore?)
So, I don’t blame her for saying she was part Cherokee. She may have been misled, just as, hell, I might have been misled. Her family said it, she believed it, and honestly, not everyone in the world knows their full genealogy. And she’s from Oklahoma, with “Native America” and a war shield, medicine pipe, and feather on the license plate.
I think the real issue isn’t for Warren; it’s for places like Harvard. She wouldn’t have needed to make any big production about it and she would have been claiming a bit of family history to which she believed she was entitled.
The real issue is for Harvard and places like Harvard, and for the governmental regulations that make it imperative for Harvard to actually care about who Warren’s great-grandmother was.
I don’t think Warren deserves to be blamed for believing, as her family told her, that she was part Cherokee. But I think Harvard and the system that led Harvard to care deserve a lot of blame.
By trying to avoid racism, they have managed to make the most important part of Warren’s whole academic career, her life, be her race.
For that, they should be ashamed.