I heard it from my father, a man whose raven-black hair was such a contrast to my own.
His mother told the story, too. She had iron-gray hair and a little black mustache. I remember her drinking Budweiser from jelly jar glasses at the kitchen table while playing crazy eights with her youngest grandkids.
Maybe your family has this tale, too.
Somewhere along the way, one of my ancestors whose family came from Europe married a Cherokee woman. Sometimes it’s a princess in the telling, sometimes it’s not.
Whatever the details or how it was told, it was just not true.
I’ve probably always known that. I never claimed to have Native American ancestors. It was always just a story shared among fathers and sons, daughters and grandmothers. Some of my cousins heard it, others did not. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever tried to profit from it.
I never asked my father if he believed it. It was just one of the strands of family lore he liked to spin. Other Americans of European and African ancestry share such a legend, and it’s probably just as false for most of them.
“People are basically joiners,” said Drew Taylor, an Ojibway humorist, writer and documentarian from the Curve Lake First Nations in Ontario. “They join things that interest them, that are unique and cool. This is a lot more cool than the Boy Scouts.”
As we recognize Native American Heritage Day today, I decided to take a closer look at those who falsely claim such heritage.
Taylor has been exploring people who pass themselves off as Native American in a CBC documentary series, “The Pretendians.” Being a Native can seem exotic, Taylor has learned, an exclusive club.
And what you look like might not exclude you. Taylor is blond and blue-eyed, a gift from his absent father and, farther back, an Irishman in his mother’s ancestry.
There can be financial benefits. Some come in the form of grants or educational programs for members of an Indigenous tribe or nation. That’s more true in Canada, where being a First Nations member gets you cheaper gas.
It’s true for both countries in academia, where a spate of “American Indian” writers and teachers made their reputations in Native studies programs only to be exposed as frauds.
Taylor has often been asked about Buffy Sainte-Marie, an American popular singer-songwriter who rose to fame in the 1960s. She was part of an activist generation of folk singers, drawing enough ire that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover tried to get her songs banned from radio.
Her relevance lasted beyond that, including songs for movies and even appearing on “Sesame Street.”
Last month, an investigation by the CBC, the Canadian equivalent of NPR, found that instead of being a member of the Piapot Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, as she claimed, the singer was born in Stoneham, Massachusetts, of English and Italian ancestry.
Sainte-Marie, now 82, has said she was told she was adopted and was Native and called the recent questions “painful.”
Another version of this story happened last year after Sacheen Littlefeather died. She was the White Mountain Apache actress who upended the 1973 Oscars by declining to accept Marlon Brando’s Best Actor award at his request and condemning the treatment of Indigenous people.
Just before she passed away, the Academy of Motion Pictures apologized for condemning her, part of the hostile backlash in Hollywood that followed her appearance.
Only her identity was a lie. Littlefeather’s sisters said after her death that she was born Marie Louise Cruz, to a California family with no known Native heritage.
And then there was U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a past presidential candidate and Harvard law professor who claimed a family Cherokee connection and even released DNA test results in 2018 that proved inconclusive. She later apologized to the tribe.
Even if what they say has value, whites pretending to be Natives take jobs, awards and places in programs intended to help redress historical wrongs from Indigenous people.
“It’s easy to check a box, but it’s hard to follow up on checking a box,” Taylor said.
Figuring out that box for yourself can be hard.
My mother’s father moved here from England after the First World War, and I know that my last name comes from German immigrants who settled in Western Maryland in the 18th century
There were lots of blanks, though, and one of them was the space where the legendary Cherokee maiden should go.
She just didn’t seem to exist. Letting it be seemed like the easy thing. Looking for the truth upset one of my sisters, who liked the story.
“Do whatever you feel comfortable doing,” Taylor said.
So, years ago, I found my way to Ruddle’s Station, a settlers’ fort built on the Kentucky frontier as the Revolutionary War was ending. Elizabeth Ann Pursley was a 12-year-old girl living there with her family in 1780 when a British-led raiding party of about 1,000 Delaware, Shawnee, Ottawa, Chippewa and Huron men attacked.
The goal for the British was to keep control of the Ohio Valley after a peace treaty was signed. The tribes wanted to push back the tide of settlers sweeping over the mountains.
Elizabeth’s parents and most of her siblings were killed. She and a 3-year-old brother were marched off with other survivors to the British fort in Detroit. The young siblings only made it to a Delaware village on the Kentucky-Ohio border, where they spent months as captives.
A militia rescue party set out from Bryant’s Station (now Lexington, where my wife’s family lives) under George Rogers Clark, and brought them back. Among them was a 17-year-old mercenary, Georg Ruppert, smart enough to recognize the value of being on the winning side.
His Hessian regiment had surrendered to the Spanish near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where it had been sent by the British. He escaped and fled up the Mississippi River, then the Ohio and into Clark’s militia, where Louisville now stands.
At 5-foot-1 and described as “very broad,” he was not what anyone today might consider a romantic ideal.
But over three years he convinced Elizabeth, who was strong enough to survive historic turmoil despite being born with just one arm, to marry him. They settled on a veteran’s land grant in Ohio and lived into their 90s.
They had nine children, the first of whom was the many-times great-grandfather of that woman with iron-gray hair, a taste for Bud and simple card games, Grandma Ida Mae.
Like Georg Ruppert, Ida and my dad were both short.
Three different members of my extended family have taken DNA tests. They found the same thing — no Native heritage. A second cousin in Montana was curious and found his own way to Elizabeth and George (who added an “e” to his name when he decided to be an American).
So where did this myth come from?
There are conflicting stories that Elizabeth left her captivity pregnant. The obituary for one of her sons-in-law said that he liked to brag that his late wife was conceived during those months with the Delaware.
My dad died 40 years ago after I ran away to college to escape his alcoholism. I don’t think he knew about Ruddle’s Station or this frontier love story.
But I think, maybe, I understand why he wanted there to be Cherokee hiding in the family tree.
His father was a rogue, whose red-blond hair echoes in my brother and me. If half the stories told about him are true, he was a difficult husband and father. I vividly remember one bloody night when I was 11, when my father and grandfather were drunk and glass ashtrays became weapons.
There are Native tribes closer to home, but when my dad was growing up, they were virtually invisible to most whites in the region.
Maybe being the descendant of a Cherokee princess, even if my dad never really believed what his mother said, made him feel more than his father’s son.
Part of something exotic. Something cool.