Standing on a promontory of metamorphic rock in what is now called the Oakland Hills, I saw what the Human Beings once described as the mouth of the tortoise — today we call it the Golden Gate. I also saw the eyes of the tortoise — the right eye, Mt. Tamalpais, and the left, Mt. Diablo.
I feel my Human grandmother’s presence in these hills. And I feel it when I’m in nearby Piedmont, a wealthy city that is, like General Custer’s Last Stand, completely surrounded by the savages of Oakland. There’s a street in Piedmont named Indian Gulch, and I presume this is where the bodies are buried. Clint Eastwood, star of countless hardscrabble westerns, was born here.
When I recently learned that nearly 20% of Piedmont’s residents self-identify as Native American, I laughed and had a deep, physiological sigh. Many Americans think the term Native American simply means you were born in the United States.
No doubt some of these self-identified Native Americans truly believe they have grandparents who are Cherokee or some other Big Name tribe that might also be the model name of their vehicle — perhaps a Grand Cherokee Limited Edition, which sounds like a pretty awesome lineage indeed.
Believing you’re part Native American is a salve on your otherwise debilitating guilt — the nagging feeling you don’t truly belong here, that your gains are fundamentally ill-gotten and illegitimate, that the ethical thing to do would be to move back to someplace in Europe.
I didn’t have to worry about that because I definitely was, in the words of Chief Dan George in Little Big Man, a Human Being. If my grandmother was full-blooded that meant I was 1/4, and that seemed like a lot. Certainly enough to justify my presence on this land, among other things. Of course, I had never met my Human grandmother, my father’s mother. In fact, I had never seen a photograph of her. I still haven’t.
When I was 19, I tried to document my father’s claim that he, and by extension my sister Linda and I, were Human Beings. I called tribal headquarters to see if they had any record of my grandmother. I searched for birth and death certificates. I called distant relatives.
One of my father’s cousins laughed at the notion that my grandmother was a Human Being at all. “If that woman said good morning, it was probably a lie,” she said. My heart sank.
I knew that my father lied in big ways all the time, often to get something he wanted, but sometimes just to entertain friends. As a child, I watched him tell other people’s stories as if they’d happened to him. When I asked why, he replied, “Jokes are funnier when you tell them from your own point of view.” Unable to find any proof that my dad’s story about his own mother was true, I concluded that it was either a lie, a gross overstatement, or someone else’s story.
As I grew older, I came to understand that my father’s worst lies were the ones he told to himself — because he believed them. I guess that’s true for all of us. Since the story about my ancestry could not be disproven, it remained remotely plausible that my grandmother had at least some distant First Nations ancestry, and this uncertainty kept me connected to an identity I embraced from as early as I could remember — my first baby shoe was a moccasin, after all. Okay, maybe I wasn’t 1/4th or 1/8th or 1/16th Human, but surely some part of me was.
Recently, my sister Linda took part in National Geographic’s worldwide DNA study. The results showed her deep ancestry from hundreds of thousands of years ago, but little about more recent ancestry. Since certain genes are carried only on the male chromosome, she would need me to take a DNA test to paint a more complete picture. So I ordered a commercial DNA testing kit, spit into a tube, sealed it, and mailed it off to a lab. The results came back.
I’m 99.8% Northwestern European (87.4% British and Irish, 5.5% Scandinavian, 0.9% French and German). In a subcategory called Trace Ancestry, I am 0.1% Native American.
Looking at the map provided with my report, I saw Europe colored in varying shades of blue denoting the strength of my ancestral connection to these areas. North America was white, or blank. I suppose that’s fair, since 0.1% is nothing more than a trace.
When I told a white, non-blood relative about the results of my DNA test, he glibly replied, “No dancing around the campfire for you!” I thought of the unprecedented wildfires that had just missed his house by two blocks a few weeks earlier. Would such an image have leapt to my mind if I hadn’t grown up believing I belonged to this land?
As a child, when I voiced skepticism about my ancestry (often after other people questioned the truth of my story), people in my family would often tell me to just look at my father. “Look at him,” my mother would say, “he has Indian traits.”
The belief that my father’s mother was a full-blooded Human helped explain, and even ennoble, his unwillingness to embrace the American way of life. His criticisms of our society and the unfairness of our economy — as justified as they may have been — became part of a much larger injustice that could never be made right. He, in turn, could never be made whole. None of us could. As a child, every vista I gazed at, from Glacier Point in Yosemite to Emerald Bay in Lake Tahoe, was something that once belonged to our ancestors.
The material suffering we lamented as a family was aggravated by this belief that we were, in some significant and enduring way, the victims of the theft of America. In truth, we were descended from both the perpetrators and the victims of an earlier theft of lands in what would become the United Kingdom. Perhaps the truth of this epigenetic memory made the false memory feel real.
As a young man, I knew the story of my Human grandmother might not be true. I now realize that believing it helped inoculate me from certain strains of thought. She helped me feel a deep kinship with indigenous people around the world, to sympathize with their struggle, to see it as my own.
This year, when it came time to receive our vaccine for Covid-19, we learned that a Native American tribal headquarters near us had received a surplus, which they were offering to the public.
We drove 90 minutes outside of the city, across long stretches of undeveloped land and wild rivers, out to the “middle of nowhere.”
When we arrived, there were a thousand white people standing in line. The scene instantly brought to mind long processions of Native Americans forcibly marched off their lands.
Unlike those marches, which were often slowed deliberately to cause as many deaths as possible, this line moved swiftly. From start to finish, the whole operation was impressively efficient.
When I reached the door, I was warmly greeted by a brown-skinned woman with whom I might share 0.1% ancestry. She was wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey. “Go Leafs,” I said. She smiled and thanked me. After completing the necessary forms, I walked to the table where I would receive my shot.
“Such a small amount,” I thought, looking at the syringe. Isn’t it amazing how such a small quantity of something can make all the difference.