Op-ed column: Warren’s Cherokee claim just a way to find roots
Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate, caused a political kerfuffle recently with her supposed claim that she is part Cherokee.
Now this would not have made a ripple in the sludge pond of news if not for a few snarky commentators who leapt on the statement as if Warren had used her possible ethnicity to wedge her way into Harvard or get a scholarship or some such leg-up advantage she did not deserve.
That this is a common ruse can be easily demonstrated by the legions of Cherokee, Chirakawa and other indigenous folk who are now attending Ivy League schools on full scholarships and dipping into those elite educational troughs due to their ancestry alone.
Warren’s offhand remark is not an unusual one for folks where she came from. I was born not too far from her hometown in Oklahoma, and I know many Oklahomans who claim that their grandmothers were one-sixteenth Cherokee. Oklahoman Will Rogers liked to say his folks didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but his ancestors welcomed those who did. It’s almost a mantra, and I’ve heard it from Oklahomans who are white, black, Mexican and even Asian.
It is a common pride, that somewhere in our past we have some indigenous American DNA in our genetic soup. We all need roots we can feel good about, and that seems to be one of those roots.
In fact, my own grandmother, Rebecca Jane Hornback Kincade, claimed to be one-sixteenth Cherokee, and she looked it. She was born in 1881 in Kentucky (she pronounced it KAIN-tuck) and told us grandkids when we were old enough to hear family stories that she was named for HER grandmother, also named Rebecca, who was named for her grandmother Rebecca and so on back through the mists of time to the very first Rebecca, Lady Rebecca Rolphe (or Rolfe — spelling was flexible then) also known as Pocahontas, a daughter of the chief of the Powhatan tribe. Pocahontas took the name Rebecca from the Bible when she converted to Christianity, since that Rebecca was also a “princess” who united two nations.
Visit to London
In 1614 she married John Rolphe (not that chap John Smith she was supposed to have saved, heaven knows why, considering how awful the English were to her people) and was a sensation in London when her husband took her home to show her off. They had a son, Thomas, who returned to America with his tobacco-farming father, but his mother Pocahontas/Rebecca died in England of unknown causes on their way home. She was only 22 or so.
Thomas grew up to be a landowner who sired many offspring, including that generational string of Rebeccas my grandmother claimed to be a part of.
I was supposed to have been named Rebecca, but my mother (not part Cherokee) chose instead to name me for one of her grandmothers, Karen Harrison, whom she claimed was related to the two Harrisons who were U.S. presidents — William Henry and Benjamin.
Apparently nearly everybody in the Western world can trace their family tree back to Charlemagne, and anyone who can’t needs a president or an aristocrat ensconced on a branch of the family tree (along with the horse thieves and other disreputables who were probably much more interesting) to hold their heads up. That’s a curious notion, and one I thought we came to the New World to get over, but I guess we haven’t.
I told my own granddaughter Rebecca this family story when she was 5 or so, about the time the Disney version of Pocahontas hit the video stores, and she enjoyed telling her friends that she was just probably a descendant of that brave young girl in the movie.
As the duchess remarked to the bishop, “ ’Tis a pretty fiction, and harms no one.”
Perhaps my granddaughter Rebecca will see to it that she has a granddaughter named Rebecca. That would be nice.
I often wonder if my own life would have been different had I been named Rebecca and reminded daily of that family tradition. When I next bump into Elizabeth Warren, I’ll ask her about being part Cherokee and who she was named for. It won’t get me into Harvard, but maybe we’re related. That would be nice, too.
Karen Cookson lives in Sharon Springs and is not descended from Charlemagne. She is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.