In our story, my great-great-grandmother Eva Payne Brooks was half Iroquois. We didn’t know of what tribe, or what relationship her unmarried parents had. We knew she had light brown skin and came from a place called Indian Lake. My mother described, without irony, the long, dark braid she used to wear down her back. My second cousin told me years ago that there had been proof of Eva’s ancestry—papers of some kind, letters, or photographs—that Eva’s daughter had intentionally destroyed.
At the lake in the Adirondacks where we spent every August, I used to swim out into the middle, surrounded by blunted eastern mountains, pines straight as arrows, patches of gray rock face. I would imagine the lake as an empty green valley, the base of it far below, filling slowly with water from year to year. I saw myself suspended, legs dangling hundreds of feet from the place where the mountains met, and hundreds of feet still below their peaks.
As I grew older, there was a suspicious ease to it all: an English family crest and a blood claim on the American woods. If it were true, why did we have so little to tell? If my great-great-great-grandfather was an American Indian, who was he?
So in the summer of 2012, I drove north—or really west, north, and up in elevation and isolation—from that same spot at the lake, headed to the town where Eva Brooks was born.
In the northern Adirondacks, unless you’re driving down a town’s tiny main drag (you’ll know it by its closed-down soda shop, single gas station, orphaned barber poll, Grand Union) or crossing over water, you’re surrounded by thick forest. At first it was mostly tall pines and some birches.
As I drove, I passed Loon Lake, where beaten white farmhouses for sale and rent sat precariously close to the road after a century or two of route expansion. In case one couldn’t tell, rental signs insisted that they were indeed near lake!
I passed a garage with two side-by-side reader boards advertising rustic furniture / slabs / burls / sawing and minerals / fossils / beads.
I passed the welcome sign for the strangely named hamlet of Riparius, and crossed a small river—around a hundred yards across—realizing on the other side that it had been the Hudson. There were abandoned stone wells almost hidden in former yards, and a one-story-high rocking chair made of northern hardwood trunks sitting alone at the edge of the road. I passed a few eighteen-wheelers, and swamps and wetlands, and it began to rain. The trees became shorter and straighter—bristly mountain conifers. You would know just from looking at them that you were getting to the top of something.
It was about then that I had to acknowledge that there were things I might not want to know. A little nervous buzzing had kicked in in my gut and my arms, and half my mind insisted that nothing I learned could change what I already knew about myself. It was a bit like one part of me promising the other that it would collude in denial if necessary.
Soon I passed North Creek and North River and signs designating certain patches of highway north country this and north country that, so I put on Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” and thought about my ancestral right to enjoy it. There was nothing to fear.
Where the Hudson was only fifty yards across, I entered Hamilton County, and soon the town of Indian Lake, marked by hand-painted letters on a flat, wooden moose. Just a few miles down the road was the town museum. Outside, standing on a raised little porch under an awning, was a carved, grayed wooden statue of an Indian woman, about eight feet tall. She had an enormous head and red eyes, and stood frowning, arms held behind her back, hair to the waist, guarding the old front door. I knocked on the side door, which appeared to be the museum’s entrance, and I let myself in to my great-great-great-great-uncle’s house.
American Indian ancestry is an extremely common claim made by white Americans all over the country. Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, the genealogist who identified Michelle Obama’s slave ancestors in a New York Times project in 2009, told the Atlantic last year, “In terms of widespread ancestral myths, this is one of the top two (the other being those who think their names were changed at Ellis Island).”
Henry Louis Gates Jr., academic, host of three genealogy-reveal TV series (African American Lives, Faces of America, and Finding Your Roots) and a founding partner of the genetic testing company African DNA, told the Wall Street Journal that Indian ancestry stories area also common among black families specifically. “It’s the biggest myth in African-American genealogy: ‘My great grandmother was a Cherokee princess.’ [But] the average slave and the average Native American didn’t even see each other, which makes it very hard to mate.”
According to geneticists, the overwhelming majority of people who think they have Indian forebearers are wrong. Statistically speaking, the chances that you have Indian ancestry are slim. But what if you’re right?
Elizabeth Warren, blond, blue-eyed former special adviser to the secretary of the treasury and current Democratic senator from Massachusetts, says she’s one-thirty-second American Indian. In April of 2012, during her election campaign, news broke that she had enrolled herself for almost a decade in a national law school directory as a minority professor, during which time she had been designated nonwhite by her employers at the University of Texas and the University of Pennsylvania, while Harvard had publicly promoted her as a Native American faculty member.
Warren claims both Cherokee and Delaware Indian ancestry, but she hasn’t been able to produce proof of either. In her family’s stories, her great-great-great-grandmother was Cherokee, and though representatives of the New England Historic Genealogical Society originally stated that they had found an electronic copy of a marriage application confirming this, their researchers later retracted this statement, saying that they had never seen the original document and could not verify that it existed. Meanwhile, Warren held to her claims, saying simply that these were the stories that had been passed down through generations of her family. “My Native American heritage is part of who I am,” she said. “I’m proud of it and I have been open about it.”
Unsurprisingly, Scott Brown, incumbent senator and Warren’s opposition during the election, positioned the story as both a strike against Warren’s credibility and an ethical failure. The revelation uncovered some glaring (and jarring) missteps by the involved universities, such as Harvard’s decision to name Warren as the law school’s “first woman of color.” But most striking throughout was Warren’s inability to answer for her decisions with the coherence, self-awareness, and humility sufficient to a public discussion of racial identity. She responded to questions with slight impatience, shaking her head and repeating phrases like “I am proud of my heritage,” and “I am proud of my family,” in the same tone and with the same force of certainty with which she has been known to say that she “grew up on the ragged edge of the middle class.” Some of Warren’s answers took the form of long rambles through family lore: speaking of a picture of her grandfather on the family mantle, she said, “My aunt Bea has walked by that picture at least a thousand times”—she karate-chopped the air with her hand emphatically—“and remarked that her father, my Papaw, had high cheekbones, like all of the Indians do, because that’s how she saw it. And she said, ‘And your mother got those same great cheekbones and I didn’t.’ She thought this was the bad deal she had gotten in life.”
Considering how far afield these reminiscences take Warren, I don’t doubt they’re real. But she seems to have consistently missed the point. In stressing cultural singularity beyond one’s whiteness, we can tend to forget that multiculturalist theory and politics—and the important process of claiming and naming ethnic identity—arose out of inequity. Regardless of family “cheekbones,” Warren’s experience of the world is, and always has been, white.
Why did she identify herself as a Native American in official documents? “I listed myself in the directory,” she said, “in the hopes that it might mean that I would be invited to a luncheon, a group, something that might happen with people who are like I am.”
In the late 1980s, my great-grandmother Dot Brooks Hepworth—Eva’s daughter—stood in her home on the nearly two-hundred-year-old family farm, at the place where the cherry and apple orchards abutted the Hudson River. One of her sons had come out as gay twenty years before; another had disappeared during his first marriage, reappearing years later and states away with a new wife; and now one of her granddaughters was having a child out of wedlock with a black man. To her, these events were all of a type. She turned to my grandmother, her daughter-in-law, and said, “Well, they weren’t our kind of people. But I don’t know who our kind of people are anymore.”
It’s tempting to hear this moment as one of reckoning and resolution, to think a final conflict with her bigotry—a biracial great-granddaughter—had won ground for uncertainty and, in measured ways, acceptance. But truthfully, it’s just as likely that Dot meant that social standards were crumbling around her, that she was lost in a sea of aberrant behavior and “colored people.” Though I loved her—her lack of interest in fussing over children, her willingness to let me hang on the loose skin of her arms—she was also the confused, racist old lady at my mother’s fortieth birthday party, whispering in the corner about our black guests, that “yes, there are party crashers here.”
In that way, she wasn’t really our kind of people. And in the way that Dot intended the phrase—as shorthand for high standing defined by wealth, accepted sexual behavior, general propriety, and whiteness—“our kind of people” was, from her mouth, always a lie. The life that she was born into made her the “wrong kind of people” in all of these categories but one: she grew up poor; her mother was an illegitimate child, born of two people who never married, and, we believed, she was one-quarter American Indian, though Dot denied murmurs of the last with curt and final force.
Fortunately for her, she was academically inclined and beautiful, and a scholarship to the teachers’ college at SUNY New Paltz led to her marrying into a family that had been the “right kind of people” in the Hudson Valley since the Revolutionary War. She became the richest woman in Milton, New York, and, by most accounts, a snob. Each year of her life from then on—each year of success and affluence among the white, Protestant, and well-behaved, with cruises to the Panama Canal; a house in Golden Beach, Miami; a cabin in the Adirondacks; a Chris-Craft; Cadillacs—seems to have served as a mark in the ledger of who she was, weighing against her former poverty, her strange, unwed grandmother, and, perhaps most of all, her mother’s brown skin.
In Studies in Classic American Literature, D. H. Lawrence writes that the pilgrims “didn’t come for freedom.” “They came largely to get away—that most simple of motives…To get away from everything they are and have been.” But this left white settlers without a positive identity—only one defined in opposition. The idea of Indianness, in Lawrence’s conception, provided a new way of being, a reaction to all that was European. As settlers attempted to reject the intellectual and rigid ways of their old home, Indians represented “instinct,” “freedom,” and the “spirit of the continent”—values to fill the void.
In his book Playing Indian, historian Philip J. Deloria examines the ways in which white Americans have purposefully taken on faux-Indian identities from the inception of the country onward. The Boston Tea Party raiders, who were costumed as Mohawks; poets of the antebellum South; “Indian” fraternal societies of the mid-nineteenth century; the early Boy Scouts of America, Woodcraft Indians, and Camp Fire Girls; post–World War II “Native” hobbyists; counterculture communalists, political activists, environmentalists, and spiritualists; the Grateful Dead Indians; and many more all used Indian dress and material and immaterial cultural artifacts to challenge and construct new American identities.
Deloria writes: “Although these performances have changed over time, the practice of playing Indian has clustered around two paradigmatic moments—the Revolution, which rested on the creation of a national identity, and modernity, which has used Indian play to encounter the authentic amidst the anxiety of urban industrial and post-industrial life.”
Believing the stories of your family’s past, simply because you want to, is certainly a form of playing. And imagining that your distant ancestors make some part of you immutably like them is another.
At this point in US history, Indianness represents freedom, rebellion, and authenticity on a near-visceral level. To say that you are Native American is to imply that these and other nebulous concepts, usually defined in opposition to whiteness, somehow pump through your veins. In each case the associations of Indianness simply confirm what we’d already like to believe about ourselves; ancestry is held up, either publicly or privately, as an outside source, a second opinion.
To be American Indian is, of course, to be first. It is to assert your magnetic relationship with the land itself, to feel the “vibration” and breathe the “chemical exhalation” of what Lawrence called the “great spirit of place.” To be Indian is to belong here—a claim that is both defensive and proud. It is to be, at least, less culpable of the crimes committed against that people, and, at most, to have great things owed to you: in a turn that would likely have infuriated Dot had she known of it, the heritage she denied added to my family’s idea of having been Americans on the right side of things for a long time. For African American families, having an Indian ancestor also seems a means of belonging to the land—or historically possessing it—in a way that people of exclusively African descent do not. At the same time, claiming Indian ancestry means being part of an exotic, stereotypically “noble” race, similar to the African people in the Euroimagining, but that—though dispossessed and murdered—was not enslaved, at least on a large scale as an institutional practice.
Most embarrassingly, to claim Indian identity is to select at will from the enormous grab bag of associations with Indianness—sometimes accurate to specific Native cultures, often fictional, impossibly general, and not genetically transferable. These associations can contradict each other quite forcefully, the peaceful warrior being our strangest incarnation. In the modern American imagination, Indianness is a ghost identity rooted to a few physical props. It’s everything we want it to be, and it’s nothing. It’s smoke.
The associated “natural” qualities of Native heritage are so loose and at the same time so strongly fastened that today we need not even enact them at all. Just say the word. Iroquois. A friend of mine who has known me for years, after hearing it, sat back slightly in her chair and nodded as she looked at the curve of my face. “Oh, that’s it,” she said. It is illustrative to remember that the word itself is French.
Strangely, much of why I have believed and privately embraced my American Indian ancestry may come from my great-grandmother’s partaking in a subtle form of Indian play—an action that above all asserted her whiteness. Dot and her husband, Claude, my great-grandfather, bought a “camp” on a lake in the Adirondacks in the 1940s—a popular location for and style of vacation homes at the time. The designation “camp” implied a similarity to the American Indian hunting and fishing camps that formerly spotted the area, and on a broad cultural level, camps played at being Indian. A proper camp—there is farce implicit in the word’s other meaning—aspires to be both aesthetically rustic and comfortable: it is camping in the wilderness without camping at all. At our camp—a mere hour’s drive from where Dot was born, at Indian Lake—our family canoed, swam across the mile width of water, fished at dawn, made fires, and wrote our landmark accomplishments on birchbark. (Adirondack comes from the Iroquoian Aterontac, meaning “bark eaters.” It’s a term the Mohawk used for Algonquian tribes, and it’s an insult.) A mile and a half down the road from our camp is a group of vacation homes called the Chippewa Cottages. A half mile beyond that formerly stood the Seminole Lodge. The Chippewa, or Ojibwe, had been substantially closer, but neither people hailed from the region. The Seminole people lived and live in Florida.
At Wounded Knee, in 1890—one of the final events in the Indian Wars of the western frontier—US cavalrymen detained and killed at least 150 unarmed Lakota Sioux men, women, and children. Historians often estimate the Sioux fatality at 300, including the wounded who died later, and those who were, as survivors described it, pursued and shot down “like buffalo” as they ran from Hotchkiss machine-gun fire. Twenty of the soldiers responsible for the deaths were awarded Medals of Honor from the US government, as many others had been during the seventy-year military campaign to forcibly displace a people from their land.1
As white Americans “removed” Indians and awarded honor to each other for it, somehow, by the late 1820s, popular collective mythology narrated that Indians—already symbolically linked to the past—had been destined to disappear. The Indian was vanishing without precise cause, “virgin” land was opening for the taking, and it was foreordained.
In 1828, Supreme Court justice Joseph Story spoke at a commemoration of the first settlement of Salem, Massachusetts, saying of Indians: “By a law of nature, they seem destined to a slow but sure extinction. Everywhere, at the approach of the white man, they fade away. We hear the rustling of their footsteps, like that of the withered leaves of autumn, and they are gone forever. They pass mournfully by us, and they return no more.”
“Indian plays,” which gained popularity in the 1820s, also depicted the vanishing Native, many decades before the end of Indian removal, often blessing the presence and future of white men, as in 1828’s The Indian Prophecy and the dying of Chief Menawa:
The Great Spirit protects that man [George Washington], and guides his destiny. He will become the Chief of nations, and a people yet unborn, hail him as the Founder of a mighty Empire! Father! Menawa comes. (Menawa sinks slowly into the arms of his attendants, strain of music, curtain falls.)
White Americans celebrated the false memory of the Indians and mourned their disappearance far before they had been removed from most lands. In River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, author Rebecca Solnit describes a “simulated attack” by Pawnee warriors on a camp of dignitaries and politicians, organized by Union Pacific in 1866, when construction of the railroad had “reached the hundredth meridian amid real battles with Indians.” She writes, “It was as though [Indians] were being kicked out of the real world but invited into art and entertainment, into dime novels, Wild West circuses, paintings, and photographs.”
This celebration and mourning continue, of course. The glitter-speckled statuettes and truck-stop dream catchers, the sweatshirts depicting Indians whose hair becomes fine white lines of wind or flying leaves, whose faces are composed of stars: easily dismissed as kitsch, these represent a cultural urge far more complex, and vile, than we are perhaps always able to recognize. Claims of Indian heritage—a blood-filled vial on a chain—may be its greatest manifestation.
The physical reality of American Indians in the United States—just under two million are enrolled as members of tribes—is messy to white Americans today, as it was in the nineteenth century. If they had disappeared with the rustling “leaves of autumn,” how much tidier it would all be. Those descendants of the Native Americans not murdered by white settlers, and living on reservations, have exceptionally poor access to education and experience high rates of unemployment, poverty, alcoholism, and sexual assault: statistics we find often in the pages of the New York Times—news that reads as of a foreign people in a foreign land, of unhemmable problems, of natural self-destruction that we in our kitchens with our coffees, shaking our heads, can’t quite understand: Isn’t it a shame.
Considering American authors such as James Fenimore Cooper, Lawrence wrote, “They seem to have been specially fertile in imagining themselves ‘under the wigwam’… just when their knees were comfortably under the mahogany, in Paris.” A privileged life, far from the limits of reservations, with warrior-victim blood running in one’s veins… What a fine deal it is.
Indian Lake has a population of around 1,350 people. Its chamber of commerce website reads: “And, believe it or not, there are no traffic lights in town!” The place is named for its founder, sort of, in a way that if applied broadly would make “Jamestown” “Whitetown.” Sabael Benedict, an Abenaki Indian born around 1747, was the town’s first permanent resident. His descendants—who had a mix of Abenaki, Oneida, and Anglo roots—made up the town’s Indian population and formed a prominent family in the village through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. According to the 2010 census, Indian Lake is now .16 percent Native American, which would mean there are around two self-identified Native Americans living there today.
When I arrived, the town historian, Bill Zullo, handed me a manila folder of documents about the Brooks side of my family and another on the Paynes. I learned that my great-great-grandmother Eva Payne Brooks had indeed been born out of wedlock, but, contrary to the family story, so had each of her two siblings (there may even have been three, but the records are unclear). Mary Payne, Eva’s mother, was never legally married. A town document reads: “It seems that Mary had gone through a marriage ceremony with [Martin] Johnson,” but there was no certificate, and two years after the supposed ceremony, Martin married a woman named Sarah Burgee, and went on to live with her in Indian Lake for a good fifty years. Only one of Mary’s three daughters could have been conceived during the time that Martin and Mary seem to have been together. In the censuses from then on, Eva and her sisters were sometimes given the last name Johnson and sometimes Payne. They also seem to have moved from house to house, often being split up between their mother, aunts, and neighbors. In the 1900 federal census, Mary is listed as Mary Johnson and “divorced,” but in the following years she is Mary Payne and “widowed,” though Martin didn’t die until 1948. I held out hope that this might mean there was someone else Mary had considered her husband, that I could find his name, and that he might be Eva’s father.
Further into the town’s files, I found a photograph of my great-great-grandfather (Eva’s future husband), dressed in furs, on his way to hunt with one of the town’s young Indian men. I found a quotation, unexplained and uncited, describing another young man of the Indian family wanting to be left alone at the lake with “his girl.” I asked Bill excitedly where it came from, and he looked across the table at me, warily, as if I might be a bit stupid. “I don’t know anything about that,” he said. I found a note about Mary that read: “She was credited with saying she thought a girl generally ‘had her mother’s number of children.’” Why would something so banal be “credited,” or even recorded? Besides, Mary’s mother had had five children. “Oh!” I said aloud. “Maybe it’s a joke about illegitimate children?” Some ruddy acknowledgement of what everyone already knew of her? I looked up at Bill, squinting. He looked at me again, cautiously, and shrugged.
Finished with the museum’s records, I followed Bill’s car down the road to the Cedar River cemetery. It had begun to really rain, and we walked through the clumps of graves, over ground risen and collapsed in spongy pockets. We found the stones of the Payne and Brooks families surrounded by a layer of orange pine needles, and very close to the Camps and Meads—the town’s Indian families. Bill saw me stop and look back and forth between the two. “I wouldn’t read too much into that,” he said, and led me away into a neighboring pine grove. “This was Samuel Payne’s.” He pointed to a twenty-by-twenty-foot hole in the ground, filled partially with brown leaves and wet branches. It was my five-times-great-grandfather’s cellar.
As it began to thunder, Bill left, suggesting that I not get struck by lightning. I wandered, looking for Mary Payne’s grave, wondering which name had been written there and whom she lay beside. That person could be the father of her children. Just a few feet from the graves of Mary’s parents, a bit removed from any others, I found a long, flat slab, broken and fallen with a blank side facing up. I looked through the rain, around the wet field, for witnesses. I was going to flip that headstone. Crouching and sliding my fingers along, then under, the sides of the gray rock, I threw my weight into a lift—butt out, bent at the waist. My boots sank, rashly, into the moss, and the spiny bones of my hands strained. My wet fingers turned white. For the second time that day, half my mind gave clear direction to the other: you are currently digging in a cemetery. Move away. So I did.
As I pulled around the driveway with graveyard dirt under my nails, I decided to check a last area of grass, where I had thought the stones would be too new to be useful. There I found Martin Johnson, buried next to his wife, Sarah. I found Mary Payne Johnson’s grave about a hundred yards or so away, alone.
Mary’s story seems to be a sad one. But at Indian Lake I found no signs, really, of Eva’s father, and no proof of an American Indian ancestor. It was simply as possible as ever.
Bill Zullo had seemed to want me to understand that I had a wealth of family history in front of me. I think he believed I was ignoring that luck in pursuit of something I had decided was greater and that that valuation was arbitrary: history was what history was; there were records of some things and not of others. Who was I to ask favors of the past? And what, exactly, did I think I stood to gain?
It isn’t a lie to feel that the place you were born and brought up in is your home. In River of Shadows, Solnit discusses the historical tendency to “erase and reinscribe meaning at will” in the American West. In the East, I think we take some pride in the idea that that can’t be done. Old eastern families imagine a type of immutability, names carved in stone, generations of families formed by life in the same stretches of forest, mountains, and shore. Most of my ancestry has lived in the Northeast for almost two and a half centuries. We don’t have homeland stories from anywhere else that survive. And, like everyone else, we don’t want to be guests.
Lawrence wrote of Americans: “Their liberty is a thing of sheer will, sheer tension: a liberty of THOU SHALT NOT. And it has been so from the first. The land of THOU SHALT NOT. Only the first commandment is: THOU SHALT NOT PRESUME TO BE A MASTER. Hence democracy.”
Separating ourselves from those who did and do master—oppress, disenfranchise, or scorn—is a critical part of forming American identities. In my family, on my father’s side, we ran a house on the Underground Railroad. There was my paternal great-grandfather, a commander for the North in the Civil War; on my mother’s side, the rejection of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and civil rights rallies. My father, as a justice of the peace, married a gay couple in their kitchen the day after such unions became legal. We subconsciously understand the political and moral standing of our ancestors—what pieces of it we know, what pieces we choose to embrace—and our continued liberal positions as some part of earning our right to be here. Families like mine, in claiming an egalitarian past, attempt friendship with the ghosts of the people who have been harmed by this country. And I believe subconsciously we do so asking to stay.
Lawrence wrote, “When you are actually in America, America hurts…”2 After Indian Lake, and old New York State records, and census data, and scribbled mapping and remapping of family trees, I sat on the porch at our camp, at the edge of the water. I missed the story in which I was exempt. In which I belonged here more than you.
The official source of the Hudson River is a small pond called Lake Tear of the Clouds. It was given this seemingly Indian name by a white man in 1872. I was unable to find a Mohawk or Algonquian name for Lake Tear, but it was certainly known to those tribes centuries before. The Mohawk called the Hudson Co-ha-ta-te-a: River from Beyond the Peaks.