DNA and our hunt for a more colorful origin story

person with body painting

Origin stories aren’t always as colorful as we could wish. Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

Every fan of superheroes knows what an origin story is. Every birthday, we celebrate our origin stories. I tell my kids about the day they were born. How I was feeling, how I knew when it was time to go to the hospital, how long I waited there. What the weather was like. How it felt to hold them for the first time. That’s their origin story.

But recently, science—possibly junk science, depending on who you listen to—has made it possible to find out a bit more about your origin story. And which one of us doesn’t hope we can add a little to our origin story by exploring this avenue?

A little color.

Like many others, I have always been told there is Cherokee blood in my ancestry. I remember visiting Cherokee, N.C., as a child. We have pictures somewhere of Native Americans (we called them Indians back then) in full tribal headdress. My mother bought me a little doll from one of the gift shops. A little girl in a fringed leather dress with a feather in her black braids. I loved that doll. I dreamed about one day being a part of that all-too-colorful heritage (if you go back to Cherokee now, you’ll find a much more down-to-earth and realistic celebration of a wonderful civilization). The Tsalagi (Cherokee, originally Aniyunwiya) of North Carolina are the remainder of the proud nation who were forced West on the Trail of Tears by white men, the ones who clung to their traditions and the little bit of land they could lawfully acquire while their families and neighbors were forced on a journey many of them didn’t make it through.

Colorful, tragic, and beautiful. I always wanted it to be true that there was Cherokee blood in my veins because surely it ran a deeper vermillion than the European blood I knew was there.

And yet, when I had my DNA ancestry tested, I came up just about as lily white as can be. 71% England, Wales (this is vaguely interesting) and Northwestern Europe, 27% Ireland and Scotland, and 2% Sweden. Not unexpected at all, but it might have been nice to find something more exotic in my DNA.

I’ve accepted this lily whiteness and the blood that my ancestors have left on my hands. I belong to the most brutal of all races. White Europeans. The ones who destroyed the peaceful civilizations they found in North America and enslaved Africans to work they land they stole.

I saw in today’s news that Elizabeth Warren is being criticized for publicizing the DNA results which showed she has some portion of Native American ancestry in her origin story. Republicans don’t believe her, Native Americans say it’s problematic that she is claiming this ancestry and, hey, why the heck has she not been advocating for Native Americans all along if she wants to believe she’s one of them?

The answer is, I believe, a fairly simple one. All us white folks want to believe we’ve got something special about us. Some of us know we belong to a brutal race and wish we could be one of those our ancestors tortured to ease our guilt. That group includes me and Senator Warren. You’ve got nothing really to fear from us because we see a nobility in your suffering and perseverance. But the others of us want to believe their race is lily white because it’s superior. They won out over all other races not through brutality but because they were chosen. Those are the ones we should all fear.

Six Days to Becoming Magic and I feel bad for Laura Ingalls Wilder

In six days my new book Becoming Magic will be unleashed upon the world. I’m calling it “a new kind of romance” because I think it’s time my genre addresses the #metoo movement and accepts that, in the past, our books have been part of the problem—and can now be part of the solution.

Just yesterday, the Association of Library Services to Children played a key role in a cautionary tale for all authors who don’t pay attention to changing times. They removed the name of one of America’s great pioneer women authors from an award. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award will now be known as the Children’s Literature Legacy Award because Wilder’s famous Little House series contains a number of racist (by today’s standards) references to Native Americans and black people.

Understand, first and foremost, that I get it. I read these books as a child and never thought twice about “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” or the reference to blackface. I’m reading them again with my daughter and am extremely grateful that she has a good, analytical head on her eleven-year-old shoulders. She knows those statements are wrong. She didn’t understand the blackface and “darkie” reference until I explained them, and then she knew they were wrong, too. We talked about how times and people’s perceptions change and evolve, and while Wilder may not have thought twice about writing those passages, they are considered wrong now.

She got it.

With all that said, I feel for Wilder. Her writing accurately reflected the social attitudes of her time. And now it is a victim of today’s more evolved social sensibility. Wilder even apologized for some of her writing during her lifetime and lived to see one passage changed from saying “no people, only Indians” to “no settlers, only Indians”, which shows she actually at least partially got it, too. I’m glad to know that.

I hope the removal of Wilder’s name from the award does not mean her books will someday be removed from library shelves. Read with the correct context, these books are invaluable to understanding and remembering our history and the history of our literature. Along with Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, these books form a map to remind us of where we’ve been so we don’t go back there.

And, Laura Ingalls Wilder, rest assured I get it, too. Writing of any genre may reflect the current time and sensibility, but eventually those times and sensibilities—and sensitivities—will change.