VOL. 132 | NO. 125 | Friday, June 23, 2017
My American Story
By Dan Conaway
Don't call me Cherokee, just call me Leif. As a kid, I was told I was part Native American on my mother’s side – probably Cherokee, they said, maybe Chickasaw. My mother, my aunt and my uncles weren’t sure which and how much and my grandmother wasn’t talking, but one look at any of them or at me or my children with our profiles of various 1950s Pontiac hood ornaments leaves little doubt and more is more likely than less.
That was before Native American ancestry was all the rage, before we talked much about what we’ve done to our native people, before we became obsessed about being from here, and before we forgot that everybody but Native Americans came from somewhere else.
I’ve always thought it was cool – using it to claim a spot here from the get-go, why I never liked Columbus, why I thought Tonto in buckskins was always cooler than the guy in the mask and leotards, to explain why my brother and I can’t grow beards and our mustaches are pitiful, etc.
But now I know why our other brother is blond and why my son can grow a beard over a weekend.
We’re no more Native American than the Queen of England.
My wife gave me an AncestryDNA kit for Christmas and, being a popular gift, it took months to process. Great Britain, 26 percent. Ireland, 21 percent. Europe West, 19 percent. Iberian Peninsula, 11 percent. And Scandinavia, 20 percent. Native American? Not even an arrowhead’s worth.
Scandinavia, 20 percent? I’m boring Brexit white. I’m Viking white. Clorox white.
After I sent the family an email telling them that while a piece of the oil or casino money was out, a discount at Ikea was suddenly possible, my son’s response was the best:
“My whole life is a lie.”
Instead of feeling sorry for myself at the loss of American original status, I’ve decided to take advantage of our current alternative facts environment. To wit:
Twenty percent Scandinavian could be Norwegian, which could connect me to Leif Erikson, who was the first European to actually set foot in North America 500 years before Chris, who has his own U.S. stamp, who Congress recognized in 1964 by declaring Oct. 9 as Leif Erikson Day, which is one day before my birthday, which is close enough so … ergo …
I’m related to Leif Erikson. Status restored. Eat your hearts out.
Or maybe not, and maybe we can stop using where we were from millennia or centuries or generations ago to determine what kind of Americans we are today. Maybe we can remember that the person who took the oath in broken English this morning in a courtroom is every bit as much of an American as any of us. Maybe we can remember that welcoming the world to our shores was the original American exceptionalism, and that diversity is our DNA.
If we can remember that, we can see just how forgettable our actions as a nation have recently become.
I’m a Memphian, and an American, and don’t you forget it.
Dan Conaway, a communication strategist and author of “I’m a Memphian,” can be reached at email@example.com.