By Samuel W. Anderson

I grew up part Indian, like everyone else in rural Ohio. Had you walked into the hardware store in the little town of Fredericksburg, you would have thought our family trees were spotlessly, blandly European; but if you asked whether anyone had a Cherokee ancestor, most would raise their hand.

It may be a widespread American phenomenon, or it may be limited to states where freshly ploughed fields are still picked over for arrowheads, but when I was growing up everyone seemed to have some distant Indian ancestry. Usually it was Cherokee—probably because that was a tribe we had heard of, or because we just liked the sound of it—and often it was pinpointed to a single ancestor, as in “my grandma is one-sixteenth Cherokee” or “my great-great-great-grandpa was a Shawnee chief.” When we had to pin a number on our own Indian-ness, it managed to remain unchanged from previous generations: if one of our grandparents was one-sixteenth Cherokee, so were we. When our oral tradition lacked such concrete figures, we were directly descended from a relative who “had some Indian in her.”

Like many Americans, we took pride in being mutts, and we claimed as many ancestral connections as we could. We hadn’t heard of the one-drop rule, but we turned it on its head. We had our own kind of hyperdescent: we only needed one drop to claim some country (this is how we categorized our ancestors – ‘European’ just wasn’t interesting enough) as our own, and the more the better. But American Indian-ness was the most cherished of all our mottled ancestries. When we listed off our vast family origins, we saved it for last, the cherry on top of our ancestor sundae. “What are you?” we would ask one another, with straight faces. And we would answer at once, from memory: “German, Italian, Irish, Swedish, and one-sixteenth Cherokee.”

We were too young to feel guilt that our cherished ancestors had co-opted this land, but we were not too young to know who had lived here first—or to want a share of that authenticity. We held it close, but we didn’t flaunt it. There was a man on the school bus route who decorated his yard with a giant totem pole and a tepee; even as kids, we felt that was going too far. After all, his zeal was unnecessary: we were all one sixteenth Cherokee, just like our parents and our grandparents and our great-grandparents. We could put fifty totem poles in the front yard, but it wouldn’t mean a thing: all of our Indian-ness was contained in that one mythical drop.

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