If you’re not connected to your heritage, you are whoever you decide to be

Potawatomi dancers
Canon PowerShot S80, 2010

My mother’s father’s grandmother was Potawatomi, a tribe mostly found around the Great Lakes of Michigan. Mom believed her mother’s family had some Cherokee ancestry, and my father believed that he had Cherokee ancestry as well.

Much more, my mother’s family is German and my father’s family is Scotch-Irish. Yet here I am named Grey, which does not reveal any of that heritage. When I look in the mirror I don’t see any physical traits that bind me to any of my European or native American ancestors. I’m anyman, from anywhere.

I guess I feel German, as my personality lines up with stereotypes of the German temperament — disciplined, practical, efficient, punctual, direct. But feelings aren’t facts, and the fact is I am not connected meaningfully to any of my ancestry.

For a time, I explored my ancestors’ nations looking for a fit. Who was I, really, according to my heritage? I was most curious about the American Indian in me, so I started there.

The Pokagon band of Potawatomi (or, as they say, Pokégnek Bodéwadmik), has a pow wow every Labor Day weekend on its land near Dowagiac, Michigan. Potawatomi from all over gather to dance and sing and celebrate their heritage. It’s also an opportunity for many tribes, not just Potawatomi, to sell handmade goods. It was at one year’s pow wow where I made this photograph, of a Potawatomi dancing in traditional dress.

Two centuries ago, a band of Potawatomi Indians had made their home near Twin Lakes, a bit southwest of what is now Plymouth, Indiana. In 1838, 100 wigwams and cabins dotted the land in their village. They had converted to Catholicism; they were learning to farm the land; they wanted to coexist with the white settlers who had come. But the government wanted the Potawatomi lands, and had pressured other Potawatomi chiefs to sign treaties giving their lands away. This band’s chief, Menominee, refused.

In late August of 1838, the government began rounding up Potawatomi as prisoners and bringing them to Twin Lakes, 858 in all. On September 4, 1838, the collected Potawatomi were forced to march from Twin Lakes west to Osawatomie, Kansas. More than 40 died of illnesses contracted along their two-month march, which led to the journey being named the Trail of Death.

In 1909, a statue of Chief Menominee was placed near the Potawatomi village at about the place where the Trail of Death began. It was unveiled by Menominee’s granddaughter to serve as a memorial of what had happened. In 2009 the statue was rededicated, and many Potawatomi came to take part. Several spoke, telling the history of the Trail of Death.

This happened during the time I was curious about my Potawatomi ancestry, so I went to the ceremony. The story of these people being forced off their land infuriated and saddened me. Yet it felt to me like something that happened to somebody else, and I felt no kinship to the many Potawatomi who traveled to the event. I did feel as though I had missed something important all my life — a connection to a people who wanted to live peaceably and, by the time of the forced migration, followed the same God I follow. But that time for me had passed, like the leaves that fell last year and had already broken down to become the soil I walked on.

I recognized that I have traveled the path of a white man, one who looks like any other American. I am shaped by the values I learned growing up in America’s Midwest in concrete ways.

When people ask me about my heritage, I say “German and Scotch-Irish with a little American Indian thrown in.” But in truth I don’t have a heritage, not one that provides any meaningful foundation for my life. So I get to make that for myself and for the generations that will hopefully follow me.

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28 responses to “If you’re not connected to your heritage, you are whoever you decide to be”

  1. Frank Bell Avatar
    Frank Bell

    This may have nothing to do with your case, but I’ll share anyway. Growing up, my brothers and I were all told repeatedly about an ancestor who was an Indian. It was stated as an unquestioned, certain fact. Later we traveled to some relatives a couple generations back who were more closely related to that person, and mentioned it, and they burst out laughing and scoffing, and told us he was German just like the rest of that part of our lineage, and when my mom pushed back about his long straight hair in old photos, they exclaimed that the man was bald as a bat and wore a wig. Then they brought out old Bibles and stuff and showed us what our family tree really looked like. I can’t count the number of friends and family members who have gone through similar experiences — finding out that stories of Native ancestry are just apocrypha. Often there is a more sinister side to it: claiming some kind of Native ancestry came with some type of benefit, whether material or simply status-related or a coverup for something else embarrassing or whatnot. In that sense it can even be racist, and indeed all of these types of incidents I know of personally are by White people. My parents, particularly, were both appallingly racist, something I didn’t realize until a couple decades later on. My brothers and I spent a lot of time discussing what happened in our family and what it meant. Anyway, none of this is to dispute your family tree, just tangentially mentioning that a lot of folks have told their kids about Native ancestry that never existed, which can sometimes be quite a shock for the kids to sort out later! Talk about being disconnected from one’s heritage!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I think your story is incredibly common. I actually doubt the claims of Cherokee heritage, especially on my dad’s side. If I didn’t have a photograph of my Potawatomi great-great-grandmother I would doubt that story as well. Even then, I hold onto it loosely!

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    I had an older sister with masters degrees in anthropology and archeology, and I and my sibs have been schooled over the years in the wildly inaccurate conjectures of people and their backgrounds and heritage. It’s all nature verses nature, and somewhat community standards and pressure. One look at the German expressionist art movement between the wars and you’d be hard pressed to think there was a viable national German behavior. I come from about six or seven nationalities, and it don’t feel like I belong to any of them. BTW, my educated sister, when asked “what she is” has always said North American. Her point being “you is where you at”.

    Of course you know the story of the Cherokee’s being driven out of the central south for Oklahoma Territory, a horrific “Trail of Tears”. My mother, born in South Carolina but already in Chicago by thirteen, was Scots-Irish, English, and German, and claimed Cherokee descent, but according to my sister, every hillbilly from the Appalachian region claims Cherokee descent, and very few of them are! My sister always says show me the DNA. Want an eye opening account of how the Scots-Irish got to the central south, once again, covered in detail by the book “White Trash” by Nancy Isenberg. A recommended read by me.

    I have some interest in learning my DNA makeup, but think commercially it’s not accurate enough to parse out the tiny variations and locate areas of the world where you came from in enough detail. I also have little interest in having my personal detail out there in someone’s database. Allegedly, I’m Polish, Chezk, White Russian, possibly other east European subcultures, German, English, and Scots-Irish. I’d like to see a pie chart of that but don’t think it’d be accurate with the tech today. And, what behavior that might be associated with a culture could be made out of that?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m listening to White Trash now. It’s fascinating, depressing, and infuriating.

  3. Peter Miller Avatar
    Peter Miller

    Get your DNA tested. I did and it was a shock to find out I was Scotch/Welsh.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve considered it but will probably not do it. I’m not sure it would tell me anything I need to know!

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        Once again, Bill Burr tells the truth!

  4. Marc Beebe Avatar

    Always remember that not everything in one’s ‘heritage’ is something to be proud of (yes I’m looking at the rebel flag wavers).

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      True. Which makes it all the more important that we become who we want to be.

      1. Kodachromeguy Avatar

        But Jim, the confed. flag wavers have become what they want to be. Or rather, they now feel empowered to let their inner self burst forth without the social norms of etiquette and civil discourse that constrained them in the past.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Worth considering. I guess I assume that people want to become something positive in the world.

  5. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    Thoughtful and interesting musings Jim, as I’ve come to expect from you. I can definitely relate to your feelings about heritage even though my roots are quite different from yours.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I wonder if this is just a common American experience.

  6. -N- Avatar

    I enjoyed this post. Our past can give us heritage, our families give us our socialization and often self-perception. I had my DNA done and found some interesting things – such as Iberian background dating to the time of the Spanish Armada’s defeat (using generational ID – don’t know how) which is part of our oral family history now proven true. Surprisingly in that mix came Black, Japanese specifically, French, Italian, and Carib and South American native. The Scots-Irish and Slavic was known, but the German was a big surprise, and more so at what a large percentage it was. But, you are very right: we can be whoever we choose to be, and personally, I think we all can make choices about the person we want to be.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I think you’re right, our families give us the socialization and self-perception. My wife’s family leans very hard into their Irish heritage and they strongly identify with it. That wasn’t the case in the family I came from. Fascinating all of the people of different backgrounds that went into making you!

  7. DougD Avatar

    Interesting post Jim, maybe as an American that’s what was intended to happen, you just melt into the pot and don’t concern yourself with your heritage.

    My family’s immigrant story is more recent, and luckily my Grandfather was interesting in genealogy so I have my family tree going back to 1530. I find some comfort in knowing my heritage, but when I have visited the Netherlands I don’t feel profoundly connected.

    My brother had some DNA ethnicity analysis done which shows mostly Scandinavian (pretty typical for Holland) but also 13% from Great Britain. There’s an old family story that the Van Elswyk family was founded by a fellow from Elswick England but who knows for sure.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I used to believe in the melting pot idea but anymore I’m not so sure. We have a long history here of not wanting people to come and melt in! How cool that you can trace your family to 1530. On both sides of my family we can’t go earlier than probably 1850.

  8. Nancy S Stewart Avatar
    Nancy S Stewart

    Hi Jim …. one of the things I enjoy is doing family genealogy. Had my DNA done a few years ago, and was surprised to find that I am 60 percent Scandinavian. The rest was Irish/English, which was no surprise since my Dad’s family came from the Isle of Mann right in the middle of the Irish sea.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      How fascinating that you found so much Scandinavian in you! I’m probably never going to have my DNA analyzed as I’m not sure I want to know.

  9. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    For the many springs I spent in Jamaica, I was hipped to the countries motto: “Out of Many, One People”, which celebrated a nation of many different ethnicities and cultures, but joined by a belief of a single nation. I remember being told that they did not believe in a melting pot reality, ending in a homogenized culture, but believed all cultures could be accommodated.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I wish we were more like that.

  10. marcusterrypeddle Avatar

    I went to one of those family history kiosks in a mall when I was in high school and paid a few dollars to find out that the Peddle family was originally the Peddie family and were, gasp shock surprise, connected to the English aristocracy. As was every other family in their computer. If people pay you, you have to give them some information to make them feel good about themselves, yes? :) I think it much more likely that the Peddles were originally hut-to-hut salespeople.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah, we all want to believe we come from somewhere special, don’t we? My mom always said that we were nobility in Germany but when we fled the Kaiser (?!) we left everything behind.

  11. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Marcus, that got a laugh out of me!

  12. Jonathan B. Richards II Avatar
    Jonathan B. Richards II

    As always , Jim Grey , you provide another thoughtful and well presented topic for our consideration. I am a bit surprised that you are hesitant about having a DNA analysis. I have done mine as have several of my children. Nothing spectacular turned up with primarily
    British Isles genetics with a heavy Welch and Irish and a smattering of French and German.There is no sign of Native American even though the mother of my children had a distinctive blood type and cranial configuration supportive of a family tradition which held that Cherokee ancestry out of Kansas was in the mix. Genealogy is fascinating but who we are as persons and members of our diverse populace is heavily influenced by our upbringing by our extended family as we mature , the standards and mores we are taught and by our own sense of who we are and wish to be, Family standards are fundamental. Enough preaching for now.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Less hesitant than not interested. I don’t know that learning about my heritage through DNA would change anything for me.

  13. J P Avatar

    My father was full-Irish and that is the part I have identified with. My mother leaned into her mother’s Norwegian background, but she exhibited the personality more in line with her German father.

    We did some research on Ancestry several years ago and Marianne was surprised to find some Indian (Cherokee?) in her tree. We think she meets the absolute minimum for formal recognition, but she was never motivated to investigate further, as she leaned into the Irish part that was much larger.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m (more or less) German married to an Irishwoman — I can only imagine the internal conflicts of being German-Irish-American!

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