EFSS-L ArchivesArchiver > EFSS > 2000-03 > 0953092281
From: Pam Wilson <>
Subject: [EFSS] The Indian Princess grandmother myth
Date: Tue, 14 Mar 2000 22:51:21 -0500
In response to Linda's letter, I decided to share some passages from a
book by Vine Deloria, a Native American writer who speaks about this
common "My great-great-grandmother was an Indian Princess" myth that we
frequently find when we do oral family history.
I can't tell you how many times I come across this phenomenon in my
research. Just today, by coincidence, I've had several e-mail queries
from genealogy researchers asking if I knew about rumors that their
female ancestors were of Indian blood. Sometimes they are true, but as
Linda pointed out, they are often just family legends.
Why are these legends important to our great aunts and uncles? What
kinds of qualities are invoked when we claim to have a little bit of
"Indian blood"? And why is it always a female ancestor and not a male
one? (You can't argue that it's because males would not leave their
families and clans to take up with white society, since many Indian
tribes are matrilineal, just the opposite of our system--the family
names and birthrights are traced through the female lines.) And why
always "princesses"? The concept of "princess" is a European one, not a
Native American one.
It's a question that definitely needs to be examined. On the other side,
though, consider how tribal members feel about all of these non-Indian
families claiming to be a "little bit Indian." It's often annoying and
insulting to them, rather than flattering. My students and I found the
following passage by Vine Deloria to be very enlightening:
Excerpted from Vine Deloria. Jr.. " Indians Today, the Real and the
Unreal," from _Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto_, New
York. Macmillan, no. 1-27. 1969.
"During my three years as Executive Director of the National Congress of
American Indians it was a rare day when some white didn't visit my
office and proudly proclaim that he or she was of Indian descent."
"Cherokee was the most popular tribe of their choice and many people
placed the Cherokees anywhere from Maine to Washington State. Mohawk,
Sioux, and Chippewa were next in popularity. Occasionally, I would be
told about some mythical tribe from lower Pennsylvania, Virginia, or
Massachusetts which had spawned the white standing before me."
"At times I became quite defensive about being a Sioux when these white
people had a pedigree that was so much more respectable than mine. But
eventually I came to understand their need to identify as partially
Indian and did not resent them. I would confirm their wildest stories
about their Indian ancestry and would add a few tales of my own hoping
that they would be able to accept themselves someday and leave us
"Whites claiming Indian blood generally tend to reinforce mythical
beliefs about Indians. All but one person I met who claimed Indian blood
claimed it on their grandmother's side. I once did a projection backward
and discovered that evidently most tribes were entirely female for the
first three hundred years of white occupation. No one, it seemed, wanted
to claim a male Indian as a forebear."
"It doesn't take much insight into racial attitudes to understand the
real meaning of the Indian grandmother complex that plagues certain
whites. A male ancestor has too much of the aura of the savage warrior,
the unknown primitive, the instinctive animal, to make him a respectable
member of the family tree. But a young Indian princess? Ah, there was
royalty for the taking. Somehow the white was linked with a noble house
of gentility and culture if his grandmother was an Indian princess who
ran away with an intrepid pioneer. And royalty has always been an
unconscious but all-consuming goal of the European immigrant."
"The early colonists, accustomed to life under benevolent despots,
projected their understanding of the European political structure onto
the Indian tribe in trying to explain its political and social
structure. European royal houses were closed to ex-convicts and
indentured servants, so the colonists made all Indian maidens
princesses, then proceeded to climb a social ladder of their own
creation. Within the next generation, if the trend continues, a large
portion of the American population will eventually be related to
"While a real Indian grandmother is probably the nicest thing that could
happen to a child, why is a remote Indian princess grandmother so
necessary for many whites? Is it because they are afraid of being
classed as foreigners? Do they need some blood tie with the frontier and
its dangers in order to experience what it means to be an American? Or
is it an attempt to avoid facing the guilt they bear for the treatment
of the Indian?"
"The phenomenon seems to be universal. Only among the Jewish community,
which has a long tribal-religious tradition of its own, does the
mysterious Indian grandmother, the primeval princess, fail to dominate
the family tree. Otherwise, there's not much to be gained by claiming
Indian blood or publicly identifying as an Indian."
I think Deloria's discussion is interesting, since I'd never read a
tribal perspective on this issues before. We also have many people,
especially in the southeast, who are legitimately descended from Indian
tribes that no longer exist or which are not federally recognized, and
who have fought to reconstitute those tribal identities. I believe that
some of the members of this group and others, like Al Byrd who is
administrator of the Northumberland County, VA list, are working on
these issues. To me, struggling to gain legal and political recognition
as a tribal member or a tribal body is a separate issue from claiming to
have an Indian princess in the family tree, but they are related in
terms of the ways that Indian identity has been oppressed and distorted
over the last few centuries in America.
What I'd like to see in a group like EFSS-L is an effort to document the
existence of the Indian tribes in our VA, MD, NC and SC region prior to
the formation of the United States as a nation in 1776. What records and
archives are available to help people find out if that
great-great-great-great-grandmother truly was a member of the Cherokee
tribe, for example? I would love for any of you with experience working
with Native American genealogy to share your expertise with all of us,
since these families truly *were* the "first families of Virginia"...
and Maryland, and North Carolina, and South Carolina....
List Administrator, EFSS-L (Early Families in Southern States),
HOLBERT-L and LAWLER-L through Rootsweb.com