Tag Archives: Ethnic identity

Adoptee, DNA test, Native American ancestry

My Birth Mother and Her Rumored Native American Ancestry

For adoptees searching for blood relatives, DNA tests can be powerful tools. I never would have confirmed my biological father’s identity without the benefit of DNA tests.

Yet these tests have limitations.

DNA tests don’t always work to prove Native American ancestry.

I may have a Native American ancestor. My birth mother, Lillian,  told her children she had an Indian ancestor and showed the kids how to do what she said was an Indian rain dance.

Whether or not they are true, these tidbits pique my curiosity. Michelle, Lillian’s oldest daughter, thinks our mother looked somewhat Indian.

Just look at those high cheekbones, the dark hair and eyes, Michelle said. Gazing at pictures of Lillian, I see a white woman with high cheekbones, dark hair and eyes. I don’t see a Native American.  Lillian’s ancestors came from Ireland.

birth mother, Native American
My birth mother, Lillian, claimed she was part Indian.

I identify as the adopted child of two parents whose ancestors came from Poland and Germany and the biological child of two other parents whose ancestors came from Ireland and possibly Scotland.

Only recently did I learn about my biological parents. As an adoptee searching for my biological roots, I took two DNA tests from Family Tree DNA and Ancestry.

According to Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test, 90 percent of my ancestry comes from the British Isles, with 9 percent from Southeastern Europe. Maybe I inherited only Lillian’s European DNA.  Perhaps the Native American ancestor is a myth.

Indian Rumor Lives On in My Birth Mother’s Family

No doubt my birth mother, Lillian, heard the Indian story from someone in her large family. Whether or not they are true, stories like this take on a life of their own. At the Arvin-Armstrong family reunion in southern Indiana, one of my Arvin cousins mentioned the rumor about the Native American ancestor. None of the family genealogists have been able to prove it.

I added to the rumor by sharing a story about one of my blood relatives who is part Indian.

An Oklahoma City native, John and I are related on my maternal side. John’s parents were a mix of Irish, Scottish and Native American, his mother being part Choctaw and his father being part Muskogee. Their respective tribes accepted John’s parents as members. “Both of my parents had Indian roll numbers,” John said. “We all have black hair.”

John popped up as a match on Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test. The test uses autosomal DNA, which is the blended mixture of genetic material that a person receives in equal amounts from both parents. Each person’s autosomal DNA is unique.

Perhaps my Native ancestry amounts to a few drops from a distant ancestor.

Indeed, that is what Elizabeth Warren discovered when she had her DNA analyzed. Warren retained an expert to dig deeper into her roots and the analysis concluded that she has an Indian ancestor. Warren’s pure Native American ancestor appeared to be “in the range of six to 10 generations ago,” said Carlos D. Bustamante, a Stanford University professor and DNA expert.

Proving Native American Ancestry is Tricky

Parents pass stories down from one generation to the next, leaving relatives to believe they have a Cherokee ancestor in the family. Yet DNA tests don’t always establish the Native American link. Genealogist Amie Bowser Tennant explains why DNA tests don’t reveal Native American ancestry.

As Henry Louis Gates Jr. and genealogist Meaghan E.H. Siekman point out, proving Native American heritage can be complicated. Each tribe is a sovereign nation with its own requirements for accepting members.

If my DNA tests had revealed a little Native American blood, I would have found it interesting, a tidbit that I could share at parties or at the next Arvin-Armstrong family reunion. Having Native ancestry would not change my sense of ethnic or racial identity.

I’d love to hear from adoptees who have discovered their Indian roots. Post comments on my blog!

When DNA Blows Your Ethnic Identity Apart

At my age, I should be having an ordinary mid-life meltdown. I should be fretting over wrinkles and flab. Instead, I am having a weird ethnic identity crisis that only an adoptee can have.

I grew up eating kielbasa and sauerkraut in Chicago, a city known for its large Polish population. My Polish-American adoptive mother, Claire, used to talk about the Krasowskis, the Pinkowskis, the Wisniskis and other Poles in her circle of family and friends. Three good friends from Chicago, Cara from high school, Laura from work, and Debbie from college were all Polish. I thought I was Polish, too, at least on my mother’s side.

Secretly, though, I liked having Miller for a surname. It’s easy to say and spell and it’s all-American. Polish names can be hard for the average Joe to pronounce let alone spell correctly.

Though my adoptive father Bob, a German-American, gave me his surname, he didn’t have nearly as much influence over my sense of ethnic identity. Claire was the proud Pole. She passed that sense of ethnicity on to me and my sister, Melissa.

Even after I found out I was adopted 11 years ago, I continued to identify with the Poles. “You look Polish.” How many times have I heard that from relatives on my mother’s side. My (non-Polish) husband, Tom, friends and even people I didn’t know have told me I look like a Pole. I’ll never forget the time an elderly woman wearing an old-fashioned floral dress glommed on to me on a city bus in New York. She had that Eastern European look and saw a fellow Pole, or so she thought.

Hey, I own a copy of Marianna Olszewska Heberle’s “Polish Cooking” (The zupa pieczarkowa – fresh mushroom soup -is excellent.) I own several cookbooks by Martha Stewart, one of our better-known Polish Americans. Bring on the kielbasa, pierogis and kapusta (sauerkraut).

kielbasa and kraut from flickr
Courtesy of I Believe I Can Fry/Flickr

Now it seems my Polish roots were a myth. My test results from Family Tree DNA show no Polish connections. Scrolling through pages and pages of results, I see the names of more than 600 men and women, identified as cousins. They are strangers to me and their surnames, Bennett, McDaniel, Johnson, Henderson, Nolen and Mahoney, leave me cold. Where are the “-skis”?

Good bye Poland. Hello Ireland. My ancestors came from Ireland and England with some Viking connections, according to the DNA results.

irish sweater smaller size
Me and my Irish sweater

In the 21st century, does it mean anything to be an Anglo Saxon? That’s what I am, a born again Anglo Saxon. I’m still getting used to this identity. It feels weird. I suppose it goes with the territory of being adopted and not finding out about it until you’re grown up, which is what happened to me. It’s one more revelation.