I am descended from an American Indian tribe of Massachusetts, perhaps Wampanoag, maybe Nipmuk or Nauset. Three Morse brothers sailed from England and settled in Massachusetts in the 17th century. Two were good Puritans. The third, my grandfather 11 times removed, deviated. He fell in love with an American Indian and later married her. He was ostracized by his community and church and made it on his own.
Such was the lore passed down by my mother, and I believed it. After all, I had high cheekbones and dark straight hair.
After moving to California, one of my children, a gymnast, wanted to participate in the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The application had a question about "ethnicity" with several choices below. I checked Native American. By my calculations, Robin was 1/32nd American Indian. I never doubted my mother's account or checked other sources.
Reading about Scott Brown's attacks on Elizabeth Warren for claiming American Indian lineage in this year's election campaign for Senate in Massachusetts brought my family history to mind. Sen. Brown roundly chastised professor Warren for using an unfounded claim of Indian ancestry to further her applications at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. It became a significant campaign issue, a negative one.
Was my claim specious? My act duplicitous? Should I have doubted my mother's word and investigated further before checking the Native American box on the Olympic application?
Given the current political climate, it appears any thoughts I might have entertained of a public service career have been nipped in the bud. I'd never survive the first vetting. My belief in an innocent family folk tale would turn into a negative campaign attack on my veracity, my character and my professional capability.
Part of the folklore of Warren's family included tales of Cherokee and Delaware heritage. Warren's mother explained that she and her father had eloped because, in Oklahoma in 1932, her father's family would not accept someone with American Indian bloodlines. The story was not questioned by the young Elizabeth and became part of who she was, though investigations of her supposed American Indian lineage have produced mixed results.
The Morse family did indeed sail to Massachusetts from England in 1635. They were Puritans, and their marriages and the births of their children were duly recorded. I am descended from Daniel, one of the brothers, whose son Nathaniel married Mary. This fact is noted but lacks a date and any detail about Mary. Could she be the Native American of my bloodlines? The English kept "war captives," slaves captured or kidnapped during battle. Local courts condemned other Indians to what amounted to slavery or indefinite periods of servitude for breaking the law. Was Mary my ancestor's slave or servant? Did he fall in love with her.
Not likely. If she were a slave or a servant, they could not have married. Puritans did not sanction interracial marriage, and the couple likely would have been punished for cohabitation and ultimately banished from the colony. The births of their 10 children would not have been mentioned. No doubt, any mention of them would be lost.
I still hold a glimmer of hope that Mary was an American Indian. Why does it matter? I want it to be. I'm proud of it. I've a profound respect for the indigenous people whose nations we consumed and whose history we view through the distorted lens of the early English conquerors.
Judy Bayer is a retired deputy county counsel who is writing a novel set in 17th century New England. She has lived in Rolling Hills Estates for 47 years.
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