My late paternal uncle spent most of his life exploring our Swedish ancestry. Only that —just the Swedes, as he had, I presume, a buried (or not so buried) prejudice against anything else he knew of or might find. Most of us look Swedish, actually, with blonde hair and wide-set eyes, and something wispy yet sturdy about our composition.

On the flip side, my maternal aunts asserted our American Indian ancestry. Joseph Brant, no less, was purported to be one of our ancestors! He was a Mohawk warrior and statesman who traveled to England in the time of the American Revolution in a life of cultural extremes. My aunts hung Indian dream catchers over their beds, and had other American Indian kitsch in their homes, nothing at all to do with the Mohawk tribes—more Plains Indian kitsch, but who’s nitpicking? “American Indian” was part of the litany of my imagined heritage when anyone at school asked the common question, “What are you?”, which was understood at the time to mean ancestral heritage.

A couple of years ago, my DNA results popped up on my email feed. I am now a sister of sorts to Elizabeth Warren, with no Indian heritage to speak of. (I said “of sorts.” She has a little
American Indian heritage, but not as much as she might have thought.) My 11.9% Swedish ancestry has left me disappointed, as I know so much and own so little. However, I can now lay claim to bagpipes and the Scottish Highlands, as well as to the English counties of Sussex and Wessex and Essex (how fitting that I live in Essex county, NY). My ancestors’ feet have also trodden the fields of France (oh lavender, how I love thee), and left Germany as Hitler came to power.

The dreamcatcher is still above my bed, gathering dust and dreams of castles and kilts, wine and lavender, bridge and medical engineers with thick consonant-rich speech, and high tea at 4:00 in Merry Olde England. I’ve had to leave the wolf behind, my former spirit animal who howls for me at night. I still reach down to pet his soft ears though, and feel his sharp teeth, and share in his courage. Some things are hard to let go.

3 thoughts on “DNA: Do Not Assume by Susan Whiteman

  1. Susan–Your last paragraph is a marvelous capstone to the essay as well as a charming, existential declaration of your complex self. Brava!

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