While I was dean at a south Florida university, my chief academic officer and I were invited to a high tea on Palm Beach at an exclusive club. I had never been to a high tea before and was surprised when no one was having tea. There were many potential donors there and we wanted our university to look good so wealthy people looking for a worthy charity might consider us. I got a haircut, trimmed my whiskers, donned my black suit and even wore socks to the event. (Socks are a rarity in south Florida).
My place card at the main tea table was between my boss and an extravagantly dressed and bejeweled Southern belle of about 40. She quickly discerned from my accent that she was sitting next to a fellow Southerner and conversation turned to things that interest people from our region: food, architecture, interior décor and family. We had a lovely conversation much to the pleasure of my boss. That is, until she brought up that she was doing research on her Cherokee Princess grandmother.
I should have kept my mouth shut, but I mentioned that, as Dr. Jeter, an anthropologist from the University of Arkansas, had recently written, the “My-grandmother-is-a-Cherokee-princess” myth is prevalent amongst Southerners. She looked stunned and my boss turned red. I quickly tried to recuperate by saying, “But, your grandmother may well have been one. I am not saying that.” But that did not seem to help. The lady pledged a considerable amount to our university anyway, but I got a good talking to on the trip back to campus.
My own mother told my siblings and me that our long-deceased grandmother was a Cherokee and I believed it somewhat until I spit in a tube and got my DNA results indicating that I am mainly Scandinavian with no Native American blood whatsoever. That led me to ponder what makes people want to be related to Native Americans. Could it be because of a literary stock character who is innately good because he or she has not been corrupted by civilization? Queequeg, the South Sea tribal chief of Moby Dick, is an example. The main character, Ishmael, finds Queequeg’s innate goodness so attractive that he concludes it is better to room with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian. Tonto and Little Beaver are popular culture versions of the innately good uncivilized person. And, there are numerous westerns in which the female Native American, like Pocahontas, saves the day. The movie Dances With Wolves certainly contrasts the corruption of civilization with the nobility of the native.
In our region, there are many people who are genuinely descended from Native Americans. One of the finest friends I ever had, a truly noble guy called Woody, is full blood Choctaw. Many of us of predominate European lineage wish for a tad of native incorruption. I hope the lady in Palm Beach found out that her grandmother was, indeed, a Cherokee princess. I further wish that I could forget that episode in my academic history.