Zora Neale Hurston once wrote with characteristic irony that she thought she was “the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief.” Like most African Americans I’ve interviewed, I was raised believing that one of my great-great grandmothers was all or part Native American, with “high cheekbones and straight black hair.”
In my family, this was gospel. No one even thought about the possibility that it might not be true, since—sure enough—there were plenty of people on my family tree, as family photos attested about those who had passed, who did in fact have those proverbial and much-valued cheekbones and some variation of that long and silky straight black hair. What struck me about our mysterious Native American ancestry, even as a child, was how very important it was to my mother’s 11 siblings, and how just as important it was to my dozens of cousins.
Being “part Indian” was a much discussed and much bragged about aspect of the Coleman family’s collective identity, even if no one was certain when or how these American Indians had entered our family tree, where they had mated with our black ancestors or from what tribe they hailed. I once asked my Uncle David, our meticulous family historian, what tribe we should tell people we were part of. “Cherokee,” he replied, as if self-evident. When I pointed out that the Cherokee lived in what is now Georgia, the Carolinas and East Tennessee, my uncle responded, unflappably, “That’s right—it was the Iroquois.”