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Mistaken Identity

Some parents photo shop their children’s heads on the bodies of athletes. Some parents pay 36 year-old Harvard alums to pose as their children to take the SAT. Some parents change their child’s race when they’re in Junior High to prepare for college admissions. Wait. What?

When the college admissions scandal went down, back in those easy, breezy BC days (before covid), I was joking with friends about how the students involved HAD to have known something was fishy when they got messages about practices if they were admitted for sports they didn’t play. “Geez, why does the water polo coach keep calling me? That’s so weird!”

And then I flashed to a memory from my freshman dorm room. We were in the final stage of unpacking and as I was lining up my cassette tapes in a gap between 2x4s of the loft frame, there was a knock at the door. A pretty girl with long black hair stood there. “Is Suzanne home?” she asked. “That’s me!” I smiled. She paused and eyed me oddly. “Uh, ok, well uh, we’d like to invite you to this mixer next Friday,” and she handed me a flyer, her quizzical look still awkwardly apparent.

It wasn’t until I’d said goodbye and closed the door that I realized why she reacted that way. My hair was corn-silk yellow. The mixer I’d been invited to was for the Carolina American Indian Club. I didn’t fit the image. I rolled my eyes and thought back to my mother’s scheme in the Spring of 1979. I balled up the paper and threw it in the trash.

Sure I was one eighth Cherokee, but that was just one part of my heritage, woven through the nuggets of family lore that were revealed piece meal in rare conversations with distant relatives over sweet tea on the astroturf-covered carport at grandma’s house in Tennessee. “Tell me about our family history?” I’d ask. The stories were vague. No one seemed to know a lot.

You see, my dad’s biological father was half Cherokee and after his parents died when he was nine, my dad and his siblings were adopted or entered foster care. Their names were changed and they didn’t grow up together. Records of our Cherokee-blood were said to have burned in a fire on the reservation. But I grew up knowing that my people were Appalachian Indians, the part of the tribe that successfully hid in the hills to avoid the Trail of Tears. It was a point of pride to come from such strong and stealthy stock.

When we played Cowboys and Indians as children, my brother and I dodged the cap gun “bullets” from the neighborhood kids on bicycle horses as we shot arrows from the bows we’d gotten on our summer trip to the Okonoluftee Village in Cherokee, North Carolina. Like our Native American father, we proudly rooted for the Washington Redskins and the Atlanta Braves.

Back in time, in 1965, my Irish Catholic, Brooklyn-born mother was ostracized for marrying outside her race. In my dad Bill’s hometown, the racial thing wasn’t so much the issue. My Aunt recalls a group of women approaching her shortly after the wedding. “Oh Ann, we’re so sorry to hear about Billy!” “What do you mean?’ she asked. “Oh heavens child, we hear he went and married him a CATHOLIC!”

Well that Catholic and that Baptist went and had them some kids and the Irish DNA clearly won out.

Now in 1979, when I was heading into seventh grade, our lower middle class, mostly white neighborhood was slated to be bused into downtown Raleigh. Most of my friends from elementary school were going to the Junior High just five minutes from our home. My mother was livid. Why did they arbitrarily choose our neighborhood for the 45-minute bus-ride? Did they think there wouldn’t be a fight because we were working class? She wrote letters. She spoke to the school board. “How can we be expected to be part of our kids’ education when it’ll take more than an hour to get to and from a PTA meeting?” she asked. Her reasoning was rejected. The School District was obligated to integrate and this was how they’d decided to do it.

Then mom cooked up a scheme. “Well,” she decided, “If what they want are minorities, I’ve got your minorities.” In many states, at least back then, a child’s race was automatically entered on the birth certificate as the mother’s. Mom filed paperwork to change my brother’s and my race to American Indian. Afterall, she explained, Willie Nelsen was recently named “American Indian of the Year” and his blood flowed with as much Cherokee as ours. She petitioned the Wake County Department of Education and demanded that her Cherokee children be sent to the local school and the Superintendent agreed.

My brother and I stayed in the schools closest to our house for the remainder of our K-12 education and I didn’t think any more of it. Yet after my mother died and I was cleaning out the closet under the stairs, I came upon a manila envelope with all the letters my mother wrote to the School District over the years. She petitioned for us to stay at our schools annually. It was a labor of love to keep her children closer to home and I doubt she was thinking it would have any influence on college.

When I was admitted to UNC Chapel Hill in 1984, it wasn’t a huge surprise. I had decent grades and I demonstrated a significant increase in my GPA once I started dating our future valedictorian. What can I say? Love inspires.

But the 2019 scandals got me thinking. Did my transcript say I was Native American? That must be how I got on the University’s list of potential members of the American Indian Club? Is THAT the main reason that I was admitted? Am I an academic fraud?

But wait, it gets worse. My dad’s sisters recently did 23 & Me genetic testing and the results revealed that we have less than 1% Cherokee Indian in our DNA. That pride I long felt over having the blood of the original Americans coursing through my veins has been misdirected. I am not at all who I thought I was.

In the end I know that mothers will do whatever it takes for their children. I know my mother didn’t lie. My father only knew what he’d been told about his own heritage, and there were no DNA tests back then. There also wasn’t photo shop so no one manipulated my face atop a Cherokee dancer at the Okonaluftee Village. No one faked my test scores or bribed a coach. I know where I am from but I remain left wondering WHO am I from?

As shared at STORY SALON on August 10, 2022 when the theme was "Where You From?"


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