Geneticists, Linguists, and American Indians

There’s an interesting piece in today’s NYT about genetic testing African Americans. The researchers covered in the article calculate that “the ancestors of the average African-American today were 82.1 percent African, 16.7 percent European and 1.2 percent Native American.”

More interesting than that, by examining the length of matching DNA strands, they claim that the Native American genes got into the African American mix very early, as slaves were first brought from Africa, and that the European genes got into the mix later—primarily during the time just preceding the Civil War.

Furthermore, by tracing X and Y chromosomes—Xs come only from mothers; fathers can pass on Xs or Ys—and the fact that the X chromosome of contemporary African-Americans shows more African ancestry than do the Y, leads them to the conclusion that the 16.7 percent European ancestry is primarily due to white slave owners fathering the children of their black slaves.

Here is a link to the story:

This is all very interesting, but haven’t historians been telling us most of this for a long time—if we were listening? Linguists too, and folklorists have traced languages and cultural patterns, and thus the movements of peoples across time and geography.

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I always introduce Library visitors to Alvin Josephy’s Indian Heritage of America (published in 1968) by pointing out that he begins with languages. Although scarcely 50 years ago, this was a time before the “human genome.” But common sense and Josephy tell us that we can trace people’s movements, and to some extent the development of their cultures, through language. Josephy found early that one of the gifts left by missionaries, furmen, and adventurers is a chronicle of Indian languages.

Speaking of gifts, a donor recently left the Josephy Library a copy of John Wesley Powell’s 1891 report to the Smithsonian. This Powell—the same who floated the Colorado—sent a team of a half dozen researches across the country gathering language information for two years. He then analyzed and classified the Indian language information they brought back in his annual report. Powell broke them into 46 major language groups—I believe this was the first classification of North American Indian languages.

Josephy had later research to work with. But it has always struck me as a mark of his genius that he began a book intending to paint a broad picture of the Indian heritage of North and South America by talking with linguists. And it occurs to me that his advantage in being a journalist was that he was not discipline-bound—he reached out to linguists, archeologists, anthropologists, and others who were, often quietly and for an audience limited to their own field, building pictures of the past.

There are a dozen ways to go with this: genetics is incredibly interesting, but let’s not forget the human stories of slavery, the “Great Migration” of African Americans out of the south, and, always, the Indian presence in all subsequent “American” history. How do we make sure the human stories don’t get lost in the science?

Or, we can celebrate the new emphasis on tribal languages across the country. One of my early Peace Corps language memories is a Turkish saying that where there is “one language, one man; two languages, two men.” Taking away the gender issue, the point is that language is intricately tied to culture, and the loss of language is a loss of culture and history. So good for the tribal language programs and linking tribal peoples to history and culture.

We’ll continue to get stories from geneticists, but let’s also remember and thank those missionaries and adventurers for their roles in preserving languages. And let’s remember the stories that language, oral history, and culture tell us about the past as we keep them alive in the present.

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Senator Daniel Inouye and the Museum of the American Indian

National Museum of the American Indian, Washington D.C.
The recent passing of Senator Daniel Inouye caused me to remember Alvin Josephy’s respect for him and a story that I tell now in hopes that someone still alive can corroborate or deny it.
The Museum of the American Indian/Heye Foundation was established by George Gustav Heye in 1908 and opened to the public in New York City in 1922. Heye, a wealthy New Yorker obsessed with Indian artifacts, sent expeditions from one end of the Americas to the other and accumulated over a million of them. He died in   1957, leaving his museum to the People of New York.
But the museum came on hard times in the 1970s. Its neighborhood had deteriorated, attendance had dropped, and artifacts been sold to keep the place running. My recollection from Alvin is that he, his former classmate at Harvard, David Rockefeller, and a few others were appointed to the MAI Board to straighten things out. I know that Alvin was involved in a long effort at establishing museum collection policies (I believe this effort had influence beyond the MAI, but that “study” waits for another day), and that there was then a long period of political maneuvering about next steps for the museum.
Politicians Alfonse D’Amato and Daniel Moynihan fought to keep it in New York and fought over where to put it. Ross Perot offered to build a new $70 facility in Dallas, Texas, and the Board of Trustees actually entered into negotiations with him. The whole thing drug on for more than a decade.
And then Senator Inouye, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, suggested that the Museum be moved to Washington D.C. and be made part of the Smithsonian, and introduced legislation calling for $100 million to build a new facility. More long negotiations followed, and eventually an agreement was reached—legislation passed in 1989 with amendments in 1996. Senator Inouye and Alvin Josephy were both named to the Board of Trustees, and Alvin was elected as its first chair. A new satellite museum, the Heye Center, was opened in New York City at the Customs House (honoring the Heye stipulation that the collection be “for the people of New York”) and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian opened on the Mall in Washington D.C. in 2004.
Here is the story that I remember Alvin telling, though I took no notes and cannot find written confirmation of it now: While negotiations were going on with Ross Perot in New York, it came to Senator Inouye’s attention that the vaults of the Smithsonian Museums in Washington D.C. held the skeletal remains of some 16,000 American Indians. There were pressures from other groups—women and African Americans as I recall, to build the next Smithsonian Museum on an open place on the Mall, but Inouye was outraged with the story of skeletal remains, and pushed for the Smithsonian to make things right with Indians. First Americans should have a place in the Capitol. As circumstantial  corroboration of this story, Inouye also introduced the “Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990,” causing the Smithsonian to send remains back to tribes for proper burial. 
In the news following Inouye’s death, which was almost lost in the blitz of holiday and budget crisis reports, Indian leaders eulogized the Senator as a champion of Indian rights and civil rights for all Americans. It could be that the Smithsonian’s own dubious holdings—the result of “scientific collection” over decades—were not as large or of as much significance as I remember Alvin describing them. But I think that the essence of the story, the ways in which some humans dehumanize other humans, even in the name of science, is a lesson worth remembering. And if it helped to spur the construction of that marvelous place in Washington D.C., repatriation of remains, pride among American Indians and  respect for them by the rest of us, the good Senator showed how decades and even centuries of wrongs can be turned towards the good.
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