Cherokee Princess Syndrome (CPS) arises from the popular myth in some parts of the South that everyone has a little American Indian in them. Typically, this myth is passed down from in one’s family and attributed to “high cheek bones” or dark hair. Antebellum Southerners often wrote negatively about American Indians and sought to resettle tribal bands beyond the Mississippi River in an effort to open up more land in the Southeast for White settlement. However, later generations during a time in which Whiteness was portrayed negatively in the media seem to have adopted CPS in part as a way to escape White guilt. One will often hear refrains such as “I am not all White” or “My great grandma was a full-blooded Cherokee” from White people with fair European features who seem to know nothing else of their ancestry except for their single alleged Indian ancestor. CPS can also be partly attributed to the imposed deracination of Southerners and the poverty inflicted upon us through punative economic measures following the conquest of the Confederacy. So, it arises in part from ignorance and also from media and academia-created negative associations with Whiteness.
There are undoubtedly some White people with trace or small amounts of American Indian DNA and this article is not meant as an insult to them. The focus here is on the much larger group of people who know very little of their ancestry but suffer from CPS.
Like many Southerners I was raised with CPS. I was told many times as a child that a family member’s dark hair or “high cheek bones” was a throw-back to some forgotten Cherokee princess. It is always a princess, by the way, and never a prince. The race-mixing of a White male typically seems a bit less offensive to us than that of a White female – and with defensible evolutionary rationale, in fact. Cherokees are typically employed in CPS over more primitive or savage American Indian tribes, likely because of their comparative handsome appearance and more civilized culture. I suffered from CPS until I took a DNA test several years ago and found out that my ancestry is almost entirely (96%) Northern European and mostly British (57%). There is no Cherokee princess in my wood pile.
Apparently, my experience is not uncommon now that DNA tests are becoming more popular – especially with deracinated American Whites who want to establish some connection to their roots. 23andMe, a leading ancestry testing site, even has an article to explain CPS to Whites who have a difficult time coming to grips with their lack of Indian DNA. One of their Frequently Asked Questions is, “I know I have Native American ancestry. Why doesn’t it show up in my results?” The company tries its best to let its customers down gently while explaining CPS:
We have extremely high confidence in the accuracy of your results and the science behind them. But 23andMe is a genetictesting service, which means we can only show you what is found in your DNA. If your Native American heritage cannot be seen through your DNA, that doesn’t mean that your understanding of your family heritage as passed down through the generations is incorrect, only that your genetic heritage does not reveal Native American ancestry.
There are a few common reasons why you may not see the Native American population in your Ancestry Composition results:
If your most recent Native American ancestor was more than five generations ago, you may have inherited little or no DNA directly from them. The farther back in your history you look, the less likely you are to have inherited DNA directly from every single one of your ancestors. This means that you can be directly descended from a Native American without having any Native American DNA.
Your Native American ancestry may be assigned to the Broadly East Asian & Native American population. Even using state-of-the-art science, the Native American and East Asian populations are genetically similar, and sometimes they can’t be distinguished from each other with high confidence.
Throughout American history, people without a genetically Native American background have claimed Native American heritage for a variety of social reasons related to the shifting politics of race and indigeneity in the United States. As a result, many families without any genetically Native American ancestors have passed down stories about Native American ancestry. For examples, see this article or the book, Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the Twenty-first Century, by Circe Strum.