Finding Grandpa’s Folks

The Sixth Sense: What DNA Testing May Not Reveal

I ran into my grandparent’s living room in Weehawken, NJ. I gave my grandfather a big hug, as usual, and a Little Person was standing in the middle of the living room. It was a Little Man. He was in front of the small TV. Was he frowning or squinting at Poppop as the small TV played the Yankee’s game? “Who’s THAT. Poppop?” I asked him.

My grandfather sat up quite straight and stared at me. No one ever saw the Little People, except him. How do you explain what no one else can see? He smiled, and his black eyes sparkled. “Oh, that’s Jack Frost,” he said, “the one who paints ice pictures on windowpanes.”

I was overjoyed and ran into the kitchen to tell my parents. As I dashed through the door, I saw my grandfather’s uneasy expression. “Poppop has Jack Frost in the living room!” I dragged my parents into the living room. There was my grandfather. There was a TV, but no squinting Little Person.

Unbeknownst to me, my parents were worried that I was learning to lie from my grandmother. She took care of me while my parents worked, and my grandmother lied. She lied about everything. I did not know she lied because I was too young to understand what a lie was. Since my parents did not see Jack Frost, and they were afraid that I was learning to lie, they punished me. I was confused. What happened to Jack Frost?

After that, I received gifts. One was an antique native drum made for a child. Whose was it originally? I do not know. The other gift was a turtle rattle. It took many years for me to realize that these gifts acknowledged my ability to see the Little People. My father, the eldest son, began to teach me age-appropriate native crafts like simple leatherwork and beading.

We visited Uncle Tom and Aunt Dot in Patchogue, Long Island, NY. Uncle Tom resembled Poppop so, I considered them my Great-Uncle Tom and Great Aunt Dot. They lived in a tiny house that was just the right size for them. Across a field behind their home was a long hill. A railroad train ran along the top of it. Uncle Tom worked for the railroad when he was younger.

Their home was quiet. Most of the time, they did not speak. Aunt Dot wore long dresses and aprons in contrast to the more fashionable clothes my mother wore. Sometimes, when we visited, Aunt Dot would be making baskets. I loved to see her do that and asked my father to teach me. I was not yet in school. My eye-hand coordination needed further development to make baskets with elaborate designs like the ones Aunt Dot made. Instead of her style made of reeds, he taught me to make a birch-bark basket with a simple design that was easy to make.

Sometimes, we would gather berries. Aunt Dot gave each of us one of her handmade baskets. The family set off, single file, in a line behind Aunt Dot. She knew where the ripest berries were. We never took all of them but left enough for the plant to grow again, fruit, and release new seeds. Once we brought all the berries home, Aunt Dot would wash them and make preserves that bubbled and steamed in a large stainless-steel pot on her stove.

One afternoon, I was in the back yard of our Weehawken rented apartment. My playmates and I were discussing and comparing our parents. My father was sitting near the window, working on some free-lance artwork in his studio. He could hear our conversation. “My father has black hair,” I told my friends.

“No, I don’t,” my father said out the window to us. “Poppop has black hair. My hair is dark brown.” My father’s hair was black enough for me at the time. It took years for me to recognize the difference.

One Thanksgiving we hosted the holiday dinner at our house. I was in primary grades. My maternal grandmother was extolling the greatness of our Irish heritage, her side of the family, as we enjoyed turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. Poppop, my paternal grandfather, chimed in, “Don’t forget the American Indian!” His wife, my grandmother, poked his leg under the table.

All that took place in the late 1940s/early 1950s in New Jersey and New York. My father’s mother was of Irish American heritage. Neither New York nor New Jersey ever had laws banning interracial marriage. Predominantly white leaders in both states disapproved of it. My father’s mother and my mother believed that their children would be put in orphanages if people knew that Poppop was native. That terrified them. As he had been told, the census taker recorded that Poppop was white.

Still, thanks to my memories, I always felt my grandfather was native. When I was in my thirties, I began an ignorant white girl’s search for his native nation. Up until then, I lived the life of a lower middle class Catholic white girl. I didn’t know anything about what had happened to native people or how far away from their traditional lands they were. I read a lot and learned about forced removal, boarding schools, and more. I met and hosted events featuring native writers. I remember one where all members of the audience resembled each other.

Who and where were my grandfather’s people? I wound up exchanging emails with a Lenape group in Pennsylvania. I later visited them when they had a powwow. One of the men taught me how to make a turtle rattle over email. My friend Carlos here in Oakland, CA, cut the cedar bough I collected for its handle and drilled holes into the shell so I could sew it together.

They were good people working to bring back their language and culture. I studied and learned some Lenape language. It took me a whole year to acknowledge that they did not look like my grandfather. They were not my folks.

The turtle rattle from my preschool years gave a clue to my ancestry. I remembered its style pretty well and found a similar one in a powwow in Vallejo, CA. It was Cherokee.

I got a copy of the Dawes Roll to see if I could find “Diehl,” my grandfather’s surname there. That’s a German spelling. “Tiel” or “Thiel” was the closest. I need to know more about my great-great-grandfather and those ancestors further back to prove native heritage.

The census shows Poppop (Joseph Leroy Diehl), my grandmother (Helen Rose), my father (Howard Joseph), and his little brother (Alfred James). Uncle Alfred told me that he never knew his grandfather because he had dropped dead in the middle of town when Alfred was very young. That would seem to be newsworthy. In the Jersey Journal’s obituary files (04/16/1932), I found William F. Diehl, who had a heart attack in the butcher shop and died before medical help could arrive. His surviving children were Walter, Joseph, and William.

I studied the Choctaw language for a time. I didn’t think I was Choctaw. I wanted to support the revival of native languages, and a woman was teaching Choctaw.

Q. Kim achuk ma? (How are you?)
A. Achuk ma hoke. (I am fine.)

And one time again at the Vallejo powwow, a group of people who identified as Cherokee gathered at a particular location. There was a man there dressed in bright regalia. He and I locked eyes and were just delighted to discover each other. As white as I look, he was black. As fiercely determined as I was in my search, he also had been. He wore what he had found, and his outfit was sacred to him. We both delighted in meeting each other through our native connection. Framed in current racial turbulence, ours was a love link, a love of ancestry that had been hidden.

I got disgusted with it all too. Maybe it was nonsense. What does it matter anyway? I quit reading and talking to people about my supposed native ancestry.

One day I was at the dentist, and the hygienist hung my x-rays in front of the lightbox and I saw it in the x-ray. “It” was the cheekbone, that flat shelf sticking straight out at a 90-degree angle from the centerline of my skull. I saw the cheekbone, and I cried, right there in the dentist’s chair. “What’s wrong?” the hygienist asked. She had just hung up the proof of the ancestry I sought, and it was in my skull.

I had a DNA test done. Maybe it’s the only thing I have in common with Elizabeth Warren, other than that she is a well-educated woman from the East Coast. The DNA test revealed no native ancestry. I had it done by two different companies. No native ancestry. What do I do with that? I can be like Elizabeth Warren in another way and apologize for taking the test. But I’m not running for President and I never wrote that I was native on a Harvard job application. That’s creepy if it could take an opportunity from a native applicant.

Some people who have worked hard tracing their genealogy can show native ancestry in their family tree, and the DNA test still says there is none. Rajiv Khan makes three points that seem relevant to my situation. He says,

There is an element of randomness in what you inherit from your parent’s ancestors with each generation. After a long enough time, it is highly likely you will not have any ancestry from a given person in your family tree.

Even if the ancestor is more recent, there is still a chance you may not have any genes from that person.

Native American populations are numerous, and each is genetically diverse. It may be that the people from which you descend is too different from modern populations to be picked up easily in our tests.

That is, you may have Native American ancestry, but it is very different from the ones in our reference set.

Khan’s comments appeared in an article entitled, “I know I have Native American ancestry, why isn’t that showing up?” in Insitomi.

I remember being allowed to walk alone in the woods and not getting lost. I feel a connection with animals and birds that has nothing to do with my education. Although no one taught me, I know how to travel by water in most anything that floats. There is Knowledge that comes from somewhere or someone and flows to this moment. To honor my grandfather, I honor the mystery.

Aikya Param writes poetry, articles and creative nonfiction. Favorite themes are spirituality and prison ministry. She has a Master’s in Women’s Spirituality (2002) from New College of California.

Aikya Param is a licensed minister, a visual artist, and writer.

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