A great story posted on Facebook by Bill Poser:

I happened on an article that mentioned a non-native man named Timothy Barrus who claimed to be a Navajo named Nasdijj, allegedly meaning “to become again”, and published several works, well-received until the hoax was revealed, about his fictional life. His publishers and the literary world were criticized for accepting his claims without any investigation. His fake Navajo name would have been a clue. There is no word <nasdijj>; in fact, no Navajo word ends in <jj>. There are no infinitives, so no Navajo word could mean “to become again”. But Barrus didn’t actually make up his name. There is a real Navajo word násdlį́į́’ meaning “(s)he has become again”, and at least one dictionary glosses this as “to become again”. Barrus evidently chose his Navajo name from such a dictionary and misread dlį́į́’ as dijj. If you’re going to pretend to be from another culture, you should probably learn its writing system.

Fakers beware!

Also, via Slavomír Čéplö (bulbul) on FB, a snarky video (3:39) called If YouTube Polyglots Were Honest in which a “hyperpolyglot alpha male gigachad” tells you about how he’s going to tell you about a bunch of languages he doesn’t know anything about. Fakers everywhere!


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    This is not a particularly new story, although the misread-the-dictionary angle maybe makes it of perennial interest. (The fellow was exposed back circa 2006, see

    There have been, it seems a rising number of such instances in more recent years, with this one breaking just this month: Note that the lady in question is trying to defend herself by saying her (challenged as untrue) claim to have a quite modest quantum of “Indigenous ancestry” is not the same as “claim[ing] an Indigenous identity” which she apparently denies doing.

  2. the misread-the-dictionary angle maybe makes it of perennial interest.

    That is, of course, what brings it here. I don’t think I presented it as breaking news.

  3. David Marjanović says

    I recommend the video. (And the guy’s Mandarin pronunciation.)

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    I didn’t mean to suggest that Our Host had affirmatively presented it as breaking news, but Bill Poser’s “happened upon an article” phrasing left it open-ended whether this was a fairly recent article describing fairly recent events or not. Is there at least a mild default implicature in the social-media context that an interesting-sounding news story is comparatively recent unless otherwise specified (or at least hinted at with some “once-upon-a-time” type of formula)? Maybe the presence/strength of any such implicature is context-dependent?

    The other level of detail Poser didn’t go into (although maybe it would have been overkill) is that presumably traditional Navajo culture like most cultures has naming conventions and “just pick any word out of the dictionary that you think has a cool meaning and it will work just fine as a personal name” is comparatively unlikely to be one of those conventions. FWIW

  5. It would require a more thorough article to be certain just what ancestry Timmons claimed, but the article seems to suggest it’s a bit more than that, since her supposed Mi’kmaq affinity showed up in several places without any clarification that it was fractional to the point of vanishing (and perhaps disputed?).

    It’s an interesting issue for me personally. I don’t claim any affiliation, and don’t know that I have any native ancestry at all. But I’m at a loss to account for why my mother’s mother would have said we had such ancestry back in the 70’s, unless we did. In a rural Michigan context, would that have given someone any prestige or special interest?

    Even if there is truth to the account, mine would be far more fractional even than what Timmons claims. I certainly deserve no special consideration whatsoever.

    I do think I mentioned it a few times in high school. I didn’t think it would gain me anything substantive. I just thought it was interesting. Which may be relevant to why some of these people have done so. The idea that I (might have) had some Native ancestry made me maybe a little more sympathetic than some to Native issues, and helped fuel an interest in Native histories, which I read avidly in my early 30s.

    I’ve come to understand, mostly in the wake of the Senator Warren situation, why Native people are extremely sensitive and in some cases antagonistic to pretty much all such claims. I don’t remember mentioning it to anyone in decades except immediate family. (It seems different to mention it here because I’m anonymous, so it’s more like raising an issue that one knows can occur, rather than making a personal claim).

    It does seem strained to avoid mentioning it, sometimes in settings where I might mention a single known Irish ancestor at a similar remove. I wonder whether those who have full and proper claims to Native status might consider what language might allow them to incorporate people with (possible / distant) ancestry like mine into the frame of reference, without undermining their own sense of identity.

  6. The writing of “Nasdijj” was more prominent than I expected:

    >His essay, “The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams”, was published in Esquire in 1999 and was a finalist in the National Magazine Awards that year.[8]

  7. A word ending in -jj can of course be only Arabic, as in Hajj. Or Hungarian.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    @ryan: my sense is that traditional white American family stories (typically not rigorously fact-checked …) about trace amounts of Indian ancestry were reasonably common well before the more recent decades in which there was any sort of “affirmative action” or “diversity” bad incentive to make such claims falsely. Presumably some but not all of them are actually true. I do wonder if they were more common in parts of the country in which no actually-existing Indians still lived nearby in any substantial numbers, so there was nothing to complicate the romanticization/exoticization of the worthy prior inhabitants of the land as to whom we had (again, long before the rise of recent political trends) a certain uneasy conscience about having displaced. Let’s just say that fewer white families handed down traditional stories about having trace amounts of black ancestry even though some of them in fact had such ancestry, because the stories would not have been parallel from a romanticization perspective. The most plausible explanation for why your grandmother would have told you such a thing is of course that she was herself told it by a parent or grandparent, had no reason not to believe it, and quite understandably never felt like it needed to be fact-checked. I don’t know that very many of these situations have been dug into with enough detail that it’s been determined exactly where and when up the family tree the false claim (when the claim is indeed pretty provably false) arose.

    My own family history has various uncritically-handed-down anecdotes that I heard as a boy that ended up being eventually debunked by a distant cousin who for whatever reason decided to actually research them, but they all involved being distantly descended from somewhat more interesting/famous white people than we apparently actually were, so they don’t create quite the same issues.

  9. CuConnacht says

    My impression is the same as JW Brewer’s, confirmed to some extent by the 1964 Buffy Sainte-Marie song “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” in which she suggests that she is tired of hearing from white people that “your great-great-grandfather from Indian blood sprang.” In the US (again my anecdotal impression) it was almost always Cherokee.

  10. As it happens, my great-great-great-grandfather George Washington Dodson (b. 1779) married a half-Cherokee woman named Elizabeth “Betsy” Fagan (b. 1785) in 1807 in Georgia, when the Cherokee were still living there — he was a Primitive Baptist minister to the tribe. This was passed down in my family not out of any striving for exoticism but out of the same interest in genealogy that tells me their grandson John married a woman whose father came from Wales. My Aunt Bettie, born in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, found that tidbit, plus the fact that the Cherokee had wound up living in the same general area, of enough interest to study the Cherokee language. While I understand the sensitivity/antagonism Ryan mentions and would not parade my minuscule amount of Cherokee ancestry around actual Cherokee, it is a documented fact, and I see no reason to pretend it doesn’t exist.

  11. Dmitry Pruss says

    It’s not surprising for people to be infatuated by their distant ancestors, to feel that their own character traits are explained and validated by an ancestral link which gave them a miniscule portion of DNA (or a share of DNA which isn’t even anything but a guess… indeed, it’s hard to figure out which of several interrelated, and intermixing peoples of old contributed such DNA … was it Ashkenazi or Sephardi? Nigerian or Cameroonian? But people crave these answers, and therefore notoriously imprecise genetic ancestry tools remain on the market)

    LH’s 3rd ggm isn’t all that remote in terms of DNA ancestry. The trace should remain visible even to relatively unsophisticated genetic tools (not like cutting-edge higher-precision tools which Elisabeth Warren used). It generally wouldn’t be scientifically right to explain any specific physical or mental traits by this ancestry due to its minor share, but it would be totally understandable if the descendants tried doing it regardless.

    Incidentally I probably mentioned it elsewhere on LH how our clinical sample intake forms have a checkbox for Native American origin, but hardly anyone who checked it had any readily detectable Native DNA (a disclaimer, our genetic ancestry detection isn’t meant to tell people who their ancestors were; it’s just a way to deliver higher quality genomic predictions for people whose ancestors weren’t only from Europe)

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    The recent “scandals” tend to happen in certain hothouse environments like academia where the key factor may be that *other* white people are for whatever set of political motivations excessively impressed by the notion that so-and-so may be of some miniscule quantum of “Indigenous” ancestry rather than of 0%.

    Of course, a particular sort of ancestry can be miniscule percentage-wise and still “interesting” from a conversational perspective. There are millions (possibly >10 million) of living Americans who descend from someone who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620, but the overwhelming majority of them are likely <1/64 Mayflowerish. There are quite a lot (maybe over a million? I've never seen anyone try to work out a plausible estimate) of living Americans, including myself, who descend from one of the individuals who ended up being executed for being on the losing side of the Salem witch trials, but I am almost certainly <1/64 Alleged-Witch-American in the context of my entire family tree, so my kids are <1/128 etc.

    I wonder if Barrus' career as "Nasdijj" originally got rolling with the pieces he authored under that pseudonym being published by editors who had never met him face to face, such that he didn't have to come up with a story re "well, technically I'm only 1/16 Navajo by ancestry" to explain away his physical appearance.

  13. DNA isn’t quite miscible like water (proverbial blood), and as you approach the supposed 1/128th, the actual fractions can be easily two or three times higher or lower. One generation deeper, and 0% becomes a nontrivially common answer (a large fractions of the descendants inheriting no ancestral DNA whatsoever).

    And when I said that “generally” no conclusions about traits can be made from what’s little has been shared with the distant ancestors, I omitted cases of many Mendelian traits, where just one gene calls the shots, and the gene and the trait are passed down the generations without any dilution.

    Case in point, APOL1 which I wrote about recently ( ). People in many regions, like in Latin America, may have no specific memory of African-origin ancestors generations ago, but the mutations which came from Africa still give them overwhelming chances of kidney disease, outpacing the rest of the risk factors.

  14. “Nasdijj” is the tip of the Tim Barrus iceberg. I’d guess, for instance, one’s number of wives is often in inverse relation to the number of novels one has written on gay themes. And while closeted men with wives were no doubt much more common then, the fact that he wrote about his non-existent experiences in Vietnam in addition to his non-existent experiences as a Navajo do leave me wondering about the basis for his gay novels.

    I wonder how he and his wife settled on the name Kree. Was he starting to imagine his way into a Native identity, and connecting the name to Cree or was it just a creative impulse? (Or maybe it’s an extant name or nickname somewhere that I’m unaware of.)

    And while adopting a disabled child paints a picture of a rare and saintly couple, “returning him to the state” two years later is also unusual. I will say that the family seems to have an ongoing commitment to special needs kids.

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    @DP: Sure. I’m talking more about kinship/descent as a social/cultural thing, not as a genetic thing: there’s obviously overlap in the typical case but as you note the ways in which they do or don’t match up get more variable the further back in time you go.

    American Indian descent is a particular mess because different tribes/nations are allowed to, and in practice do, have radically different approaches to what minimum “quantum” of blood ancestry one must have to be recognized as a tribal member, and then there are various federal policies dealing with the same issue that don’t necessarily match up to the tribal criteria, and how people self-identify on census forms and the like is still by default an “honor system” based on subjective self-identification/self-narration. And this is without getting into the fact that most (although by no means all) Hispanic Americans have some material amount of “indigenous” ancestry, but if the admixture occurred somewhere south of the Rio Grande the U.S. racial-classification system isn’t really well-designed to handle it.

  16. Dmitry Pruss says

    Yes, Native American DNA proportions in the self-described Hispanics and of the US Whites with Latin American ancestry are high and highly variable, and that’s the main reason why we have to gauge the patients’ Native American ancestry as a part of making genetic predictions more reliable for Americans of all stripes. Outside of the US populations with Hispanic roots, it would have been virtually a non-issue, too small / too rare. But say among the Los Angeleno Mexicans, a quarter Native genomic ancestry is a norm, and half isn’t a super rare exception.

  17. ” (a large fractions of the descendants inheriting no ancestral DNA whatsoever).”

    @DP, is this meant as a precise claim (as opposed to “no detectible”, “practically no” etc.)?

    I thought that the number of chunks inherited in one generation must be much larger than 256…

  18. @J.W. Brewer: He hit it big with an article he initially sent to Esquire‘s slush pile in 1998 or 1999, when he was (probably…) living in New Mexico. Under those circumstances, it’s unlikely that he would have had any communication with the editors in New York via channels other than letters or the telephone.

  19. audra simpson’s excellent Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States goes into some of the complications around descent and lineage in her kahnawà:ke context.

    but to my ear, the important part is remembering that the whole mess is a direct result not just of colonization, but of past and ongoing state policies on both sides of the medicine line whose explicit goal has been to destroy communities’ own understandings of and structures for cultivating their edges (both where they are rigid and where they are permeable), as a key step to destroying their ability to exist as themselves (the “as such” part in article ii, here). the imposition of blood quantum (a specifically christian/roman model of descent) is part of that, as is the creation of client “tribal governments” to enforce colonial policy on communities the colonial states have decided they want proxies to “represent”.

  20. Dmitry Pruss says

    @drasvi, the number of DNA chunks inherited from a parent is less than 100 on average but at least 23. All chromosomes must have at least one meiotic crossingover and the longer ones have a few.
    The stochasticity of the process results in inequal amounts of DNA inherited from ancestors. Which each generation, unevenness grows, and eventually some zeroes start appearing.

  21. Dmitry, can you help me understand that? I would have thought that a minimum of one meiotic crossover per chromosome led to a minimum of 46 discrete chunks.

  22. I think I’m getting it. 23 discrete chunks from each parent, but within each parent’s 50% contribution, each chromosome had (at least) one meiotic crossover, whose placement dictates the share of each grandparent’s genes being handed down? (except maybe the male contribution to the sex chromosomes – is there crossover on that?)

  23. Dmitry Pruss says

    Ryan, you are absolutely right, but keep in mind that only half of these chromosomal pieces are passed to progeny. Only those chunks need to be considered when calculating rates of passage of ancestral genes down the generations.

  24. Keep in mind we are talking here about the small amount of DNA that varies between people. The vast majority of our DNA is identical no matter closely related or not we are. I’m seeing 99% and 99.5%.

  25. Dmitry Pruss says

    You can compare average DNA (it’s going to be more similar) or account for variation in the sequence (that’s going to be more distinct). The average sequence is 99.7% identical between the humans and Neanderthals, and 98.8% identical to chimp. Our species are indeed very closely related, but you can also see for yourself what a seemingly minor difference can do

  26. drasvi, I think it’s easier to see from the other side. If my DNA is broken into less than 100 pieces before it is passed to the next generation, it is easy to see that there is a good chance none of it will be passed to a single descendant if I have to compete with more than 100 other individuals.

  27. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    There was a case mentioned on the radio this morning where a Danish family got all crisis-like because a MyHeritage test had located an “unknown grandchild” in Germany. It turned out that one of the sons had been a sperm donor; the story was not detailed enough to explain why his parents didn’t know that.

    The angle was more that modern DNA tests will actually break donor confidentiality, even if the claims to identify a vaguer “ancestry” are fake. (The child may have a right to be told who the donor was, once they are 18, but may not have been interested in knowing. If they even knew there was a question to ask, and were old enough).

  28. Lars Mathiesen: the story was not detailed enough to explain why his parents didn’t know that.

    Because it was none of their damn business?

  29. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    @Brett, of course it wasn’t. OTOH, my feeling is that sperm donors here are usually pretty open about it, at least to the extent that if his parents tell him that they think they have located a stray child of his, he’d tell them. So there was less communication in the family than culturally expected, but still on the “that happens” level.

    I had a feeling, listening, that he might not have been alive to stop the parents contacting the woman who had received the anonymous donation, but that’s mostly speculation based on what I felt was a marked choice of tenses in the narration.

  30. If you don’t want to know your heritage (and don’t want others to know) maybe you shouldn’t upload your DNA test to MyHeritage? It’s like, you know, if you don’t want to know your fate, why go to a fortune teller?

  31. “The triumph of hope over experience”, as the man said about second marriage.

  32. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    MyHeritage is actually blocking most data about living persons on the genealogy side — if you locate me somehow, you won’t be able to find my sisters, for instance. So it’s a bit unexpected that the DNA test side will tell you about a living grandchild. Or, more relevantly, that clicking the advert about finding out if you’re of proper German descent may lead to your personal details being shared with estranged family. It’s probably contrary to GDPR and such, but yes, somebody wasn’t paranoid enough.

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