On Monday, Senator Elizabeth Warren attempted to put to rest the controversy over an old story about how she claimed to have Native American heritage while she was a law professor. She released a DNA test that concluded that there is "strong evidence" for "Native American ancestry" as her family had believed, though her Native American ancestor was a distant relative six to ten generations back. The test results were revealed on a on a new website created to refute the claims.
Reactions were swift, and often brutal. Conservatives who had mocked her claims of Native ancestry for years scoffed at the idea that the test vindicated her. But criticism came from other quarters too—most notably, the Cherokee Nation issued a statement that said in part that using DNA to claim heritage in a tribe is “inappropriate” and “wrong.”
“Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong,” Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven.” He added that by announcing she likely has some Native blood, Warren is “undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”
But Native Americans from a variety of backgrounds VICE spoke to in the wake of Warren’s announcement had different reactions, most of which were more nuanced than the denouncements that occurred mostly on social media.
“I think that Warren's DNA test, which shows her likely to have a smidge of Native ancestry, is first of all politically expedient for her, in that it absolves her of lying, and that gives her much needed credibility in the face of the right's attacks on her, led by Trump,” said Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a citizen of Colville Confederated Tribes and an Indigenous studies scholar and writer. “By claiming that Indians are getting preferential treatment based on race instead of a political relationship—as most of the foundation of federal Indian law is based on—which is unconstitutional, they can chip away at what little political power Indian country has.”
Debbie Reese, a citizen of Nambé Pueblo and the founder of the blog American Indians in Children's Literature, was more blunt. “Far too many Americans romanticize their family story,” Reese told me. “Saying they've got a Native ancestor has a romantic appeal, and so, people say it and whether they intend it to mean something is irrelevant. The consequence for these claims—especially when they're made by someone like Elizabeth Warren—is that they undermine Native nations that are working to protect our nations from the theft of our babies to the appropriation of our creation stories.”
Gabriel S. Galanda of Seattle-based law firm Galanda Broadman has a different take on the announcement. “DNA test results are not any substitute for tribal kinship ties or any credible measure of tribal belonging,” said Galanda, a citizen of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, a Native rights advocate, and a nationally known opponent of the practice of tribal disenrollment. “Senator Warren has her own kinship ties, through her grandma’s teachings, like many of us do.”
“There's actually lots of non-blood quantum tribes who have tribal members with such low identifiable Indian blood in the 1/500 to 1/1000th range,” Billy Keene, who is an enrolled member of the Osage Nation and also has Cherokee heritage, told me. “A lot of people who have worked in tribal enrollment offices can attest to this. Would these Elizabeth Warren haters suggest that some Cherokee who's only 1/325th Cherokee is somehow not worthy of being Cherokee?”
What Keene is referring to is the increasing practice of tribal nations to move away from blood quantum, where a potential tribal member must show a defined fraction of Indian blood, toward what’s known as descendancy enrollment. For example, to be considered for citizenship in the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, a would-be tribal member simply has to prove that her family appears on the Dawes Final Rolls, which were conducted by the US government between 1898 and 1906. (Several Cherokee genealogists, including David Cornsilk and Twila Barnes, have stated that they can find no evidence of Warren’s family on these or other Cherokee rolls dating back to the early 19th century.)
Keene said that the whole episode shows that “lots of Americans are wholly ignorant about the fact that tribes determine their own membership, and that it appears that lots of Americans would find the idea that a Native American tribe would identify someone as their own with such low amounts of Indian blood as detestable.”
Kristen Orthman, a spokeswoman with Warren’s senatorial re-election campaign, emailed a statement from the senator first given to the Boston Globe: “I wish that I had been more mindful of the distinction between heritage and tribal citizenship Only the tribes can determine tribal citizenship and I respect their right. That’s why now I don’t list myself here in the Senate as Native American.”
Warren also tweeted about the distinction between the test and belonging to a Native American nation:
“Ultimately, however, the bigger problem of Warren's Indian DNA story is that it reinforces the narrative of Indian identity as being race-based,” said Gilio-Whitaker. “This is what the political right is using right now to erode Native sovereignty by undermining important laws like the Indian Child Welfare Act, Native exclusions to Medicaid rules, and in the big picture, terminate the US's treaty-based responsibility to Native nations.”
Keene said, “We know that Elizabeth Warren isn't able to certify that her probable Indian Blood is in fact Cherokee, but this reveal has sparked an interesting and I think disturbing conversation that is pro-blood quantum and at its heart anti-tribal sovereignty.”
Galanda added, “We have far, far greater things to worry about than Senator Warren’s ancestry, including stopping disenrollment and returning to our own kinship ways before it is too late.”
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