Strike Against Sovereignty? Sen. Warren asserts Native American ancestry via DNA
Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has long battled with politicians and the media and has been the subject of sarcastic and racially-based attacks by President Trump — he called her Pocahontas publicly on several occasions — has bowed to the pressure of the masses and sought to prove Native American ancestry with results of a DNA test she has posted to her website.
DNA Analysis results touted on Warren's website. Screen capture.
Warren now claims to have documentation to back up her distant ‘Native heritage’ thanks to an analysis report by Carlos Bustamante, a professor of genetics at Stanford and adviser to the DNA companies, Ancestry and 23andMe.
In a video posted to Senator Warren’s website, the politician and Bustamante have a conversation:
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"Now, the President likes to call my mom a liar," says Warren. "What do the facts say?"
Bustamante replies to Warren, "The facts suggest that you absolutely have a Native American ancestor in your pedigree." Warren responds by nodding.
Bustamante's full DNA report is now posted on Warren's website, along with other information detailing Warren’s life connected to claims of her Native heritage and family and political background.
Though Warren has now officially claimed Native American heritage, including asking Trump to pony up the one million dollars for proving her Native connection and asking Trump to send the check to an Indigenous Rights Group — Native people are saying not so fast to Warren.
@realDonaldTrump Tweets in Warren's video show the ridicule by President Trump. Screen capture YouTube.
Warren admits in the video that she does not claim enrollment with a tribe and makes a distinction between heritage and enrollment. “I am not enrolled in a tribe, and only tribes determine tribal citizenship, I understand and respect that distinction, but my family history is my family history,” states Warren.
The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma issued a statement to Indian Country Today asserting DNA is not proof of tribal citizenship.
"A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship. Current DNA tests do not even distinguish whether a person’s ancestors were indigenous to North or South America," Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. "Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity, to an individual it is not evidence for tribal affiliation. Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. 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. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage."
Native Professor Kim Tallbear: ‘There is no DNA test to prove you’re Native American’
Kim Tallbear, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, is the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience & Environment and Associate Professor at the faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. She is the author of “Native American DNA: Tribal belonging and the false promise of genetic science.”
In an email to Indian Country Today, she made the analogy of the ancestry of Elizabeth Warren as Michael Myers in the Halloween films. “It just won’t die,” she wrote.
Tallbear also references her series of tweets on Native American DNA and the faulty connections to Native ancestry. She also had an in depth interview with Linda Geddes of NewScientist.com in which Tallbear said specifically: “People think that there’s a DNA test that can prove if somebody is Native American or not. There isn’t.”
(See additional coverage:What Percentage Indian Do You Have to Be in Order to Be a Member of a Tribe?)
Tallbear told ICT in her email that Warren’s latest maneuver was a strike against Native sovereignty. “For Elizabeth Warren to center a Native American ancestry test as the next move in her fight with Republicans is to make yet another strike (even if unintended) against tribal sovereignty.
“She continues to defend her ancestry claims as important despite her historical record of refusing to meet with Cherokee Nation community members who challenged her claims. This shows that she focuses on and actually privileges DNA company definitions in this debate, which are ultimately settler-colonial definitions of who is Indigenous. She and much of the reading public privilege the voices of (mostly white) genome scientists and implicitly cede to them the power to define Indigenous identity,” wrote Tallbear.
In a series of tweets from 2016, Tallbear dismantles the process of connecting DNA to Native ancestry.
Some of Tallbear’s tweets are as follows:
"Both genetic & social/historical knowledge together explain why we CANNOT tell from a DNA test if @SenWarren is Cherokee."
"We also cannot tell conclusively from a DNA test if @SenWarren is of Native American descent broadly."
"By not conclusive, I mean that test results vary from company to company and even between academic labs, based on the methods used."
"Not all “Native Americans” have the particular markers scientists have found that trace to the founding populations."
Muddying the waters of understanding
In February, Elizabeth Warren addressed a room of over 500 tribal delegates and tribal leaders at the National Congress of American Indians’ 2018 Winter Session. During the session, Warren stated she wanted to be clear about her Native history. She said she was not on any rolls and not an enrolled member of a tribe.
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“And I want to make something clear. I respect that distinction,” said Warren. “I understand that tribal membership is determined by tribes — and only by tribes. I never used my family tree to get a break or get ahead. I never used it to advance my career.”
Then, Warren made a promise to lift up Native people. “I’m here today to make a promise: Every time someone brings up my family’s story, I’m going to use it to lift up the story of your families and your communities,” said Senator Warren.
Tallbear says though Warren does not claim to be a citizen, she undermines the process of Native heritage and tribal enrollment.
“As you know, tribal governments establish regulations that do not use genetic ancestry tests, but other forms of biological and political relationships to define our citizenry. Indigenous definitions of who we are continue to be background noise in this political party bickering. Again, Warren's attention continues to be focused on settler state electoral politics and not good relationships with Indigenous communities. Her NCAI speech notwithstanding, which avoided the central critiques of her ancestry claims.”
Tallbear says that Warren and genome scientists “despite their giving lip service to genetic ancestry not being synonymous with tribal citizenship or tribal definitions of who is a member,” will “get to have it both ways.”
“They know darn well that the broader US public will take a DNA test to be a true indication of her right to claim Native American identity in some way. The broader public knows nothing about tribal citizenship. And the broader US public is invested -- as historians, anthropologists, and Indigenous Studies scholars have shown -- in making what are ultimately nationalist claims to all things Indigenous: our bones, blood, land, waters, and ultimately our identities.”
Tallbear says Warren has done damage to the process.
“Whether Elizabeth Warren or Donald Trump or Carlos Bustamente know it or not, they are making settler-colonial claims to our cultural and biological patrimony yet again.”
Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor and senior correspondent, Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter -@VinceSchilling
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