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David E. Wilkins

Lumbee Nation

In these times, when we are all worried about the spread of COVID-19, here in Indian Country we are witnessing the spread of a lethal new strain of the contagion euphemistically termed disenrollment — termination by DNA.

An increasing number of Native governments and enrollment officials are turning to DNA testing to more efficiently deal with complex enrollment issues in the mistaken belief that these tests are scientifically accurate and thus will provide a final answer to the question of who is truly Native.

Interestingly, they do not attempt to use cultural arguments to support the use of testing as there is simply no traditional or moral argument for casting out your relatives based upon a colonizer’s measure of what it means to be Indigenous. While most of us are preoccupied with outside threats to our survival, attempting to identify ourselves via DNA testing will destroy us from within if we do not take action.

By now, everyone in Indian Country has heard of, or been affected by, disenrollment; the process whereby Tribal government officials unilaterally declare that sovereign Native citizens are no longer genuinely Native.

Leaders who abuse their power to thin tribal rolls because of greed, racism, political gain, or personal revenge have cast out thousands of our Nations’s citizens without meaningful due process. They typically accuse disenrollees of identity fraud or misrepresentation or claiming dual membership. Or, they might blame errors in enrollment applications, insufficient blood quantum, failure to prove lineal descent, or failure to maintain contact.

We all know that mistakes can occur, but the vast majority of those targeted have little chance to defend themselves or their kin or to challenge the “evidence” presented. In some cases, even when they exhaust themselves bypassing all the artificial and arbitrary tests for belonging, Tribal leaders kick them out anyway, just because they can.

As Native nations, we may now have reached a truly destructive tipping point, with DNA testing rising as the very latest way of dealing with the “Indian problem.” More than 19th century white settlers, the eugenics movement of the 1930s, or termination-era politicians could ever dream, purported “scientific” genetic testing incorporates all of those enemies’ philosophies and manages to achieve the same end goal—Tribal self-termination.

DNA testing for the sake of disenrollment represents a new low in internal-colonized thinking and practice.

Dr. Kim Tallbear (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate) of the University of Albert has written and lectured widely about the enormous pitfalls associated with DNA testing. While acknowledging that there might be a place for DNA tests on a case-by-case basis when the biological parentage of one person is questioned, she states that “the increasing tribal practice of DNA testing across the entire membership … risks re-racializing Native Americans by promoting the ideas that the tribe is a genetic population.”

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This is one of the reasons why Indian County criticized Elizabeth Warren’s claim to be Cherokee. It wasn’t just a personal failure for which she apologized—that was bad enough—it was the bigger issue of ignorantly mixing DNA-identified race with Indigenous nationhood.

Our treaties and other agreements recognize that our nations pre-existed the formation of the United States, no matter who lived in our communities. Our nations, like all others, are socio-cultural political entities, not segregated country clubs, and no bona fide nation bases its citizenship on the fiction of race.

And while there are certainly those within the US who would like to see the return to full-blown white supremacy, no sane person believes we can somehow divide ourselves up neatly by race. Nor does any sane person think that direct-to-consumer DNA “testing” renders people bona fide citizens of our nation. A cotton swab of saliva and sheet of mail-ordered test results does not make one a citizen of any nation.

Now, for short-term convenience, DNA-testing tribes are ignorantly wielding this apocalyptic weapon without understanding their actions will undercut sovereignty for all tribal nations more than a thousand Elizabeth Warrens ever could. It’s just another form of smash and grab colonialism—I take what I need today and don’t worry about the long-term health of my community.

Unfortunately for us all, this kind of erasure has the potential to spread as fast as any deadly virus, especially by way of DNA testing labs—the latest disenrollment cottage industry. Those labs are now marketing to Tribes to conduct DNA tests in order to “provide supporting evidence for . . . disenrollment” or to question “the biological relationship” between “known tribal member[s].

Like disenrollment auditors and lawyers, these labs and their proprietors are a contagion in Indian Country.

Our identities are rooted in our cultures, our land, our values, our languages and all the genealogical relations that we have with our birth, adopted, and social relatives as well as our relatives in the natural world.

The limited, diminishing math of blood quantum and DNA cannot measure what has actually mattered since time immemorial. While we can obsessively wash our hands in an effort to stave off the newest virus, no amount of scrubbing will cleanse the hands of those Tribal officials spearheading the ongoing disenrollment of their citizens, especially through the swift and reckless use of DNA testing.

We do have hope. A human being is not a virus, fated to run its course, spreading and harming communities. Each of us has the capacity, the will and the obligation to make choices grounded deep in our values and traditions that strengthen our peoples and protect all our relatives. If we passively accept or replicate colonial ideas of who belongs and allow DNA dismemberment to shift into high gear because, for right now at least, it’s far away, or someone else’s sovereignty, or someone else’s relatives, the day will come when we are all affected—or infected. We will have truly become our own worst enemies.

David E. Wilkins, Lumbee Nation, University of Richmond