Elizabeth Warren

While I have thoughts on Elizabeth Warren taking and releasing the results of a DNA test that “proves” her Native American heritage (apparently between 1/32 and 1/1024th), this post is primarily concerned with highlighting responses from those who know far more than I.

The following, from Kim TallBear, author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, has been retweeted by multiple people today:

The tweet thread, which I don’t know how to embed, continues

more rarely they claim to be “part” choctaw, blackfoot, apache….but most often it’s a claim to be cherokee.

many people ask me for advice on which DNA test to take to prove they have a Cherokee ancestor. #ElizabethWarren is NOT unique in her claim.

‏where do i begin in responding? it is always a similar story, similarly vague. there’s a deep need that a lot of folks have to be an Indian.

i see a pervasive fetishization of ancestry alone, and very little notion that a tribal or indigenous community actually matters.

i like to quote peter dwyer: “the idea of evolution has conditioned an odd understanding. that we are what we were, and not what we became.”

many of the cherokee DNA test takers in fact will find no or very little indigenous ancestry. many will find no name on a record.

….ask yourself why it matters so much. lots of white folks who newly ID as “multi-racial” on the US census are checking the Native Am box

are folks trying to escape whiteness? trying to claim in addition to all of the land & resources a right to our IDs via claims to our DNA?

white people who want to be cherokee, challenge white supremacy where you see it instead. has the settler-state not already taken enough?

indigenous bodies/DNA shouldn’t be a refuge from discomforting whiteness, nor for POC who seek DNA a response to white supremacist exclusion

if folks privilege DNA company declarations of who is indigenous they’re saying (mostly white) geneticists have the right to define us.

debated as citizenship rules are globally, privileging geneticists’ criteria alone over more complex tribal criteria, is a colonial move.

basic genetics is difficult. basic tribal enrollment more so. don’t expect to understand quickly. but both knowledges are essential.

geneticists don’t get tribal citizenship. most Natives don’t get genetics. IMO training indigenous scientists is key to tribal sovereignty.

clarification: scientists w/ indigenous community exper, not just indigenous ancestry will do science that cares for indigenous social life.

Today she tweeted “oh fun! waking up to the first media inquiry of the day on #elizabethwarren. she’s like michael myers. no matter the weapon, this story WILL NOT DIE. i tweeted everything i had to say in june 2016. here’s the wakelet if you missed it.”

The link for that is here.

From journalist Jacqueline Keeler:

This “race-based” argument was recently cited by a federal judge in Texas to declare ICWA unconstitutional and in violation of the 14th Amendment. The goal here is to declare TRIBES unconstitutional because they are “race-based.” #ElizabethWarren #Indigenous #Termination 2/5

The writing is on the wall: Tribes need to get rid of blood quantum or disappear politically.

Also, who knows how many DNA tests she took before getting the result she wanted?  #ElizabethWarren #Indigenous 4/5

The net result? She’s fighting for HER political ascension but at the cost of OUR political credibility. #ElizabethWarren #Indigenous #Termination 5/5

From writer Rebecca Nagle:

This is very true – I wasn’t able to really find anything from a Native perspective, both in articles I read as well as any written by a Native person. Nagle wrote the following last year:

In defending her supposed Native identity, Warren has drawn from both racist stereotypes and easily refutable stories about her familyAt a 2012 press conference Warren stated that her family knew her grandfather was “part” Cherokee because “he had high cheekbones like all of the Indians.” Cherokee genealogists have pored through her family history to find that “None of her direct line ancestors are ever shown to be anything other than white, dating back to long before the Trail of Tears.” To add insult to injury, despite Warren’s public claims of Native American heritage, she has decidedly avoided talking with Native leaders and, in 2012, refused to meet with a group of Cherokee women at the Democratic National Convention.

She even helpfully drafted an apology:

I am deeply sorry to the Native American people who have been greatly harmed by my misappropriation of Cherokee identity. I want to especially apologize to the over 350,000 citizens of Cherokee Nation, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the United Keetoowah Band. In my family, there is an oral history of being Cherokee, however, research on my genealogy going back over 150 years does not reveal a single Native ancestor. Like many Americans who grew up with family members claiming to be Cherokee, I now know that my family’s stories were based on myth rather than fact. I am not enrolled in any of the three Federally recognized Cherokee Tribes, nor am I an active member of any Cherokee or Native American community. Native Nations are not relics of the past, but active, contemporary, and distinct political groups who are still fighting for recognition and sovereignty within the United States. Those of us who claim false Native identity undermine this fight.

I am sorry for the real damage that Native Americans have experienced as the debate about my false identity has revived the worst stereotypes and offensive racist remarks, all while Native people have been silenced. I will do my part as a Senator to push for the United States to fully recognize tribal nations’ inherent sovereignty and uphold our treaty obligations to Native Nations. I will use my national platform to advance the rights of Native Americans and I commit to building real relationships in Indian Country as an ally and supporter.

But nah, why apologize? Instead, Warren had to do the whitest thing possible. Sorry Elizabeth, we suck ass and this further proves you are one of us.

Finally, here’s a different perspective, from Ruth H. Hopkins, former journalist for Indian Country Today:

Elizabeth Warren has stood up against Trump from day 1, sometimes alone. I respect that. She’s also come out to protect the good name of Pocahontas, who was a prepubescent Native girl who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and held hostage by European invaders.

DNA tests do not make one Native. We are so much more than that. Natives belong to over 570 different tribes in the U.S. alone. No DNA test can point toward what tribe(s) you’re from. Each tribe has its own language, culture, history and system of kinship.

Warren is not claiming tribal membership. Rather, distant descendancy. This is her truth. She has shown that she is not fraud in that she has not used Native heritage to gain employment. Time to put down the pitchforks. I will support Warren as long as she fights for my People.

Let’s clear this up now: tribal membership is NOT race based. It’s a distinct political classification distinguished by the fact that tribes are sovereign nations that predate the U.S. & made treaties with the U.S.Claiming Native ancestry is NOT the same as being a tribal member.

Tribes themselves determine what qualifies individuals for membership.

For context, this is what she’s referring to in the initial tweet:

The voter ID law was introduced just months after Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, eked out a narrow upset victory in 2012, winning by less than 3,000 votes. Republican lawmakers responded by passing restrictive voter ID legislation that all but guaranteed that large numbers of Native Americans — who tend to vote Democratic — wouldn’t be able to participate in the political process. Specifically, the law requires voters to bring to the polls an ID that displays a “current residential street address” or other supplemental documentation that provides proof of such an address.

This may seem like an innocuous requirement, but in practice, it’s likely to disenfranchise thousands of Native Americans, many of whom live on reservations in rural areas and don’t have street addresses. Since the U.S. Postal Service doesn’t provide residential mail delivery in remote areas, many members of North Dakota’s Native American tribes list their mailing addresses, like P.O. boxes, on their IDs. And some also don’t have supplemental documentation, like a utility bill or bank statement, because of homelessness or poverty. Now, because the Supreme Court refused to block the law, people who show up at their polling station with a P.O. box on their ID will be turned away.

Possible solutions include:

According to the ND state government as written in a statement with a regarding line tilted “Helping Native Americans to be able to vote in North Dakota Elections,” residents without a street ID should contact their county’s 911 coordinator to sign up for a free street address and request a letter confirming that address.

In response, other organizations are jumping to the cause.

Native Vote ND

The Facebook page of Native Vote ND has been sharing the official instructions.

“If you encounter anyone who says to you that they do not have a residential street address to provide to either the DOT or the tribal government to obtain an ID, please encourage them to reach out to the 911 Coordinator in the county in which their residence exists to start the simple process to have the address assigned,” says the post in part.

Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians – Free Tribal ID Days

Jamie Azure, the tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, who calls the ruling “horrible timing” tells of the tribe’s current ‘Free Tribal ID Days, in which residents can get an updated tribal ID with a residential address at no charge.

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is informing their tribal members to get in touch if they need help obtaining a residential address. The tribe will also be offering drivers to take residents to the ballot boxes on Election Day.

Tribal Voting Letter with name, birthdate and address available at ND Government Offices

According to the Bismarck Tribune, “Bret Healy, a consultant for Four Directions, which is led by members of South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said the organization believes it has a common-sense solution.

“The group is working with tribal leaders in North Dakota to have a tribal government official available at every polling place on reservations to issue a tribal voting letter that includes the eligible voter’s name, date of birth and residential address.”

The Tribune told tribal leaders that such letters would be accepted as proof of residency.

Getting back to Hopkins’s tweet thread; though I do not have a political ax to grind, I am very much guilty of doing what she described, as I agree with the TallBear, Keeler and Nagle and highlight their arguments. Hers was the last argument I came across during the process of writing this. Rather than omitting it, or junking the whole blog altogether, I thought I should include it. It’s something to keep in mind for sure.

For what it’s worth, I’m not coming from the perspective of someone supporting X Democratic candidate, as I dislike them all to varying degrees. And I certainly don’t give credence to the ways in which the right view this story (of course they’re using it to double down on being gross).

Overall, Warren would have been better off dropping it, or better yet engaging with actual Native Americans with valid criticisms of her claims, rather than confronting a rotten ghoul who sits at the head of a political party whom would never, under any circumstances, accept any semblance of proof or facts in her favor.

There exists a world in which Elizabeth Warren wins the Democratic primary in 2020, and Trump will attempt to dominate, mock, and humiliate her – perhaps he’ll literally start whooping with his hand on his mouth to the glee of his repulsive horde. At any rate, since she’s very likely running, this isn’t the last we’ll hear about it.


  1. says

    I try to avoid excusing white bullshittery (I’m a regular reader of sites that give me a lot of practice), but this seems like a preemptive move to do something about Orange Yeller’s favourite nickname for her as she moves to run for the Democratic nomination in 2020 than anything else (with the added bonus of showing his promise to donate a million dollars to be empty bluster). I suspect she would have loved to have just let it go otherwise.

    As long as Orange Yeller continues to call her “Pocahontas”, the story will never die because he won’t let it. If she wants to run for president, this seems like the most effect way to counter it.

    And that’s where my excusing her white bullshittery ends. Every other criticism is fair and well-earned. She put herself in this situation by bringing any of this up in the first place.

  2. Curt Sampson says

    if folks privilege DNA company declarations of who is indigenous they’re saying (mostly white) geneticists have the right to define us.

    Geneticists, white and otherwise, aren’t defining anybody at all as being “indigenous.” (At least, most of them aren’t; there are misguided right-wingers in the amongst scientists as there are in any other group of people.) Let’s not pile on them for someone else’s misuse of the data they provide.

    Buying into the false idea that geneticists are saying you can be an indigenous person just by having some particular bits of DNA is conceding part of the battle to people (including some scientists) who are using misinterpretations of science to oppress certain groups.

  3. says

    Where do those of us whose ancestors came from Mexico and haven’t been treated as if we are white fit in?
    We aren’t likely closely related to any people north of the Rio Grande, but still.

  4. Art says

    Please, I tire of the defensiveness of identity groups. Warren said her family asserted they had some native American ancestors in the family. Given that the group has some genotypical markers her blood was tested and it seems likely she has some native Americans in her genetic line. She doesn’t claim any heritage nor does it look like she checks the box for the ethnicity on forms. Those who have looked into it report she has never benefited, or made any claim for benefits, relating to the identity. As far as I can tell the issue is not a major part of her identity and the assertion was incidental. It was also factual and the testing proves it to be so.

    So …. is she an American Indian? No.

    Two points: First is that tribal status is entirely within the sovereign system of the Indian nations. She, as far as I can tell, doesn’t qualify. It is their call to make. Second, we have to contemplate the nature of humanity. My family is from the south and as such it shouldn’t, doesn’t, surprise me that my genetics contains some African influence. White and black had hundreds of years to mix. And they did. My tendency to develop keloids is a possible outcome of some African influence. Curly hair adds to the effect.

    Am I African American? No. I have no heritage or tradition of African ancestry and I don’t check the box for it on the census form. This is, to my way of thinking is just the genetic noise of humanity that is one species but has multiple paths. We, as a species start in Africa and spread. Those who went too far north developed lighter skin as an adaptation to weaker sunlight and more clothing. Coming back around it is ironic that so many saw their darker skin southern family line as different. This is the culture of race and racism. It is a human affectation and self-imposed stumbling block.

    It is like thinking different breeds of dogs are separate species. Breeds themselves are an arbitrary, and entirely human imposed, sorting system. In fact there are just dogs. With subsets of mutts categorized as breeds by snobs.

    Humans too. We are all genetic Africans because the entire species has its history rooted in Africa. That doesn’t make all with this genetic history culturally African. The difference is the cultural accretion of heritage and tradition. Warren is correct in citing her genetic lineage. She is culturally correct in not claiming a culture or tradition. She is properly not claiming a tribal connection, as per, the Indian nation reckoning. Warren hasn’t made an issue out of it as anything but response to a slur and hasn’t expropriated anything.

    That the various cultures can’t sort out the difference between incidental genetics and more determinative heritage is a sad legacy of the distortions over the human created category of race and racial identity. Genetics has little or nothing to do with tribal connection. But tribal connections, or lack thereof, do not invalidate genetics. Because of the largely unfortunate history of the area I suspect that a lot of families with a long history in Oklahoma have some genetic commonality with native Americans. But genetics and tribal connections are two separate determinations and fields. And they need to stay that way.

    I’ve never understood the fascination of Americans to claim American Indian connections beyond pragmatic racial ‘passing’ and possible attraction to exoticism as away to be ‘special’ but then again I never understood why Germans have a long history of identification with the western cowboy traditions. People are strange. Race is chimeric and an artificial construct. Basing anything on it is like navigating by rainbows. They look like reliably real things but aren’t. The effect is real but the observed structure is not.

    All dogs are mutts. All humans are out of Africa. Race is an illusion but heritage and tradition are real. The tribes determine who is in or out and genetic tell the detailed story of humanities past.

  5. jazzlet says

    Art strictly speaking even the purest white Europeans are mongrels with more Neanderthal DNA (up to 4%) than black Africans have (though they do have a little too – more like 1%), and a little Denisovian DNA as well. I’ve not seen any work on whether Denisovian DNA spread back into Africa. There is also at least one other unknown contributor evident in the DNA. None of our species is ‘pure’ anything, we liked other near species enough to fuck with them several times and those species provided DNA that has persisted. Which has nothing to do with being culturally Native American, but I just find it fascinating, and a counter to anyone who wants to claim the ‘purity’ of their heritage – more of problem in Europe than the USA.