There’s a heck of a lot more to identity than what genes you carry

I’ve done the 23andMe test. I’m 50% Scandinavian.

More significantly, I knew my great-grandparents personally; my great-grandmother was a Swedish immigrant, while my great-grandfather was part of a Norwegian-American community in Minnesota that had been around for generations. They spoke some kind of Norwegian/Swedish/English pidgin, they had connections with the Old Country, we ate Scandinavian food at home, we went to a church that had services in Swedish and Norwegian.

I think I can confidently say that I’m a Scandinavian-American.

The other 50% of my genome is mostly English/Irish/Scot. That side of my family emigrated to America in the 17th/18th century. All cultural vestiges of that connection have been scoured clean by a few hundred years of history, poverty, and total immersion in this mongrel American pastiche we live in, and they retained no connections with family on the other side of the Atlantic. I wouldn’t be as comfortable with claiming to be a British-American, despite my genes sending a clear signal of my biological ancestry.

Elizabeth Warren is not Indian. A few genetic scraps from a distant ancestor do not make you an Indian, any more than the 0.6% of my DNA that is Iberian makes me a Spaniard.

Bustamante’s analysis places Warren’s Native American ancestor between six and 10 generations ago, with the report estimating eight generations. “The identity of the sample donor, Elizabeth Warren, was not known to the analyst during the time the work was performed,” the report says.

Eight generations back means she’s about 0.4% Indian, with zero cultural association. No Indian tribe recognizes her as a member. I think it was a terrible mistake for Warren to play the genetic essentialist game and essentially vindicate racist arguments about one drop of blood making you a member of a racial group, and if vague rumors of a distant relative being a Cherokee princess makes you an Indian, then a multitude of people who belong with 99% certainty to the oppressor genetic group that committed genocide get to play Indian. This is just wrong.

That said, I have a bit of sympathy for her in that she’s trying to defend herself against a racist bigot who has been mocking her remote, slight Indian affiliation by using it as a pejorative. Warren did not use her ancestry as a tool to gain an advantage, to her credit, and it’s shameful that anyone would think that association with one of the most strongly oppressed groups in this country is a way exploit the system.

We’re now at the point where we’re grimacing a bit at Warren’s exaggeration of her connection to Indian culture, while at the same time we’re tolerating a president who openly expresses contempt for Indian culture. All the hypocrites who are berating Warren ought to be even more aghast that Trump is frequently using “Pocahantas” as a slur. But they aren’t.

Also, it’s naive to think that Trump would pay up on his $1 million dollar bet. He’s always been a welcher.

Jennifer Raff weighs in. She’s an expert on this stuff.


  1. nomdeplume says

    Trump is a master at the politics of nastiness. Give your opponents a nickname that will damage them one way or another, watch in delight as the media magnify that nickname until it becomes irrevocably attached to the person. Watch with even more delight if the person attempts to fight back against the nickname because this ensures it will become even more firmly attached. The insult as flypaper. And if anyone tries to return the serve by giving Trump a damaging nickname? Well, they would be disrespecting the presidency, wouldn’t they? The Democrats really need to find a solution to this strategy.

  2. zadiginfinity says

    It’s a good thing she never claimed she was Native American, then. All she ever said was that family lore said she had a distant Native American ancestor, and that’s consistent with the testing, as far as the articles I’ve read indicate. It was idiotic that Scott Brown ever made an issue of it, it was idiotic when Boston Herald columnists like Howie Carr pretended Warren somehow benefited from this family lore, and it was idiotic when Trump pretended he thought of it and decided to make fun of her for something that turned out to be true.

    But let’s not pile on and say she was somehow exaggerating or trying to build an identity around this. She said family lore indicated ancestry, and DNA testing indicates ancestry. Seems legit to me.

  3. siwuloki says

    It is rarely mentioned that Donald Trump is a second-generation American. His father’s parents were both born in Germany and were immigrants. His mother was born in Scotland and was an immigrant. Newcomer.

  4. raven says

    I’m going to just agree with zadiginfinity at #2.

    Most of the time, Elizabeth Warren just said she had a distant Indian ancestor.
    And people have looked hard at whether she ever traded on that claim for any sort of school or career advantages.
    No one has ever said she did.

    In fact, Trump and the Trumpists have spent a huge amount of time trying to turn her ancestry into…a huge liability.
    He is not calling her Pocohontas as anything other than an insult.

  5. TheGyre says

    I agree with you that 0.4% does not make you Indian. I have a lot more than that (just under 18%) and do not identify with a particular tribe. I was not raised in a native environment, do not speak an Indian language, nor can I tell you exactly which tribes I am related to. I have three great-grandmothers who were Indian or part Indian. They came from Kentucky and Tennessee, but they may have originally come from farther east. All the marriageable young Indian men were dead or had fled west, so only frontier white men were left to choose from. Their families eventually drifted into what is now NE Oklahoma the late 1800s, but none of them ever applied for citizenship in an Indian tribe. That being said, I do find myself getting into the tar baby of one of the favorite topics of discussion on your blog — DNA vs. environment. In my case I feel comfortable saying that my upbringing and environment shape who I am and not the genetic load I carry. My mother was 100% German, I spent many years in that country in my formative years, I speak the language. In short, I feel more at home in Germany than I do in this one, even though my Indian DNA has been on this continent for millennia. I look in the mirror and see my mixed blood grandfather, yet I do not identify with him or his people. If I were to run for political office there would be those who would say that I am not Indian because I am not a member of a federally recognized tribe. Fair enough. I don’t really care. When I travel west and visit Indian communities or rez’s I am sometimes asked who my kin are, what tribe I belong to. Conversely, when I go to Germany I am sometimes asked if I am a Turk. It’s a truly weird world.

  6. John Morales says

    We’re now at the point where we’re grimacing a bit at Warren’s exaggeration of her connection to Indian culture, while at the same time we’re tolerating a president who openly expresses contempt for Indian culture.

    So, in short, she’s not made a big deal out of it, some make a big deal out of it, and she responds via this test which does not repudiate her claim.

    The alternative would’ve been not to get / not to publish the test, right?

    (It’s not political passivity, anyway)

  7. says

    Slightly off-topic, but regarding 23andme…

    Has anyone ever done any investigative work to determine whether they do indeed conduct the DNA testing that everyone pays for, and if anyone has ever compared the results from their own independent testing to a test result from 23andme to see if they (roughly) match?

    Seems like an easy con to simply mail out fancy-looking results while tossing samples in the dumpster out back, rather like Robert Tilton was doing with prayer requests in the early 90s.

  8. A Masked Avenger says

    Minor point, but I imagine you’d want to know: “welcher” is a variant of “welsher,” and it’s a slur against the Welsh.

  9. John Morales says

    Robert Westbrook, that you are unaware of any investigative work to determine whether they do indeed conduct the DNA testing that everyone pays for is of itself informative.

  10. wzrd1 says

    @7, they may indeed perform the genetic testing, they may not. Our eldest daughter used a different service and the report claimed zero percent Italian in her genes, which is odd, as I’m 100% Sicilian derived (both parents born from Sicilian parents right off of the boat and through Ellis Island). Which means, there should have been Berber, African and well, pretty much everyone who invaded Sicily throughout the ages represented quite well.
    But, the test also claimed that she had a significant amount of German in her, as she signed for the test with her ex-husband’s family name.
    And frankly, the science really dosn’t back up highly granular results that are claimed. Human migration was and remains complex, nearly as complex as genetics in general. Some associations can be made with some degree of certainty, but nowhere near as granular as the claims made by these companies.

    @5, where the rubber meets the road is, what the nation considers as a citizen. The Cherokee Nation states clearly that whoever has a direct ancestor that was on the Dawes Roll can be a citizen. That is how it should be, each nation deciding for itself who could become a member and who could not.
    In my wife’s case, Princess Morning Dawn in her heritage directly, two or three generations back, but there was a lot of cousin marriages in that era, per the family tree. The ancestors married in 1793, but a direct line of ancestry is present.
    Hell, drawing a family tree at times looked like a plate of spaghetti.
    Oh and for the record, much of her family tree is from Kentucky. Her mom from Frog Level, can’t recall the rest offhand.

  11. dianne says

    Being 0.4% Indian doesn’t make you a tribal member, but does it make you a target? I’m not sure how far Trump is going to be able to take his genocidal intent, but is he calling Warren “Pocahantas” because he wants to make fun of her claim or because he wanted to establish that it is true so that there won’t be objections when he sends her to a concentration camp because of her ancestry?

  12. says

    Echoing zadiginfinity @2,

    While there are some interesting issues here, for us to complain about the particulars of how Warren addresses the issue just feels like taking Trump’s bait. Even as we reject some of Trump’s lies, we implicitly accept other lies, without even realizing it.

    Is there any evidence that Warren was ever made a big deal out of her Indian ancestry, any evidence that she has claimed that “a few genetic scraps from a distant ancestor” made her Indian? I looked around, and it seems that this whole issue surfaced in her 2012 senate race. She did not mention her Indian ancestry as part of the campaign, until the Boston Herald inquired about it (and even then, they immediately discovered that she did not use it to gain any career advantage). She only started talking about the issue in order to address false claims about her.

  13. John Morales says

    Robert Westbrook @10, as you suggested, this is a digression, since the validity of any test is incidental to the point at hand. Still.

    @9 John Morales:

    I suppose one could infer that I’m really crummy at googling. :-)

    Suitably modest, but still. Were it low-hanging fruit, it would long since have been plucked, no? So it’s probably not so.

  14. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    Welcher is not derived from “Welsh”.

    You sure?

    1857, racing slang, “to refuse or avoid payment of money laid as a bet,” probably a disparaging use of the national name Welsh.

    Besides, as a British-American, I get to use it..

    But not a Welsh American. So no.

  15. asteraceae says

    Elizabeth Warren has a woman with a substantive contribution to make on the American political landscape. So naturally, both her enemies and putative supporters get bogged down in a completely irrelevant sideshow which could be dispatched with 30 seconds on her Wikipedia page.

    Donald Trump calls her “Pocahontas” not because he’s a racist asshole (though he is both) but because he knows how to chum the waters.

  16. pita says

    I’d never do 23andMe, if the cops want my DNA, they can get a warrant and take it from me personally.

  17. cartomancer says

    The word “welch” is not definitively demonstrated to have come from a reference to the Welsh, but that’s the only etymology anyone has ever proposed. It seems rather plausible, given the attitudes of the English over the years towards those coal-mining, close-harmony-singing, ewe-bothering folk across Offa’s Dyke. Indeed, the word “Welsh” itself is an Anglo-Saxon term for a foreigner or alien (welisch), and not found in any of Wales’s Celtic languages at all.

    The usually proposed derivation for welch in the specific sense of reneging on a deal or turning someone in who has your confidence makes things a bit more complicated though. In schools in Wales in the 19th Century there was a drive to stamp out the native Welsh language and make everybody speak English, and it was Welsh children themselves who used “to welsh on” to mean “to tell a teacher that someone else had been speaking Welsh in order to get them into trouble”. As such, is it a term of racial abuse in that sense? The English have certainly used “welsh” to mean “weird” or “silly” (“Welsh Rarebit” is basically “What those silly Welsh people would mistake for Rabbit”), but in the sense of giving up your friends and breaking trust it’s used by the Welsh about themselves to refer to a time when oppression against them was much greater and specifically about incidents of being a traitor to your own kind and siding with the oppressor (whose dismissive word for you, if you trace it right back, they’re using anyway).

  18. rydan says

    While I understand she didn’t use her few drops of blood to get ahead in her career she did identify at Native American to help boost diversity numbers once she was already teaching. But what I find disgusting is that she contributed to a book called Pow Wow Chow and passed it off as authentic Cherokee recipes. . This book includes such Cherokee dishes as “Cold Omelets with Crab Meat”. Not sure where one finds crab meat in the deep south.

  19. rydan says

    @7 I did Ancestry DNA and had both my parents do it too. It said there was a near 100% chance that my parents were either my parents or my children. And I never told them to make the connection. So they clearly aren’t a scam just dumping the vials of spit in the trash.

  20. jacksprocket says

    It’s widely believed that “welch” or “welsh” is a reference to Albert Edward Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, son of Queen Victoris and Prince of Wales from 1861. He was later king Edward VII. He had a reputation for failing to pay his gambling debts while being very keen to collect his winnings.

    That of course doesn’t make the usage non- racist. These things depend on cultural context, and I suspect there is little discrimination of the Welsh in the USA, they have plenty of easier targets. As for the one drop, though I probably won’t bother with the test myself, I believe I’m about 75% Irish – hooray!- but one of thoise was a land agent during the Famine – boo! and another was a soldier oppressing Imperial India – boo! And so it goes on.

  21. anat says

    Robert Westbrook @7: When you get 23andme results you can download the raw data with the readout for each marker they tested so you can use any software of your choice to interpret it. You can run it through services such as Promethease or write your own code, or find someone else who wrote their own code.

  22. Holms says

    Elizabeth Warren stated that it was an item of family lore that her family had some native blood in its past. She did not claim to be Indian herself, culturally or otherwise. Remind me again how she has supposedly exaggerated her connection…?

    Meanwhile, conservatives laugh as they call her Pocahontas while the left chastises her for a claim she did not make.

  23. drst says

    I see many of you including PZ have fallen for the new “but her emails” with this story. It will now be “but her DNA” for the next 2 years. Because of course everyone’s fine with the idea of a female presidential candidate in theory but when it comes down to talking about actual human women running for office, there’s always “just something” to make her unlikeable.

    She had to address it. She hit back full force right into his face, which is what Obama should’ve done at the beginning of the birther shit that Drumpf and his awful wife were heavily involved in. It’s about damn time.

  24. says

    I’ve read pundits talking about why she did this, claiming that it won’t help her get the presidency, and quoting American Indian spokesmen that she’s not an Indian.

    I agree – but don’t think that’s the point. This is just a reminder to everybody right before the election on how big of a liar Trump is.

  25. says

    In a sense, the word “Wales” itself is a slur, being derived from wealas, the Anglo-Saxon word for “foreigner, slave”. Which is a bit rich, what with them being the foreigners and all… bloody blow-ins, coming to our islands with their funny gods and non-inflecting languages… 😈

  26. says

    Part of the English/Irish/Scot could need not have come directly from the Isles, PZ. Sweden, Denmark and Norway have always close ties with the UK from trade and smuggling. Particularly Norwegian and Scottish fishermen had relatives on both parts of the North Sea as they shared fishing grounds and new each other. And the scots often bought Swedish grain for their whisky, or so I’m told.

  27. cjcolucci says

    Every Oklahoman (Warren’s state of origin) I’ve ever met, including some blondes and redheads, has claimed some native American ancestry. I wonder what they were getting up to out there?

  28. throwawaygradstudent says

    @7 Robert
    23andme definitely does at least some testing. My wife is transgender and submitted a sample a few years ago. She listed herself as female on the kit and soon after submission they sent her an email saying they detected a Y chromosome.

  29. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    bloody blow-ins, coming to our islands with their funny gods and non-inflecting languages…

    Of course when the Germanic invaders infiltrated the island, their languages were heavily inflected, as any self-respecting Indo-European language should be. It was only later (probably starting with the Viking raids and the Danelaw, but accelerating during the Norman years) that the Germanic language(s) spoken on the island lost most of its (their) inflectional morphology.