Strike Against Sovereignty? Sen. Warren asserts Native American ancestry via DNA

Senator Elizabeth 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. The Cherokee Nation has stated publicly, "A DNA test is useless..." Screen capture, YouTube.

Native Professor and author Kim Tallbear: ‘There is no DNA test to prove you’re Native American’

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:

"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.”

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.

“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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Comments
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Jai jacobia
Jai jacobia

Regulating tribal membership is one of the few sovereign rights remaining with the tribes and should be celebrated. Being native has always been a cultural issue and a huge part of the culture is the necessity of being documented.

Being native is an honor earned through suffering. The suffering of our ancestors is complicated by today's requirement to be documented, tracked and known by our enrollment which has existed from the time our ancestors were regarded as dangerous beasts best identified, counted and tracked.

No one deserves the HONOR of being a member of a tribe without the SUFFERING of being A member of a tribe.

At the time Warren resided in Oklahoma, a course in Oklahoma history including tribal history was required for graduation from high school. So Warren knew she was not Cherokee as did her family. Early on a local publication interviewed her birth family who adamantly denied leading her to believe she was Cherokee. Therefore, with premeditation, she lied to advance her academic and political career. By doing so, she stole opportunities meant for you, me and our children.

Since before the time of written laws and treaties, our ancestors were known for honoring their word. Truth was respected and greed was abhorred. Those values should be respected and remain at the foundation of our sovereign nations.

blu2cloud
blu2cloud

To believe that our ancestry is all tidy and clean & can be filed away as clear, even with a DNA test is not acceptable. DNA, family stories, family trees are not clean cut or to be taken as factual. Human beings from across the Atlantic are liars & they alter documents & records. Back in the days of chaos when vicious, mad, crazed greed took over & towns, villages, were burned down & humanity was being shot like animal targets & slaughtered. The indigenous humanity didn't just stay in a orderly fashion they were in a terror stricken human panic, running from the demons, hiding if they could. Human survival is a most desperate form of human strength, cunning, wisdom & musters everything a human has to put forth to live. Some of these tribes people, & maybe more than we will ever know, escaped & who knows for certain where their journey took them. They knew the continent better than the terrorist invaders did, at that time, so they could have taken paths by rivers, over mountains & ended up in the west, south, north. Wherever they ended up - they were still pure indigenous. Take the Kickapoo their home was in the eastern seaboard but their lives & survival had them running, using wits of knowledge ending up some south of the terrorist erected border, and some north. Does that make them different & not Kickapoo? We could have eastern seaboard ancestry into central America for the mess the Europeans have made of the Americas and the indigenous of the Americas. The tribes from the north were trading goods with tribes from the south & tribes from the Islands were also busy in the mix. Tribes were using the land, rivers, the gulf, and the Atlantic to travel to and from each others villages. Many of these during the chaos of their lives could have been forced to stay & run & hide with tribes they didn't belong to just to survive the onslaught.

PabloSerna
PabloSerna

I find her claim credible and unfortunate that she is still a person without a true home. Like her, I too have a mixed ancestry - and I have learned to live with this fact and the fact that the people and the heritage we wish to be a part of will only ever see us as incomplete. This where faith in God bears out. +Peace!!

nativesis
nativesis

If she can get the moron-in-chief to pay up and give the million dollars to support native women; why put her down? It's kind of like; you're not a real Indian, unless you're enrolled. There are a lot of people who's family choose to not enroll or were excluded for some B.S. by whites came up with, or who were passing for white to stay alive. Historically it's been dangerous to be Native. Anyway, your attitude reminds me of the usual infighting.

nativesis
nativesis

I too am one of those people whose family history claims Native American heritage and yeah a DNA test shows the same. My sister and I are not affiliated with any tribe and certainly not Cherokee in any case since my Mom (who by the way never spoke of it...it was my Aunt Jerry who told me) came from Michigan by way of Canada, by way of France. Anyway, the point I'd like to make is this: consider...could you be shooting yourselves in the foot by denigrating Elisabeth Warren's DNA test results? After all she's not claiming or asking for tribal affiliation, but she sure is and could be a strong ally for native peoples. I think it's divisive to denigrate her DNA test; why not embrace the help she can give?