On February 14th, 2018 Mass. Senator Elizabeth Warren addressed the National Congress of American Indians. She said since Trump always spoke of Pocahontas when her name was mentioned, she’d speak about her as well. And so she did, describing Pocahontas’s tragic journey of being abducted, held captive as a teen, and how Mattaponi oral history “indicates she was ripped away from her first husband and raped in captivity.”
Pocahontas was eventually married off to John Rolfe, and like some sort of mascot Warren said she was “paraded her around London to entertain the British and prop up financial investments in the Virginia Company.’
Warren noted, “She never made it home. She was about 21 when she died, an ocean separating her from her people.”
Warren spoke of longstanding U.S. disrespect towards Native Americans. “Now we have a president who can’t make it through a ceremony honoring Native American war heroes without reducing Native history, Native culture, Native people to the butt of a joke,” Warren said, referencing when Trump used Pocahontas as a slur even while he was supposed to honor Navajo WWII code talkers. “The joke, I guess, is supposed to be on me.”
And in her next sentences, Warren addressed the proverbial elephant in the NCAI room.
“I get why some people think there’s hay to be made here,” she said. “You won’t find my family members on any rolls, and I’m not enrolled in a tribe. And I want to make something clear. I respect that distinction. 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.” (My emphasis added.)
Despite direct acknowledgment to the NCAI she wasn’t claiming to be a tribal member, Trump continued his taunting, offering her $1 million dollars if she took a DNA test to prove “Indian” ancestry. While doing so, he simultaneously mocked the #MeToo movement and implicated because she was a woman, she was delicate weakling.
“We will take that little [DNA] kit, but we have to do it gently,” Trump said. “Because we’re in the #MeToo generation so we have to be very gentle. And we will very gently take that kit and we will slowly toss it, hoping it doesn’t injure her arm even though it only weighs probably two ounces. And we will say: I will give you a million dollars, paid for by Trump, to your favorite charity, if you take the test and it shows you’re an Indian.”
While no DNA test can show one is “an Indian” as a permitted by tribal nations — as Warren herself acknowledged — the potential 2020 Presidential candidate called Trump on his bluff, and showed test results apparently proving traces of indigenous ancestry.
Warren, one of the co-sponsors of Savanna’s Act which aims to fight the plague of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, asked Trump to send his $1 million owed to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center supporting traumatized Native American sexual violence victims.
Trump welshed on his bet, initially even outright denying the public bet he made at a Montana rally. "I didn't say that. You'd better read it again," he said.
Showing DNA test results was Warren’s political gambit to stand up to Trump’s childish bullying. No doubt the potential 2020 Presidential candidate wasn’t expecting as much negative blowback as she received — much of it stemming from Indian country.
Although Warren made no mention of their tribe when she released the results, the Cherokee Nation took the most offense. Trump, who’d signed an Executive Order his first day in office to allow the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline in a direct blow to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s treaty rights and #NoDAPL protests, praised the Cherokee Nation. He even reverberated back to his Pocahontas insult in the same sentence, Tweeting, “Thank you to the Cherokee Nation for revealing that Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to as Pocahontas, is a complete and total Fraud!”
Welcome to Indian country, Senator Warren, where dealing with matters of blood is always apparently controversial even when a tribe like the Cherokee uses the Dawes Roll for enrollment descendent purposes.
Oklahoma District 2 Congressional representative Markwayne Mullin, an enrolled Cherokee whose district represents 128,732 American Indians and Alaska Natives that includes the Cherokee Nation, went on “FOX & Friends” to express grievances against Warren.
"It's the fact that she's in the public eye and she continues to use this,” he said of what bothered him about Warren’s DNA test. “And what she was trying to do is put this to bed so she could run against President Trump in 2020 and it is backfiring on her. I'm glad to see it because what she needs to do is come out and apologize to all of us."
Although Mullin says his demands are not political, it must be noted his congressional page says he’s “Proud to Support President Trump’s Vision for America.” An ardent anti-environmentalist who has a rating of 1 percent on the League of Conservation Voters Scorecard, Mullin introduced H.R. 2883, aka the "Promoting Cross-Border Energy Infrastructure Act" aiming “do away with the presidential permitting requirement former President Obama used to reject the Keystone XL pipeline” other Native tribes are already preparing to protest.
Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement, "Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong."
I agree 100 percent with Hoskin on principal, but again, Warren never said the DNA test claimed she was Cherokee. While speaking with mainstream media outlets, other Natives preached soundbite semantics to the choir about DNA testing not being used as a means to allow enrollment all while the vast majority of tribes paradoxically defend colonized blood quantum laws to deny others membership. Fears of white people considering tribal Native nations a "race" is the pot calling the kettle black, especially if someone can speak and teach their Native language but not allowed to be legally enrolled.
I understand there are plenty of “But what about?” scenarios from concerns of appropriation, alleged affirmative action benefits (proven to be false), to hyperbolic blaming Warren’s DNA test would undermine the outcome of Indian Child Welfare Act court cases — even though over 12 million people have already taken such tests — but these longstanding issues are hardly the fault of singular woman.
In 2012, Cherokee scholar Dr. Adrienne Keene wrote about the ongoing Warren heritage controversy during her campaign against Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown:
This battle is not about Native peoples, Native identity or Native issues. It is about a political smear campaign that has spiraled out of control. The conversations about identity have not spurred more discussion about the issues of Native peoples in Massachusetts, or even the harm caused to Native communities by the stereotypes employed by the media and Brown supporters during this campaign. This campaign is not about us as Native people, but still we become the butt of the joke, the collateral damage to a pair of politicians who will do anything to get elected.
To put things in perspective, imagine for a moment someone even mistakenly thought they were Hebrew. Would Trump be mocking them as "Anne Frank" at rallies and be continually cheered for it? Are we to shrug at blatant continued racism against Natives by the President of the U.S. all while he simultaneously mocked the #MeToo movement before putting Brett Kavanaugh on the U.S. Supreme Court?
While not perfect and nor do I expect her to become some white savior, she tried to help with good intent in a white colonized culture and as such got a white colonized cultural response. Illogically, many in Indian country refuse to see the forest through the trees as she ironically became a vessel to direct rage against after she stood up to a bullying, racist, misogynist who also implied she was a weakling for being a woman.
If your identity is so fragile it shatters after a senator takes a DNA test showing a trace of indigenous heritage in that you have to use them as a scapegoat vessel for every longstanding indigenous issue, what can I say?
My Northern Cheyenne tribe, especially historically, is able to embrace all walks of good hearted people as relatives even if they’re not of the “same” blood or DNA. To be able do that politically beyond white created Dawe’s Rolls and colonized concepts of blood quantum, however, would be true sovereignty and tribal independence.
Adrian Jawort, is a proud Northern Cheyenne journalist and writer who lives in Billings, Mont. He is co-founder of the Native Healing Lecture Series, he is also founder of theOff the Pass Presswhich aims to promote indigenous literature.