Op-Ed
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Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test hurts Native people

Warren is playing into a non-Native agenda to define and control the parameters of who counts as "Native American."

Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at her campaign headquarters in Dorchester. (Credit: Hadley Green for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at her campaign headquarters in Dorchester. (Credit: Hadley Green for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

After years of Trump and other Republican leaders bullying Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to take a DNA test to “prove” her claims of Native ancestry, she gave in. The 2020 presidential hopeful spit in a cup, sent off for the results, created a campaign style video, a website — with a Google search result ad for her name — and a full report so that the world would see the results.

In a political context where Native Americans are defending the legal structure that defends our rights — tribal sovereignty — from a serious legal attack based on myths about race, Warren’s insistence at defending her claims to Cherokee heritage at all costs is dangerous, self-serving, and harmful. In response to Warren’s highly orchestrated media roll out, the Cherokee Nation released a statement that her use of the DNA test was “inappropriate and wrong” and that her continued claim to Cherokee heritage is “undermining tribal interests.”

The present controversy is a perfect storm of public ignorance, racist stereotypes, and governmental and scientific exploitation of our identities that plays into a non-Native agenda to define and control the parameters of who counts as “Native American.” On Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) even weighed in, announcing on Fox and Friends that he will take a DNA test to prove he is “more Native American than Elizabeth Warren.” This is not an innocent conversation among family members in a private living room, but a debate between two U.S. senators and a sitting president. These people set the federal policies that govern Native bodies, lands, and who is and who is not legally an “Indian.”

It’s important that non-Native people walk away from this mess with the correct conclusion that Native people are the authority on who is and who isn’t Native. Non-Native people claiming authority over our identity is dangerous in the United States: a country that has always sought to control who is and who is not “Indian” in a way that limits Native rights and opens our land, children, and culture up for theft.

The present controversy is a perfect storm of public ignorance, racist stereotypes, and governmental and scientific exploitation of our identities.

That so many people in power truly believe that a DNA test result is enough to claim a relationship to any Native American tribe is deeply disturbing. The $10 billion DNA test industry, and the science behind it, has a long and ethically fraught history with Native people. After centuries of having our bones, ancestors, and sacred artifacts stolen by scientists and academic institutions, many Native Americans were reluctant to offer up our blood. When the burgeoning science of genetic analysis came on the market, this blood became a hot commodity. Historically, bio specimens were often collected from Native people for genetic research under questionably ethical rules of consent that are no longer scientifically or legally accepted. In 2004, the Havasupai Tribe sued Arizona State University and banished employees from entering their reservation after specimens taken to help the tribe research diabetes were misused.

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The science behind Warren’s specific DNA test used examples of Indigenous people from Mexico, Peru, and Colombia, and included no sample from anyone who is Cherokee or even another Native American tribe from the Southeast (Cherokee traditional homelands). The test only shows that Warren may have an ancestor who was from North, Central, or South America. While international borders are a colonial construct, so is the idea that a diverse population of Indigenous people spanning from present day Alaska to Chile are a racially homogenous group that can be easily and conclusively categorized. Scientists would not give the same credibility to a DNA test that grouped people from England to Tokyo, but Whiteness has always made itself distinct.

Native identity is about a relationship to a tribe. Native Americans are not a pan-Indian racial group, but rather citizens of sovereign Nations. DNA tests have no way to determine tribal heritage and it’s a gross misinterpretation of both the science and tribal sovereignty to claim that they do.

While Warren may not have used her Native ancestry claims or her DNA test for economic gain, other people have and are. Last month, a man living in the suburbs of Seattle sued the state of Washington for status as a minority business owner based on the results of a DNA test. He tested at 6 percent Indigenous.

Currently, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is facing backlash after his brother-in-law’s business was awarded $7 million in no-bid federal contracts from a program design to help minority businesses. William Wages’ claims to Cherokee identity did not match federal records investigated by the Los Angeles Times and a leading Cherokee genealogist. Wages is a member of the “Northern Cherokee Nation,” a self-identified group that has no recognition from the federal government and is considered fake by tribes that do. Today, over 400 such groups exist, all claiming to be Cherokee.

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Kim Tallbear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate), a leading scholar on Native DNA, is worried that fake groups like the Northern Cherokee could use DNA tests to fight for the same status as Native American tribes.

“The office of federal acknowledgement already uses anthropological, historical and other disciplinary evidence to make determinations about whether a tribe should get federal recognition or not,” she told ThinkProgress. “There is nothing stopping [them] from using genetic ancestry tests. I am worried that these fraudulent groups can tie up the federal recognition process based on genetic ancestry alone.”

DNA tests have no way to determine tribal heritage and it’s a gross misinterpretation of both the science and tribal sovereignty to claim that they do.

Warren could have put this issue to rest years ago by simply apologizing for listing herself as a minority during her academic career and for touting her supposed Native American heritage over the years, and by admitting she made a mistake, which she still refuses to do. (Warren’s office did not immediately return ThinkProgress’ request for comment.)

While Warren states she does not have Cherokee citizenship, the distinction likely won’t transfer to  the broader U.S. public, which will understand a DNA test to be a true indication of her right to claim Cherokee identity in some way. This is because many Americans know nothing about tribal citizenship, Cherokee history, or Native identity. Today, many of Warren’s supporters question the authority of Native people to comment on who is and is not Native.

“By extension, they question the authorities of the Native nations from which we hail and whose citizenship rules and kinship laws we uphold,” said Tallbear.

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Due to attacks from far right organizations like the Koch Brothers-backed Goldwater Institute, tribal sovereignty and Native rights were already on fire. Warren just added fuel to the flames. While Native people are scrambling to put the fire out — answering questions and dispelling myths about blood quantum, DNA tests, tribal enrollment, and Cherokee history — we need help. We need a public and leadership that not only understands tribal sovereignty, but respects it. Without that, we are threatened with losing the small pieces of rights, sovereignty, and land we have left.

Rebecca Nagle is a Citizen of Cherokee Nation and a two spirit (queer) woman. She is currently a writer and organizer living in Baltimore, MD. This op-ed was written with research and consultation from Kim Tallbear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate) and Rick Smith.