After years in which Trump and other Republican leaders bullied Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) into taking a DNA test to “prove” her claims of Indigenous ancestry, she gave in. The 2020 presidential hope spit into a cup, sent for results, created a campaign style video, a website – with a Google search result ad for its name – and a full report so the whole world can see the results.
In a political context where Native Americans defend the legal structure that defends our rights – tribal sovereignty – to a serious legal attack based on race myths, Warren’s insistence on defending his claims to Cherokee heritage at all costs is dangerous, self-serving and harmful. In response to Warren’s highly orchestrated media deployment, the Cherokee Nation issued a statement that his use of the DNA test was “inappropriate and wrong” and that his continued claim of Cherokee heritage “would undermine tribal interests”.
The current 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 âNative Americanâ. On Tuesday, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) even weighed, announcing the Fox and his friends that he will take a DNA test to prove that he is “more Native American than Elizabeth Warren”. This is not an innocent conversation between family members in a private room, but a debate between two US senators and a sitting president. TThese people set federal policies that govern aboriginal organizations, land, and who is and who is not legally an âIndianâ.
It is important that non-Indigenous people walk away from this mess with the right conclusion that Indigenous people are the authority over who is and who is not Indigenous. Non-natives claiming authority over our identity are 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 Indigenous rights and exposes our lands, children and culture to theft.
The current 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 with any Native American tribe is deeply troubling. The 10 billion dollars The DNA testing industry, and the science behind it, has a long and heavy history with Indigenous peoples. After centuries of the theft of our bones, ancestors, and sacred artifacts by scientists and academic institutions, many Native Americans were reluctant to donate our blood. When the burgeoning science of DNA analysis hit the market, that blood became a hot commodity. Historically, biological specimens were often taken from Indigenous people for genetic research under questionable and ethical consent rules that are no longer scientifically or legally accepted. In 2004, the Havasupai tribe continued Arizona State University and bans employees from entering their reservation after specimens taken to help the tribe research diabetes were misused.
The science behind Warren’s specific DNA test used examples native to Mexico, Peru, and Colombia, and did not include any sample of anyone who is Cherokee or even another Southeast Native American tribe (traditional Cherokee homelands). The test only shows that Warren may have an ancestor from North America, Central America, or South America. While international borders are a colonial construct, the idea that a diverse population of Indigenous people stretching from present-day Alaska to Chile is a racially homogeneous group that can be easily and definitively categorized. Scientists wouldn’t give the same credibility to a DNA test that brought people from England to Tokyo, but whiteness has always stood out.
Indigenous identity is a relationship to a tribe. Native Americans are not a Pan-Indian racial group, but rather citizens of sovereign nations. DNA testing has no way of determining tribal heritage and it is a crude interpretation of science and tribal sovereignty to claim that they do.
While Warren may not have used his claims of Indigenous ancestry or his DNA test for economic gain, other people have and are. Last month a man living in the suburbs of Seattle Washington State sued for minority business owner status based on the results of a DNA test. It was tested at 6% native.
Currently House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) faces backlash after his brother-in-law’s business was awarded $ 7 million in federal non-tender contracts as part of a program designed 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 “Cherokee Nation of the North,” a self-identified group that has no recognition from the federal government and is viewed as a fake by the tribes that do so. Today more 400 of these groups exist, all claiming to be Cherokee.
Kim Tallbear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate), a prominent Indigenous DNA scholar, fears that bogus groups like the Northern Cherokee may use DNA testing to fight for the same status as Native American tribes.
âThe Federal Recognition Office is already using anthropological, historical and other evidence to determine whether or not a tribe should gain federal recognition,â she told ThinkProgress. “There is nothing that stops [them] to use genetic ancestry testing. I am concerned that these fraudulent groups are blocking the federal recognition process on the sole basis of genetic ancestry. “
DNA testing has no way of determining tribal heritage and it is a crude interpretation of science and tribal sovereignty to claim that they do.
Warren could have fixed this problem years ago by simply apologizing for register as a minority during their academic career and for touting its alleged Native American heritage over the years, and admitting that she made a mistake, what she still refuses to do. (Warren’s office did not immediately return ThinkProgress’s request for comment.)
Although Warren states that she does not have Cherokee citizenship, the distinction is unlikely to pass to the general American public, who will understand that a DNA test is a true indication of her right to claim the Cherokee identity of a person. one way or another. This is because many Americans don’t know anything about tribal citizenship, Cherokee history, or Indigenous identity. Today, many Warren supporters question the authority of Indigenous people to comment on who is and is not Indigenous.
“By extension, they challenge the authorities of the Indigenous nations we come from and abide by citizenship rules and kinship laws,” Tallbear said.
Due to attacks from far-right organizations like the Koch brothers supported Goldwater Institute, tribal sovereignty and indigenous rights were already on fire. Warren just added oil to the flames. As Indigenous peoples scramble to put out the fire – answering questions and dispelling myths about the amount of blood, DNA testing, tribal enlistment and the Cherokee story – we need help. We need an audience and leadership that not only understands tribal sovereignty, but respects it. Without it, we are threatened with losing the small pieces of rights, sovereignty and land that are left to us.
Rebecca Nagle is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a Two Spirit (queer) woman. She is currently a writer and organizer living in Baltimore, Maryland. This editorial was written with research and consultation from Kim Tallbear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate) and Rick Smith.