The disclosure by Senator Elizabeth Warren that a DNA test reveals that she has Native American lineage has prompted a fresh round of debate among scholars over the political manipulation of indigenous identity. Is the senator, and presumed presidential hopeful, inappropriately commandeering the identity of a disadvantaged group for her own gain—or is she justified in embracing family lore? Either way, it’s just the latest chapter in a fraught history of relations between Native Americans and white settlers.
Warren’s claim that she is part Cherokee first became a point of contention and some mocking when she ran for Senate six years ago. And President Donald Trump has regularly taunted her, calling her “Pocahontas” at rallies. In July, he issued a challenge, saying that he would donate $1 million to charity if Warren were to take a DNA test and prove to be Native American. (He and his supporters have disputed the nature of the challenge, focusing on his long-winded buildup about submitting to a test while they were on a debate stage.)
That challenge and Warren’s submission to it both undermine the history and integrity of tribal sovereignty, according to Kim TallBear, a professor at the University of Alberta and the author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. TallBear, who belongs to the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe, referred THE WEEKLY STANDARD to a written statement.
“She continues to defend her ancestry claims as important despite her historical record of refusing to meet with Cherokee Nation community members who challenge her claims,” TallBear wrote of Warren. DNA companies like 23andMe define indigenous heritage differently from the tribes themselves, TallBear points out, making Warren’s claim and her scientific proof of it particularly callous.
“The broader U.S. public knows nothing about tribal citizenship and histories of settler-colonial meddling in our laws,” she wrote. “Whether Elizabeth Warren or Donald Trump or 23andMe’s Carlos Bustamante know it or not, they are making settler-colonial claims to our cultural and biological patrimony yet again.”
According to the DNA test conducted by Bustamonte, a Stanford professor and 23andMe adviser, Warren's native ancestor may be traced back from six to 10 generations ago—which, the Globe pointed out, “fits Warren’s family lore.” Her family in Oklahoma told her she was part Cherokee, she said in 2012 amid stories that her sliver of indigenous ancestry was too slight for her to have accurately claimed the tribal mantle as a professor.
Georgetown law professor Sheryll Cashin, a civil rights scholar, disagrees. She upholds Warren’s right to claim her own identity—and condemns Trump for infringing on that freedom. “President Trump is participating in the idea that there are rigid categories to which people belong and denying individuals the right to self-identify with a mixed heritage,” Cashin told TWS via email.
Sherally Munshi, another Georgetown law professor who happens also to have been an advisee of Professor Warren’s at Harvard Law, agreed that her having grown up with a certain story of where she came from amounts to a type of identity many Americans might find personally meaningful. “What Elizabeth Warren has been claiming is another way of identifying herself,” Munshi said. While the family narrative means of self-identity might have merit, “This turn to scientific evidence? I'm not sure.”
Warren’s inherited narrative that she is part Cherokee—something many American families persist in believing—was hardly official. But it was political, in its own way. Law schools like the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard, both places where Warren was counted as a minority faculty member, have not historically excelled at recruiting and retaining experts in Indian law and the relationship between American law and histories of colonization, Munshi explained.
“Rather than actually do a committed job of addressing that problem, they probably invited faculty to self identify their difference or diversity,” she said. It’s certainly cynical, a move motivated by the institution’s desire to seem more multicultural in general, if not more inclusive of Native Americans specifically. A Harvard Crimson article from 1996 touts Warren as the law school faculty’s lone woman of color.
And therein lies the perennial problem.
“Native American identity, especially since the mid-19th century has been defined by white people, by colonizers. That's part of the painful, conflicted, highly contested nature of it,” said Munshi. Some trace family records back to the Dawes Act, which created a federal roll of Native Americans for the purpose of seizing, regulating and re-apportioning their collectively owned land after the Civil War. Others will measure their tribal identity by the federally ordained blood quantum system.
In other words, the question of one’s Native American status in the United States, “has always been politicized,” Munshi said.