On Monday, Elizabeth Warren released the results of a DNA test that she says vindicates her long-criticized claim of Native ancestry. In what many view as an effort to tie up a political loose end and in preparation for a presidential run in 2020, Warren fired back at President Donald Trump’s racist jibes about the senator’s heritage with a new video and DNA test conducted by a recipient of the McaArthur "genius" grant.
Warren stated that she is not a member of any tribe, but her efforts to connect DNA and Native American heritage could nevertheless have unintended consequences. It is a common joke among Native people that the phrase “I’m 1/16th Cherokee” (or in Warren’s case, 1/64th to 1/1024th Cherokee — the DNA test can only offer up a possible range) is a “white proverb.” While the framing of Native identity that has emerged in discussions of Warren’s background is incredibly common, it is also highly destructive to Native people.
In the United States, Native identity is usually discussed in monolithic and racial terms. We are characterized as a generalized population with stereotypical characteristics — the scant survivors of a once great people. This depiction ignores the political realities of tribes as present-day sovereign nations that exercise jurisdiction over hundreds of millions of acres of land in the United States and vast economic resources. It flattens the cultures and lived realities of hundreds of nations and millions of people into a false construct. It also invites new iterations of past atrocities.
Part of this confusion stems from the concept of “blood quantum” — the controversial measurement system used by the federal government to determine "Indian blood" levels. U.S. officials began widely using the blood quantum standard in official federal documents beginning in the mid-20th century. To this day, the federal government issues “Certificates of Indian Blood” to Native Americans. Although controversial in Native American communities, some tribes still use this racialized concept of identity — but not all tribes. The Cherokee Nation does not. As long as you can trace ancestry to a documented tribal member, you can apply for citizenship. Even in tribes where blood quantum is still used, like the Navajo Nation, it can be more accurately equated with the practice of jus sanguinis (right of blood) used by many countries around the world, including India and Ireland, where citizenship is determined by having parents or grandparents who are citizens.
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In the United States, Native identity is usually discussed in monolithic and racial terms. We are characterized as a generalized population with stereotypical characteristics — the scant survivors of a once great people.
On October 4, a federal judge in Texas ruled that the American Indian Child Welfare Act was unconstitutional on the grounds it violated the Constitution's equal protection clauses and gave Native people preferential treatment on the basis of race. The act, passed in the 1970s, was designed to protect Native children who, according to advocates, were being taken away from their parents and placed in mostly white homes. The judge in the case said the act was unconstitutional because it was a “race-based” statute, something both tribes and the federal government have disputed.
This legal rationale has been developed and fostered for decades by right-wing think tanks like the Goldwater Institute and funded by the Koch brothers. If the case finds its way through the appeal process to the now very conservative U.S. Supreme Court, it will undoubtedly set a negative precedent for the legal status of federally recognized tribes by casting the very legal definition of “Indian” as racial and, thus, potentially unconstitutional. The term “Indian” is used extensively in treaties, laws and agreements between Indigenous nations and the federal government. Future court rulings working with a new definition of tribes as race-based could invalidate these documents and put the political future and sovereignty of tribes in doubt.
In 1953, Congress passed House Concurrent Resolution 108 which urged the government to begin the process of terminating tribes as political states. In 1956, the Indian Relocation Act was passed to relocate young Native people from their homelands to urban “relocation centers,” including Cleveland and Los Angeles, with the goal of assimilating Native people into the larger American population. For decades, the greater political goal has been to depopulate reservations, eliminate tribes and take full control of their resources.
Making Native identity assumable, like a costume that can be worn on Halloween, erases the specific horrors Indigenous nations experience while also making future human rights violations possible. Treaties with Native nations, which have often been swept aside in the United States, can be factored out of the narrative if Native people are treated as a racial group with an oversimplified history of having been abused and mistreated “once upon a time.”
Meanwhile, outside of the fantasy of an appropriated identity, Native nations face real political peril at the hands of the Trump administration. “If tribes would have a choice of leaving Indian trust lands and becoming a corporation, tribes would take it," Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said, without evidence, at the 2017 National Tribal Energy Summit shortly after taking over the department.
Donald Trump’s personal resentment of Native people is also well documented. In 1993, while testifying in Congress before the Native American Affairs Committee, Trump said of Native casino operators, “they don't look like Indians to me, and they don't look like Indians to Indians.” As president, Trump has doggedly pursued the rollback of environmental protections, the expansion of pipelines and drilling and the opening of protected lands for commercial purposes — efforts that have put him in direct conflict Native people, who have traditionally played key roles on each of these political fronts, through activism, advocacy and governance.
As the country moves backward on climate matters, Native peoples are living on the front lines of climate catastrophe. In the Pacific Northwest, the Quinault are already being forced from some of their ancestral homes by floods and the heightened threat of tsunamis. In North Dakota, Natives are experiencing mass voter disenfranchisement after the Supreme Court upheld a voter ID law that requires voters to have IDs with valid street address, even though many homes in Indian Country have no official street addresses. With the expiration of the Violence Against Women Act, tribal governments are poised to lose funding to prosecute non-Native men who abuse Native women on reservations.
So what does this all have to do with Warren’s DNA test?
Most Americans are unacquainted with the true legal nature of Native identity; Warren's DNA test will doubtless muddy the waters considerably, dealing Native nations a real political blow. Although her primary intention was to push back against Trump’s goading and name calling, Warren has provided an unwitting assist to the conservative Goldwater Institute and other Republican initiatives that are attempting to take away tribal sovereignty.
As Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. stated Monday night, tribes determine citizenship in several different ways. As a political representative of another government, “It’s wholly unhelpful for any national leader to cling to DNA to determine or to establish that they are Native American.”