It’s tough to see how Elizabeth Warren could have made this any worse for herself. First the Cherokee Nation rebuked Warren for attempting to validate her claims to Native American ancestry through a questionable DNA test, undermining tribal sovereignty. Now, actual Pocohantas descendent Debbie White Dove Porreco demands an apology from the senator from Massachusetts.
What’s next — having Christopher Plummer replace her recipes in a re-release of “Pow Wow Chow“? The mind boggles:
“It did prove that she wasn’t the Cherokee Indian that she was claiming to be for so long,” Porreco said on the program Tuesday. “I think she’s guilty of claiming she’s an American Indian but has no proof — and then [is] using it for applications for college and for political reasons.”
“She needs to… apologize to everybody for what she has done,” Porreco said.
A growing number of Native Americans think Warren needs to apologize for the same reason Cherokee Nation secretary of state Chuck Hoskin Jr stated. Using DNA as “proof” of ancestry is not only bad science, Navajo geneticist Krytal Tsosie writes at The Atlantic, it’s an affront to the traditional tribal definitions of lineage that undergird their nation status. Plus, if the issue is Warren’s identity, then we don’t need the DNA test to determine that anyway:
In relation to the larger issue here, Native American U.S. tribes have the sovereign right to establish their own enrollment rules, and to my knowledge they all consider DNA evidence to be insufficient. Indeed, the Cherokee Nation has already denounced the use of DNA tests to claim ancestry as “inappropriate and wrong.”
Who we are—the languages we speak, the traditions we practice, our broader cultures—inform our identities far more than DNA. Culture is not the same as a few genetic biomarkers, especially when those markers have statistical commonality to Indigenous people with vastly different histories than Native Americans of the U.S. …
But whatever Warren intended, the conversation about her test results predictably degenerated into a back-and-forth about whether she is or is not Native American—and the answer to that is clear. She is not. Even if she could show a direct lineage through tribal census rolls and genealogical records, Warren has not experienced the traditional and cultural ways of Native American life.
To ascribe any power to a DNA test result disempowers those Native Americans who do live according to their traditions. Native American identity is not one of biology, but of culture. And, crucially, “Native American” is a political designation that confers rights. If that designation becomes tied to a DNA test, it could threaten those rights.
Native American tribes have real and pressing reasons to safeguard their identities and maintain their own tribal lineage. It’s not just identity politics for these communities, but cultural survival and legal status. One can question whether the treaties that make it such should be rethought or not, but that is the reality for these nations today, as it has been for well over a century.
For the rest of us, though, this is just another depressing example of the dead end of what amounts to modern ancestor worship. In one ad for a popular DNA testing service, a young woman looks at 16% of her lineage and says, “Now I know where my strength comes from.” Not from within her own will? Not from her parents, other than as a depositor of genetic material? Not from the other 84% of her lineage, for that matter? We approach DNA testing as though it was not just dispositive about how we define ourselves, but exclusively dispositive — and selectively so as well.
In Warren’s case, that’s especially true. Warren now argues that genetic material that indicated at best that 1.6% of her lineage came from that community, giving her an identity that eclipsed the other 98.4%. It’s Warren’s way of rationalizing her claiming of career and economic benefits from it that were intended to redress discrimination actually suffered by people with legitimate claim to that identity.
It was grossly dishonest even if she believed her PawPaw’s stories at the time. It’s even more egregiously dishonest to spin this result as vindication. Warren owes everyone an apology — and so do some media outlets that spun it as vindication for Warren as well.