Sen. Warren’s DNA Battle Masks the Black Americans Struggling to Claim Their Native American Identity
The Cherokee Nation strongly repudiated Warren’s claim that her DNA test proved her Native American ancestry. However, the tribe’s poor treatment of its Freedmen — the descendants of the chattel slaves owned by members of the tribe — shows that tribal affiliations are more complex than as presented by either Warren or the Cherokee Nation.
On Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) released the results of a DNA test she believed would prove her Native American ancestry and lay to rest the criticism she has received for claiming to be part Cherokee on her mother’s side. The report Warren shared was prepared by Stanford University’s Professor Carlos D. Bustamante and concluded the results “strongly support” Warren having a Native American ancestor six to ten generations ago. What was meant to be a victorious day for Warren quickly turned sour after Native Americans strongly repudiated her actions, and I’m still trying to process what a colossal misstep it has turned out to be for the Democratic Senator.
The issue of Warren’s self-identification as Native American came up during her 2012 Senate campaign against Republican, Scott Walker, who used it against her viciously, claiming it was a fraudulent attempt to take advantage of affirmative action in university hiring. Donald Trump picked up the mantle when he entered the political arena. With her DNA results, Warren believed she’d gotten the better of Trump, who has been baiting Warren and pejoratively calling her “Pocahontas” since he entered the national political stage. Trump told a crowd at one of his rallies that he would donate $1 million to Warren’s favorite charity if Warren could prove her ancestry. Warren believed she held a winning card with her DNA results, and she played it confidently. She and her supporters took to social media gleefully demanding Trump pay up. The aggressive publicizing of the DNA results and the challenge to Trump were obviously meant to launch the start of Warren’s bid to run for President in 2020.
Warren shared a slickly-produced video that introduced her family members (some of whom we were told quite pointedly were registered Republicans) as well as some of her colleagues from her teaching days. In the video, Warren set out not only to prove her Native American ancestry but to show that it was never a factor in her hiring. Warren’s name trended on social media, and it all seemed to be going to plan, until the voices of Native Americans began to cut through the noise. The Cherokee Nation released a scathing statement thoroughly rejecting the use of DNA tests to determine Native American heritage. This wasn’t the first time Warren has clashed with members of the Cherokee Nation, many of whom were vocal about finding her claims about her heritage suspect during her 2012 Senate campaign.
The thing I don’t get about Warren’s decision is what she’d hoped to accomplish. She walked right into the bear trap Donald Trump had set for her even though she’d been through this gauntlet before during her Senate campaign, when she saw how poorly her dubious claims of Native American heritage went over with actual Native Americans. She had a dry-run on this. I suppose she thought having a DNA test would tip the scales in her favor with Republican voters who bought Donald Trump’s take on the matter. People cheering on racist pejoratives aren’t going to be convinced by anything as pesky as facts, though. Not to mention, Warren’s plan fell on its face when the Cherokee Nation (quite predictably) went for the leg sweep. So, Warren hasn’t won over anyone she’d been hoping to convince and has alienated people who were inclined to be on her side.
Those Republican voters Warren is already trying to pry loose are the flames to the Democrats’ moths. They will hurl their natural base into the path of a speeding train for just the hope of maybe turning a Republican voter’s head. Warren was already triangulating, and she hasn’t even announced she’s running. Warren isn’t backing down from her decision to release her DNA test, arguing it was necessary for her to rebut Trump’s accusations.
The reasons I’ve been unable to get Warren’s faceplant out of my mind are partly personal and partly professional. I’ll begin with the personal.
My freshman year of college, I lived across the hall from a very cool Native American girl from Northern California. In hindsight, I can see how predominantly White institutions must be particularly lonely for Native Americans, and how difficult it is to form a community when they are so few of them. My friend excitedly volunteered to host a prospective student who was Native American, and all these years later, I still haven’t forgotten that horrible girl. She was White and lived as White with no ties to the tribe she was claiming. Her distant Native American ancestry was something shiny to show the admissions officers. There was something deeply rankling about the situation, especially because at its center was a particular sort of smug, entitled White person who was rude on top of being an appropriating pretender. She was disrespectful, and she hurt my friend. If she’d just been a horrible, unpleasant high school senior, we all may have just shrugged it off, but matters cut deeper. We all understood but didn’t have the vocabulary to express that we had just witnessed an extension of the ongoing theft being perpetrated against Native Americans. That girl had been performing a vulgar form of redface and was using an actual, living Native American as a prop.
I was new to America and coming from Jamaica, a majority Black country, a small country. Much of America’s fraught history was obscure to me. The dirty fingerprints of colonialism still mar Jamaica — it is an incredibly colorist and classist society, and proximity to Whiteness is highly valued. Nevertheless, racial divisions aren’t as sharp as they are in America, and Whiteness is more elastic. In addition, the genocide of the Indigenous people of Jamaica by its European colonizers was complete. They are distant memories, recorded in our history books and incorporated into our coat of arms. The messy politics of indigeneity on colonized land were buried with them.
In spite of all these blind spots, I had the instinct to want to fight that girl for the right reasons. Perhaps it stemmed from having been taught history using materials whose authors were trying valiantly, if not always successfully, to supplant the European perspective with our own. I was probably in the 3rd or 4th grade when one of my classmates said derisively (probably emulating a parent), “How can you discover someplace with people already living there?” in response to the “Columbus discovered the Americas” telling of history. The cruelty of the genocide of Jamaica’s Native population wasn’t downplayed, and I remember reading as a child about how the Spaniards would ride them under their horses, impale them on their swords, and chop off their heads. The Arawaks (also called Tainos) began to hurl their babies off cliffs to spare them the cruelty. (In hindsight, this imagery may have been too strong for a ten year-old.) I felt but didn’t quite understand that something linked to this dehumanization undergirded the way my friend was being treated.
Senator Warren’s situation brought back some of these old feelings quite vividly. As I shared on Twitter, her story looked to me like White people exoticizing themselves without having to take on any of the costs of being Native American and not forfeiting any of the benefits of Whiteness.
What does it mean to be Native American? Who gets to decide? What evidence is required, and why?
Senator Warren’s misstep also piqued my interest professionally. I write a lot about the intersection of race, politics, and culture in America. It comes from the perspective of an outsider, but it is also informed by having lived as Black in the country, and having had to confront its “race problem” head on and navigate that minefield. Many of these buried explosives have been triggered by the current political climate and are detonating. I’ve written that I believe the United States is collapsing, and that the main culprit is the manner in which White supremacy undergirds the myth of American Exceptionalism. The truth isn’t told. Lore replaces it.
I’m sure Senator Warren and her family believe the oral history that was passed down through their family, as do many descendants of America’s colonizing settlers. That doesn’t make it true, though. Matters are particularly brambly in this case, because Warren didn’t simply claim to have Native American ancestors; she has held herself out as being Cherokee. In 1984, Warren’s cousin edited a cookbook called Pow Wow Chow, to which Warren contributed five recipes. Underneath each entry attributed to her, she was identified as “Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee.” Warren was also accused of plagiarizing the recipes. Around the same time, Warren began to self-identify as Native American in employment documentation, claiming she wished to meet others in her field with Native American roots. The result: Harvard Law School was able to use her as a shield when the institution was criticized for its poor record of hiring women and minority professors.
What does it mean to be Native American? Who gets to decide? What evidence is required, and why?
With this latest gambit, Warren has continued to frame these questions as individual and made them about the personal experiences of her and her family members. Warren is also a United States senator, though, and before entering politics, she was widely considered one of the pre-eminent law professors in the country. In addition, her tangle with members of the Cherokee Nation during her Senate campaign provided her with a cheat sheet. Warren is particularly well-equipped to understand that these questions go to Native American sovereignty, not what an individual believes themselves to be. It’s why the Cherokee Nation pulled no punches in its statement.
Warren’s attempt to outmaneuver Trump has been taken as an attack on Native American sovereignty, and her choosing to rely on a DNA test to prove her ancestry is a major part of the issue. That isn’t how tribal identity is determined. The Cherokee Nation was unbending on this point and wrote in its statement regarding Warren’s DNA results:
“A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship. Current DNA tests do not even distinguish whether a person’s ancestors were indigenous to North or South America. Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation. Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”
So, how is tribal membership determined? It varies too much from tribe to tribe to give a definitive answer, but for the Cherokee Nation, important genealogical records called the Dawes Rolls (also known as the “Final Rolls”) play a huge role.
As part of its program of the theft of Native lands and forced assimilation of Native populations, the United States government passed the Dawes Act of 1887. This essay is too short to discuss the historical implications of the Dawes Act outside of the creation of the Dawes Rolls. These documents are the result of an extensive survey taken between 1898 and 1914 of the members of five Native American tribes: the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole, which were referred to as the “Five Civilized Tribes,” because they had adopted many of the ways of living of European colonizers. Having an ancestor listed in the Dawes Rolls is the linchpin of determining membership in any of these tribes.
The Dawes Rolls are incredibly detailed records, and the Final Roll for the Cherokee was created before Warren’s home state of Oklahoma gained statehood in 1907. Warren’s mother, from whom her claim of Cherokee ancestry stems, was born in 1912. Warren does not have any ancestors listed in the Dawes Rolls. When the issue of Warren’s Native American ancestry first became a political football in her 2012 Senate race against Scott Brown, Warren’s campaign press secretary claimed the campaign had been told there was no good genealogical documentation of tribes in Oklahoma. Given the historical importance of the Dawes Rolls and how central they are in determining ancestral connections to the Five Civilized Tribes, the response of Warren’s campaign was unforgivably ignorant (and that’s the kindest interpretation).
In 2012, Warren may have indeed been ignorant about the Dawes Rolls, the intricacies of tribal membership, and the deleterious consequences of self-identifying as Cherokee, but the matter was hashed out quite thoroughly during her Senate campaign. She should be aware of the issues by now. Releasing the results of her DNA test indicates that she believes her personal interests are more important than the issues of Native American sovereignty her claims undermine. The manner in which Warren has simply created a new authority to which people can appeal if they have no Native American ancestors in the Dawes Rolls (or no other compelling genealogical records) is particularly disturbing. That this new authority is faulty to the point of uselessness speaks to how much deference Warren believes she deserves. Her DNA results are not a reliable method of determining Native American ancestry, and employing them as such is an underhanded way of disempowering Native Americans and denying them the right to determine who is one of them. It is a strange reincarnation of the tactics of forced assimilation that created the Dawes Rolls in the first place.
What we watched on Monday was two powerful White people in Elizabeth Warren and Donald Trump battle for dominance using Native American sovereignty as a plaything. Coming on the heels of the Supreme Court effectively disenfranchising large numbers of Native Americans with a recent decision, Warren’s choice to release these DNA results along with a political video that has quite predictably made her the focus of Native American issues isn’t a good look. The Cherokee Nation was rightfully incensed. There is more to this story, though. On the issue of tribal membership, the Cherokee Nation’s hands aren’t as clean as they’ve presented.
The full name of the Dawes Rolls where the Cherokee Nation looks to determine tribal membership is the Final Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory. The word “Freedmen” should tell you where this is going. Members of the Five Civilized Tribes owned plantations in the Deep South and used chattel slaves of African descent to work them. Assimilating well into colonial culture, including switching from traditional methods of agriculture to plantations worked by Black chattel slaves, was what earned these tribes the title “civilized.” When the tribes were forcibly removed to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), they took their slaves with them, and some slaveholders prospered even more than they had in the South. Historians estimate that approximately ten percent of the people on the Cherokee Trail of Tears were Black, the vast majority of whom were chattel slaves.
During the Civil War, the Cherokee jettisoned their promise of neutrality and, citing a common Southern heritage, aligned themselves with the Confederate States in a treaty, which stated in part, “The war now raging is a war of Northern cupidity and fanaticism against the institution of African servitude…” The Cherokee later abrogated the treaty and emancipated their slaves. Few slaveholders obeyed the edict. In 1866, after the end of the Civil War, the Cherokee Nation and the United States signed a treaty that granted the freed Cherokee slaves “all the rights of Native Cherokees.” When the Dawes Rolls were created, the emancipated slaves were listed in the records and called “Freedmen.” The Chickasaw never granted their Freedmen citizenship. The Creek, Choctaw, and Seminole negotiated treaties similar to the Cherokee’s.
Unlike many other Native American tribes, the Cherokee did not use a “blood quantum” (such as requiring a great-grandparent to have Native American blood) to determine tribal membership. An ancestor listed in the Dawes Rolls was required. That changed in 2007, when the Cherokee Nation revoked the citizenship of about 2,800 of its Freedmen and expelled them from the tribe after voting to change its constitution to define citizenship by blood. The loss of their citizenship rights meant the Freedmen no longer had access to health care clinics and other benefits of tribal membership. In addition, the citizenship applications of approximately 3,500 Black Americans weren’t processed.
The Cherokee Freedmen and the U.S. Department of the Interior sued the Cherokee Nation in federal court, and, in 2017, the court relied on the 1866 treaty to affirm the Freedmen’s citizenship rights in the Cherokee Nation.
Elizabeth Warren’s grandstanding on the back of being perhaps as little as 1/1,024 Native American to win a side bet with Donald Trump is embarrassing and deserved the harsh criticism it received. Native Americans should determine membership in their tribes, and DNA tests of dubious merit being waved around by entitled White women should be rejected. Nevertheless, the treatment of the Cherokee Freedmen shows that decisions about tribal identity and citizenship are complicated by matters outside of the proper Native American blood quantum. One of these matters is anti-Black racism. What does a nation owe the descendants of its slaves? This is a question the Five Civilized Tribes and the United States will have to continue to answer.