Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, ridiculed by U.S. President Donald Trump as “Pocahontas” for claiming Native American heritage, hit back on Monday with DNA evidence she said supported her assertion, a possible preview of a bare-knuckles presidential campaign in 2020.
The Massachusetts lawmaker, known as a liberal firebrand in her party, said last month she would take a “hard look” at running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Trump in 2020. She and Trump clashed frequently through the 2016 presidential campaign and Trump has cast aspersions on her claim to Native American ancestry.
“When I decided to run for Senate in 2012, I never thought that my family’s Native American heritage would come under attack and my dead parents would be called liars,” she said in a statement on Monday.
“And I never expected the president of the United States to use my family’s story as a racist political joke,” she said.
Why So Many Native Americans Are Upset That Elizabeth Warren Tried Proving Her Ancestry With DNA
The primary complaint about Warren’s place in this affair has to do with her use of a DNA test to seek out evidence of a tribal ancestor. According to several activists and experts that Slate spoke to Monday, the use of a genetics test—setting aside the unreliability of those tests—indicated that Warren was buying into and promoting the notion that it is blood that determines who is and is not American Indian.
“There’s this really critical distinction between DNA and ancestry on one hand and identity and belonging on the other,” said Deborah Bolnick, an anthropologic geneticist at the University of Connecticut. “These are things based on social connections. Especially in the context of tribal nations—these are sovereign nations with political, legal, and political contexts to them.
It’s not genetically determined.”
Bolnick said she understood Warren’s desire to respond to Trump’s attacks, but she thought Warren’s search for genetic proof to back up her claims was misguided. “I do have concerns that I don’t think we should be looking to genetics to adjudicate these debates,” she said. “It’s suggesting that science, that genetic technologies have answer to questions about identity and belonging.”
Krystal Tsosie, an Indigenous geneticist-ethicist at Vanderbilt, said that on a practical level, tribal enrollment matters when it comes to arrangements with the United States government about the tribes’ rights and resources established in treaties. “Access to water, air quality, healthcare is tied with an individual’s ability to establish ascendancy to an individual Nation,” she said. “External factors that question biologically how we as indigenous individuals call ourselves would be dangerous.”
Rebecca Nagle, a writer and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, said that Warren’s decision to publicly tout a DNA test as evidence of Cherokee heritage had her “terrified” about the ways it could affect the public’s understanding of tribal sovereignty.
Nagle said she was concerned that if the public came to define native citizenship as one of blood and race, Americans with no legitimate link to a tribe could use the unreliable results of a DNA test to claim benefits and rights that tribes earned after being pushed from their land. To support her argument, she cited the story of a man in Washington who heard family lore of having Native American ancestry, took a DNA test, found he was 6 percent indigenous (and also 4 percent black), applied for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program on the basis of the test results, and sued the federal government. This kind of behavior, based on DNA, put programs and rights for indigenous people at risk, she argued.