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Is Elizabeth Warren Native American?

What the DNA controversy reveals about race, identity politics, and the Native American present

It’s Monday morning. I open up my Twitter feed and see the video Elizabeth Warren made to answer charges made by Donald Trump, taken up by Trump enthusiasts everywhere, that she has pretended to be a Native American.

I thought: this video is pretty good. If you haven’t seen it, you should watch it before you read the rest of this column.

However, by afternoon, a full-fledged controversy over Warren’s claims about her family history had emerged once more. Perhaps she intended it to, a way of inoculating herself from a persistent distraction prior to what everyone believes will be a 2020 presidential candidacy. Or maybe, as Masha Gessen wrote at The New Yorker, Warren has only “allowed herself to be dragged into a conversation based on an outdated, harmful concept of racial blood — one that promotes the pernicious idea of biological differences among people — and she has pulled her supporters right along with her.”

I happen to be one of those supporters, but that is irrelevant. What is not irrelevant is that by making the video, Warren has taken on several difficult subjects other than Donald Trump’s personality disorder. One is American hostility towards affirmative action, something that can take the form of lawsuits (Harvard is fighting one now) or, more routinely, casual slurs against people of color that imply they have used race to “get ahead.” In fact, one argument that conservatives make about affirmative action is that it not only excludes “better qualified” candidates, but that it also harms gifted people of color by making their achievements appear to be unearned. This is why, they insist, talking about race at all is racist.

In other words, while it is not always explicit, everyone knows that the implication of the “Pocahontas” slur is that Warren’s path from poverty to Harvard Law School and the Senate was enabled by federal policies that enrich people of color at the expense of better qualified white people. Remember this 1990 Jesse Helms ad?

Like other catch phrases — “Lock her up,” for example — the “Pocahontas” slur expresses a whole scaffolding of lies that support the world of hatred and contempt that Donald Trump rode into office nearly two years ago, one that the Republican party has been supporting for decades.

It is no surprise that Warren’s belief that she had an indigenous ancestor, which emerged as a point of attack in her 2012 Senate campaign, has become grist for the Trumpian mill, particularly given Warren’s genuine gift for enraging the man. You can read the full story about how Warren’s claims emerged, and why, here.

But before I plunge into some of the issues this raises, I would like to emphasize two things. One is that Warren says explicitly in the video that although she believes her story to be true, she is not tribally enrolled, and therefore not Native American.

Let’s repeat that: Warren says explicitly in the video that although she believes her story to be true, she is not tribally enrolled, and therefore not Native American.

Second, although Harvard University may indeed have reported her to the federal government as a Native American faculty member, I believe her when she says she didn’t know they had done that. Why? Because on a university committee I was on a decade or so ago, a different job than the one I have now, I had access to a federal EEOC report and there were all kinds of people listed as faculty of color who did not consider themselves to be. One was a faculty member who appeared to be of African descent, but preferred to be identified as Jewish and had told the university that; three others were white people working in various ethnic studies fields who were shocked to learn that they were “of color.” Universities do this to cover up the fact that they do such a piss-poor job in hiring and retaining faculty who are actual people of color.

What we should be outraged about, in my view, is not Warren but Trump, who has taken to referring to the “good” Pocahontas (the actual person) and the “bad” Pocahontas (Warren). Both usages drip with contempt and hatred. Indian hating has a long history, one that is deeply embedded in American cultural life, and that has a weird corollary, which scholar Phil Deloria (1998) was perhaps the first to designate as “playing Indian.” As historian Honor Sachs noted yesterday in The Washington Post, Trump’s name calling obscures the fact that the American myth of Pocahontas — that she welcomed and abetted the colonization of North America by whites — “divorced an indigenous subject from her history,” and in doing so, reinforces the white supremacist myth that Native Americans bowed to the inevitability of their own conquest.

But where Warren appears to have gotten the most serious pushback from the left is on the topic of race itself. Her decision to take and publicize the results of a DNA test that seems to substantiate the claim that she has a Native American ancestor (that DNA testing can actually do this has been disputed) has been roundly criticized. Spokespeople for the Cherokee Nation, which Warren is said to have applied to and been rejected from, argue that it equates Native American “identity” with DNA rather than participation in a distinctive culture and history. Non-Native American critics also point out that, when it comes to race, scientism has been a key element in the white supremacist toolbox.

And there is a politics to contemporary racialism that is not just about personal identity and college admissions. According to Laura Briggs, professor and chair of women, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and an expert on international adoption, Warren’s reveal has particular implications for the dismantling of tribal governance, something that has been on the conservative agenda for some time and has become ever more urgent since the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline protests. You thought conservatives wanted to get rid of race? Well they do, except when it is useful to them. By redefining Native Americans as racial in the recent decision in Texas v. Zinke, the Indian Child Welfare Act was declared unconstitutional, setting up a Supreme Court challenge that would potentially allow a return to the removal of Native children from their communities as candidates for adoption by whites. You can read the argument for that strategy at The Goldwater Institute’s website, the Arizona conservative think tank where the strategy was devised and promoted.

“So, the big national issue in Native politics rights now may not even be the North Dakota voter disfranchisement — as awful as that is — but the Zinke case last week,” Briggs explains, “because its goal is precisely to undermine land, water, and treaty rights by reducing Indian-ness to a racial/biological category.” Re-introducing biological race into law then means that “there is no sovereign entity that holds these rights, the land, and basically all of Indian law is null and void.”

In Briggs’ view, Warren’s use of a DNA test as evidence that she is not a liar “is the most politically toxic possible way” to make that claim because “playing Indian has real consequences in taking people’s stuff. It’s not a distraction: the rights of 5 million people depend on the outcome, and Warren just massively put her foot in it.”

It is also worth noting that the Cherokee Nation, which is the entity that Warren’s putative ancestor might have been affiliated, has some of the strongest boundaries of any indigenous nation within the United State, and has indeed used genetics to enforce those boundaries Originally from the Southeastern territories of North America, in 1839, the Cherokee — who had developed a written language, laws and a constitution at the urging of Thomas Jefferson — were forced to vacate their ancestral land and travel by foot to Oklahoma Territory, a forced migration known as The Trail of Tears. Wealthier Cherokee took with them the enslaved Africans that they owned, people whose descendants became tribal members known as Freedmen.

In 2011, the Freedmen were expelled as insufficiently Cherokee, although black Cherokee who could prove that they had an ancestor on the Dawes Rolls, a census of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes done in 1893. So, while the Cherokee do not have a “blood quantum” rule like many indigenous nations, they do rely on a standard that was created, itself, by the colonizers, and that eliminates anyone from tribal membership whose family was no longer present on the reservation, or perhaps never arrived there in the first place.

Does Elizabeth Warren have a Native American past? Perhaps, perhaps not. But what she has done is to draw attention to how fraught America’s racial present really is.

Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter

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