Elizabeth Warren took the bait on Donald Trump’s racist “Pocahontas” DNA challenge. Her reaction hurt more than she might realize.
Half a century ago, the Standing Rock Dakota scholar Vine Deloria Jr. wrote, “Whites claiming Indian blood tend to reinforce mythical beliefs about Indians.” Throughout her career, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has used that mythical belief — what Deloria mocked as the “Indian-grandmother complex” — to stake a claim to Native American identity, like how her European settler ancestors staked a claim to land once called Indian Territory, or what is currently Oklahoma. For Warren, her claims are like a moving target. At one time, it was “Cherokee.” Now it’s just generic “Native American ancestry.”
President Donald Trump, being a bigot, has consistently taunted Warren — frequently referring to her as “Pocahontas” — about her claims with a million-dollar wager: Take a DNA test to prove she’s “an Indian.” It was an obvious ploy, and Warren took the bait.
Yet her reaction hurt more than she might realize. Reducing Native American identity to “race,” whether through biology or the law, is harmful to Native sovereignty and nationhood, despite Warren’s professed good intentions. Warren, however, didn’t walk into Trump’s trap with her eyes closed. What she didn’t see, however, was how low Trump had set the bar when he said “jump” and she tripped on it, landing face first — on stolen Native land.
Like many Native people, I am jealous of Warren and white people like her. Native plebeians, such as myself, a poor Indian kid born on the wrong side of the tracks in Podunk, South Dakota, lack her pedigree and life story. She might as well have rare Romanov ancestry, a secret but ill-fated royal bloodline, when compared to my proletarian biography.
It was Warren’s self-identified Republican family members — the white guys drinking beer telling family stories in a living room — that bolstered her Native credentials in a recent video defending her “Native American ancestry.” I wish I had such relatives to do the same for me, but, if my relatives were captured drinking like that on camera, they might spend a night in the slammer or get labeled as “drunk Indians.”
There is an irony here. The white guys drinking beer have become the arbiters of Native identity, while those who have survived genocide and the theft of an entire continent have become mere background noise to the spectacle of powerful elites duking it out for control over land that is not rightfully theirs. Such is the history of the United States.
The worst irony, though, is Warren’s appropriation of Native identity while simultaneously fetishizing and instrumentalizing it. To Warren, Native people are little more than a currency, a million-dollar ticket to the White House, a one-up to Trump. That’s how this game has been played so far: Trump asked her to prove that she’s “an Indian” (not that she has “ancestry”) with a DNA test, something that is, by all accounts, impossible. Indianness isn’t defined by DNA. It’s a legal, social, cultural, and historical construct, where Indigenous nations self-define the parameters of belonging. Put simply, it’s not about who you claim, it’s about who claims you. In response to Warren, the Cherokee Nation issued a statement saying that “using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong.”
Falsely claiming Native American identity is a white American tradition, with a deeply racist past.
Falsely claiming Native American identity is a white American tradition, with a deeply racist past. Forrest Carter, also known as Asa Earl Carter — a Ku Klux Klan leader and the former speechwriter for George Wallace (he co-wrote Wallace’s famous 1963 line, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”) — reinvented himself later in life as a “Cherokee” writer of the famous children’s book “The Education of Little Tree.” Famous white Southern Americans like Miley Cyrus, Johnny Cash, and Bill Clinton have also all falsely claimed “Cherokee heritage.”
I’ll admit, I’m not a geneticist. (And I’d refer anyone interested in the political and social aspects of “Native American DNA” to read Kim Tallbear’s excellent book on the subject.) I am, however, a historian and I can tell you that proving “Native American ancestry” by using Native body parts has a long, racist history. Genes are part of the human body, and to use genes to measure a degree or percentage of race to make a scientific claim is called race science, which discredits the legitimate science of DNA testing.
A century ago, Native people were considered a disappearing people. Anthropologists and others flooded Indian reservations intent on preserving the last vestiges of a dying race. With them, they brought calipers to measure Native skulls from the graves they robbed. Sometimes they used captured Indigenous children in boarding schools and prisoners of war for racial experiments, displaying their live specimens at traveling zoological exhibits. The goal was to prove a racial and civilizational superiority by showing just how far white Europeans had evolved from primitive conditions.
Such a people were also seen as too incompetent to manage their own lands and raise their own children. Their land and children were taken from them for their own good. The children were placed into the special care of white families and the land into the hands of white farmers (like Warren’s settler ancestors). Those who could not be killed or assimilated were placed under the supervision of the Department of Interior, which manages wildlife and public lands, where it was hoped that they would just disappear.
In other words, Native people, living or dead, were relegated to a tragic past with no place in the future of a white settler nation. Their identities and lands were simply absorbed and made into sports mascots and names for states and military equipment. Countless Native people were lost to this system, torn from their families and their Indigenous nations. Indigenous nations are still searching to reclaim their lost relatives — but Warren is not one of those people.
While Warren and white people like her are rushing to get DNA tests that prove “Native American ancestry,” there is less enthusiasm among white people about proving “African ancestry.” That’s the unspoken racist undertone of this whole debate, especially since many Black Americans have actual connections to Indigenous nations of this hemisphere. The “one-drop rule” of African ancestry, a racial calculus created to increase the size of slaveowners’ property through biological reproduction, was designed to make one Black and nothing more — not Indigenous and especially not white. (Even the descendants of Cherokee slaves were disallowed tribal citizenship until recently.)
These racial logics simply don’t grant Black and Native people the same visibility or authority over their own identities the same way they do to a powerful white woman who takes a DNA test. That’s called white supremacy.
Warren’s claims and Trump’s attacks have never been about upholding Native sovereignty. It’s pure opportunism. While Trump applauded the Cherokee Nation’s dismissal of Warren’s claims, his self-proclaimed policy of “American carnage” has opened billions of acres for offshore drilling — threatening circumpolar Indigenous nations as ice sheets melt and global temperatures rise — and has opened millions of acres of the Bears Ears National Monument, a once-protected Indigenous sacred site in the Southwest, for coal and uranium mining.
And North Dakota recently passed legislation disenfranchising thousands of Native American voters in the state, in places like Standing Rock that desperately fought the Dakota Access pipeline. Today, Standing Rock and the entire Sioux Nation in the Northern Plains are planning to halt the trespass of the Keystone XL pipeline through our treaty territory, a pipeline that imperils our water, our sovereignty, and therefore our lives.
While Indigenous nations face existential threats, Warren’s conflation of her “Native American ancestry” with Native American identity only continues a history of theft.
There are plenty of other examples. Some are even race-based, along the lines of the pseudoscience through which Warren tried to hitch her wagon to Native Americans. A federal court recently ruled that the Indian Child Welfare Act, a four decade-old law created to keep Native families intact, is “race-based” legislation and therefore “unconstitutional.” Created to protect children who are members of Native nations or whose biological parents are members of Native nations, the law, in fact, was designed to prevent the disintegration of Native nations: the widespread practice of taking Native children and adopting them out to white families or placing them into state foster care systems.
While Indigenous nations face existential threats — from losing their children, land, and water — Warren’s conflation of her “Native American ancestry” with Native American identity only continues a history of theft. The purposeful distortion and misunderstanding of Native sovereignty and identity, whether by Trump or Warren, is a longstanding tradition of American imperialism that has facilitated the taking of resources, whether they’re Native lands or Native bodies. And we still want our stolen relatives and stolen land back, regardless of the settler infighting currently taking place.
Warren has taken some concrete steps in an effort to help Native Americans, but her recent entry into the waters of Native identity stands to outweigh any efforts she has made for Natives. I’m not holding my breath for her to do the right thing — such as making a formal apology. Like Vine Deloria, the Standing Rock Dakota writer whose people are currently under threat, I don’t resent white people like Warren. I just hope she can accept herself and just leave us alone.
While Warren has become the punchline of a lot of jokes in Indian Country — “I’m Cherokee on my white side,” and so on — boiling Native American identity and race down to biology, and, more specifically, genomics, is racist. It needs to stop.