Sen. War­ren’s DNA test an­gered many Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Insight - New York Times

If Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren thought that re­leas­ing her DNA test re­sults show­ing Na­tive Amer­i­can an­ces­try would neu­tral­ize a Repub­li­can line of at­tack, she was wrong.

The test – part of her strate­gic prepa­ra­tions for a likely pres­i­den­tial cam­paign – did not pla­cate Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who has mocked War­ren as “Poc­a­hon­tas” and once promised $1 mil­lion to a char­ity of her choice if a DNA test sub­stan­ti­ated her claims of Chero­kee and Delaware her­itage. And her an­nounce­ment of the re­sults an­gered many Na­tive Amer­i­cans, in­clud­ing the Chero­kee Na­tion, the largest of the coun­try’s three fed­er­ally rec­og­nized Chero­kee tribes.

DNA test­ing can­not show that the Mas­sachusetts Demo­crat is Chero­kee or any other tribe, the sec­re­tary of state of the Chero­kee Na­tion, Chuck Hoskin Jr., said in a state­ment. Tribes set their own ci­ti­zen­ship re­quire­ments, not to men­tion that DNA tests don’t dis­tin­guish among the nu­mer­ous in­dige­nous groups of North and South Amer­ica. The test War­ren took did not iden­tify Chero­kee an­ces­try specif­i­cally; it found that she most likely had at least one Na­tive Amer­i­can an­ces­tor six to 10 gen­er­a­tions ago.

War­ren de­fended her­self by say­ing she was not claim­ing to be el­i­gi­ble for mem­ber­ship in the Chero­kee Na­tion – and she isn’t, given that her an­ces­tors do not ap­pear on the Dawes Rolls, early-20th­cen­tury gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments that form the ba­sis of the Chero­kee ci­ti­zen­ship process. She said she was sim­ply cor­rob­o­rat­ing the fam­ily sto­ries of Na­tive Amer­i­can lin­eage that she has of­ten re­counted.

But that dis­tinc­tion ac­tu­ally cuts to the heart of why Na­tive Amer­i­cans are so up­set with her. Fun­da­men­tally, their anger is about what it means to be Na­tive Amer­i­can – and who gets to de­cide.

“The Amer­i­can pub­lic doesn’t un­der­stand the dif­fer­ence” be­tween an­ces­try and tribal mem­ber­ship, said Kim Tal­lBear, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Al­berta who wrote a book ti­tled “Na­tive Amer­i­can DNA: Tribal Be­long­ing and the False Prom­ise of Ge­netic Sci­ence.”

While many peo­ple see “Na­tive Amer­i­can” as sim­ply a racial cat­e­gory, she said, “we have addi- tional ideas about how to iden­tify when one is Na­tive Amer­i­can that aren’t re­ally con­sis­tent with the way most Amer­i­cans think. Our def­i­ni­tions mat­ter to us.”

And so when some­one

like War­ren em­pha­sizes un­doc­u­mented lin­eage over tribal ci­ti­zen­ship cri­te­ria, said Tal­lBear, who is a mem­ber of the Sis­se­ton-Wah­peton Oy­ate tribe in South Dakota, “what they’re telling us is they are priv­i­leg­ing non­indige­nous def­i­ni­tions of be­ing in­dige­nous.”

Mem­ber­ship in a Na­tive Amer­i­can tribe is “very pre­cious to us,” Hoskin, the Chero­kee Na­tion sec­re­tary of state, said in a phone in­ter­view. “It’s not just a card that we hold. It’s some­thing that we con­sider a dear pos­ses­sion, and so we don’t take it lightly.”

This per­spec­tive is grounded in a long his­tory of per­se­cu­tion, dis­place­ment and mas­sacre. Over many decades of U.S. his­tory, the gov­ern­ment took the land of Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes, in­clud­ing the Chero­kee, and pushed them steadily west. Pres­i­dent An­drew Jack­son forced the Chero­kee into their cur­rent ter­ri­tory in Ok­la­homa in the Trail of Tears dur­ing 1838 and 1839. Ad­min­is­tra­tion af­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion signed treaties with tribes and then vi­o­lated them. It was not un­til the 1930s that tribes gained the sovereignty they now have on their reser­va­tions.

“Those of us who are Chero­kee cit­i­zens, we know our an­ces­tors in some cases per­ished along the Trail of Tears,” Hoskin said.

“Most rea­son­able peo­ple can un­der­stand,” in that con­text, why claims to Na­tive Amer­i­can her­itage based on a DNA test are fraught, he added.

Nei­ther War­ren nor any­one on her staff con­tacted the Chero­kee Na­tion be­fore pub­li­ciz­ing the DNA re­sults, Hoskin said. A spokes­woman for War­ren’s re-elec­tion cam­paign, Kristen Orth­man, de­clined to com­ment on this point.

War­ren’s an­nounce­ment was clearly in­tended to put to rest one of Trump’s fa­vorite lines of at­tack. (Hoskin crit­i­cized Trump, too, for his re­peat-


ed use of “Poc­a­hon­tas” as a slur.) In­stead, the DNA test brought a bar­rage of neg­a­tive head­lines and opin­ion pieces, in lib­er­al­lean­ing publi­ca­tions like Huf­fPost as well as con­ser­va­tive-lean­ing ones like The New York Post.

Asked about the crit­i­cism, the sen­a­tor’s cam­paign spokes­woman, Orth­man, sent links to a tweet by War­ren and to a state­ment posted on Face­book by the East­ern Band Chero­kee, a sep­a­rate tribe from the Chero­kee Na­tion.

“DNA & fam­ily his­tory has noth­ing to do with tribal af­fil­i­a­tion or ci­ti­zen­ship, which is de­ter­mined only – only – by Tribal Na­tions,” War­ren wrote on Twit­ter.

The East­ern Band Chero­kee’s state­ment was sup­port­ive of War­ren, say­ing that she “has not used her fam­ily story or ev­i­dence of Na­tive an­ces­try to gain em­ploy­ment or other ad­van­tage” and that she “demon­strates re­spect for tribal sovereignty by ac­knowl­edg­ing that tribes de­ter­mine ci­ti­zen­ship and re­spect­ing the dif­fer­ence be­tween ci­ti­zen­ship and an­ces­try.” It also listed Na­tive-friendly bills she had sup­ported in the Sen- ate.

“Some peo­ple who have fam­ily sto­ries or ev­i­dence of Na­tive an­ces­try have sought to ap­pro­pri­ate Chero­kee cul­ture, claim a pref­er­ence in hir­ing, claim that their art is ‘In­dian art,’ or ad­vance their ca­reers based on a fam­ily story or ev­i­dence of Na­tive an­ces­try,” Prin­ci­pal Chief Richard G. Sneed added in the state­ment, which ar­gued that War­ren had not done any of those things. “We strongly con­demn such ac­tions as harm­ful to our tribal gov­ern­ment and Chero­kee peo­ple.”

By Wed­nes­day, the post had been deleted from the Face­book page of the tribe’s news­pa­per, but Ash­leigh Stephens, a spokes­woman for Sneed, said he stood by it.


Sen. El­iz­a­bethWar­ren, D-Mass., ges­tures while speak­ing Aug. 21 at the Na­tional Press Club in­Wash­ing­ton. War­ren struck back at Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump over his con­stant ridicule of her claim of Na­tive Amer­i­can an­ces­try with a DNA test, but many Na­tive Amer­i­cans were an­gered by her ac­tions.

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