Social media isn’t a great place for nuanced conversations about ancestry, tradition and DNA, but it’s the one we’ve chosen for the latest dustup of the longstanding controversy around Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claim of Native American heritage, a messy situation in which politics and partisanship get mixed up with race and marginalized communities.
It’s a far more complicated conversation than many are willing to admit, so let’s start from the top. Warren, seen as a serious contender the DNC’s 2020 White House ticket, has long claimed that her mother was part Cherokee, and described herself as a minority on law professors’ listings for several years, stopping in 1995. She never specified exactly how much Native American heritage she had, but in 1996, Harvard Law referred to her as its first “woman of color,” a claim Warren disavowed any knowledge of.
President Donald Trump has made Warren’s claims the cornerstone of his attacks on her, mocking her with his infamous racist invective as “Pocahantas.” In a rally last year, Trump said that he’d give a million dollars to a charity of Warren’s choice if a DNA test proved she had Native American ancestry.
That looked to be pretty much the end of things until Monday morning, when Warren announced that she’d taken a DNA test with the help of Stanford University and the results had “strongly” suggested she had Native American heritage, with a full Native American six to 10 generations back.
Where things get complicated is with tribal identification. The Cherokee Nation is arguing that a positive DNA test alone doesn’t warrant identification as a Cherokee. It’s a question of having a documented Cherokee ancestor.
In her tweets about the DNA test, Warren does make a distinction between having a Native American ancestor and being affiliated with the Cherokee Nation. A report from the Globe also made the case that her past claims to Native American heritage were not a factor in her political rise.
I won’t sit quietly for @realDonaldTrump‘s racism, so I took a test. But DNA & family history has nothing to do with tribal affiliation or citizenship, which is determined only – only – by Tribal Nations. I respect the distinction, & don’t list myself as Native in the Senate.
— Elizabeth Warren (@elizabethforma) October 15, 2018
“Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong,” said a statement from Cherokee Nation secretary of state Chuck Hoskin Jr. “Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”
The pushback left Warren wide open to a counterattack from Trump, who took to Twitter with his retorts.
Pocahontas (the bad version), sometimes referred to as Elizabeth Warren, is getting slammed. She took a bogus DNA test and it showed that she may be 1/1024, far less than the average American. Now Cherokee Nation denies her, “DNA test is useless.” Even they don’t want her. Phony!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2018
That makes it sound like the promised million dollar donation isn’t really in the cards (although the stipulations of the bet didn’t exactly clarify whether or not the DNA test needed to recognized by the Cherokee Nation.) Warren had told Trump to send the check to The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, an organization that raises awareness and advocates for Native American women affected by domestic violence. That organization defended Warren in a statement.
“We appreciate Senator Warren’s push to bring awareness to violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women and families, who all too often are invisible to most Americans,” the center said in a statement. “As marginalized communities, we often struggle to bring tribal interests to the center of the debate.”
The whole sad affair has highlighted the limitations and blindspots people on all sides of the political divide still have when it comes to talking about marginalized communities. Native American people are among the most oppressed in the United States, and while Trump’s remarks about Warren’s Native American heritage have been rightfully criticized for racial insensitivity, it seems Warren’s actions merit criticism too. It seems like in this instance, a few different inconvenient things are true at once.