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It is surprising that Elizabeth Warren, a former law professor, would stumble into the crossfire of tribal enrollment and racial identity politics. She announced that she took a DNA test, to profile her likely ancestry. Yet, Senator Warren should have known what the Cherokee Nation, with which she claimed some ancestry, would say.
Senator Warren had been ridiculed for weak claims of Cherokee heritage, and falsely claimed Native American status in seeking employment as a law professor.
“No, as I said, these are my family stories. I have lived in a family that has talked about Native Americans, talked about tribes since I had been a little girl,” she said. “I still have a picture on my mantel and it is a picture my mother had before that – a picture of my grandfather. And my Aunt Bea has walked by that picture at least a 1,000 times remarked that he – her father, my Papaw — had high cheek bones like all of the Indians do. Because that is how she saw it and your mother got those same great cheek bones and I didn’t. She that thought was the bad deal she had gotten in life.”
“Being Native American has been part of my story, I guess, since the day I was born,” Warren continued.
According to the Boston Globe, Warren identified as a minority in the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) deskbook for between 1985-1996. The candidate has seemingly struggled to articulate her reasons for identifying as a minority, but has strongly rejected the notion that she benefited from opportunities she might not have otherwise received had she not identified as a Native American.
Now, likely in preparation for a presidential campaign, Senator Warren has answered President Trump’s challenge to prove her claim. She released a report claiming Warren likely had a Native American ancestor between six and ten generations ago.
While the vast majority of the individual’s ancestry is European, the results strongly support the existence of an unadmixed Native American ancestor in the individual’s pedigree, likely in the range of 6- 10 generations ago.
Warren characterized this report as strong evidence and called on President Trump to pay up on a $1 million charity bet. However, the DNA report shows the imprecision of the science, and may actually give more ammunition to critics.
The inherent imprecision of the six-page DNA analysis could provide fodder for Warren’s critics. If O.C. Sarah Smith were fully Native American, that would make Warren up to 1/32nd native. But the generational range based on the ancestor that the report identified suggests she’s between 1/64th and 1/1,024th Native American. The report notes there could be missed ancestors.
With the advent of tribal casinos and other lucrative enterprises, tribal membership became a thing of value. Failing to carefully vet members would cause tribes to spread payments from these enterprises too thinly. Likewise, access to preferential education or employment programs would be diluted. So, when Elizabeth Warren rolled out the DNA test report and claimed it was a vindication of her past claims, that was a threat to actual tribes.
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. issued the following statement Monday in response to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test claiming Native Heritage:
“A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship. Current DNA tests do not even distinguish whether a person’s ancestors were indigenous to North or South America,” Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation. Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”
Note that the Cherokee Nation both rejects DNA as a basis of tribal ancestry claims, and also points out that the very DNA evidence, upon which Senator Warren relies, does not distinguish between indigenous peoples of North or South America. Yet, we commonly characterize people with the former ancestry as “Native American,” and those with the latter ancestry as “Latina” or “Hispanic.” The Census Bureau uses the terms “American Indian or Native Alaskan” as a restricted racial category:
American Indian or Alaska Native – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.
Here is how the Bureau of Indian Affairs answers the question “who is an American Indian or Native Alaskan?“
As a general rule, an American Indian or Alaska Native person is someone who has blood degree from and is recognized as such by a federally recognized tribe or village (as an enrolled tribal member) and/or the United States. Of course, blood quantum (the degree of American Indian or Alaska Native blood from a federally recognized tribe or village that a person possesses) is not the only means by which a person is considered to be an American Indian or Alaska Native. Other factors, such as a person’s knowledge of his or her tribe’s culture, history, language, religion, familial kinships, and how strongly a person identifies himself or herself as American Indian or Alaska Native, are also important. In fact, there is no single federal or tribal criterion or standard that establishes a person’s identity as American Indian or Alaska Native.
There are major differences, however, when the term “American Indian” is used in an ethnological sense versus its use in a political/legal sense. The rights, protections, and services provided by the United States to individual American Indians and Alaska Natives flow not from a person’s identity as such in an ethnological sense, but because he or she is a member of a federally recognized tribe. That is, a tribe that has a government-to-government relationship and a special trust relationship with the United States. These special trust and government-to-government relationships entail certain legally enforceable obligations and responsibilities on the part of the United States to persons who are enrolled members of such tribes. Eligibility requirements for federal services will differ from program to program. Likewise, the eligibility criteria for enrollment (or membership) in a tribe will differ from tribe to tribe.
President Trump will just redirect his attack to incorporate the new information, including the Cherokee Nation’s response. Senator Warren had no legitimate basis for publicly asserting a racial minority identity and still does not. As a lawyer and law professor, she knew better. As a Senator, who would be President, she’s flailing about, caught by her past ploy.