As many of you know, I’ve gotten “political” on this blog from time to time, and have occasionally taken criticism for it. Fair enough. If I couldn’t take a little criticism, I should probably stick to safe subjects such as cute kitty videos.
Thus, we come to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D – Mass) statements that she has Native American ancestry. These claims began in the 1990s when, according to this CNN story:
Harvard Law School in the 1990s touted Warren, then a professor in Cambridge, as being “Native American.” They singled her out, Warren later acknowledged, because she had listed herself as a minority in an Association of American Law Schools directory. Critics note that she had not done that in her student applications and during her time as a teacher at the University of Texas.
In the same article, Warren is quoted as saying:
“I am very proud of my heritage,” Warren told NPR in 2012. “These are my family stories. This is what my brothers and I were told by my mom and my dad, my mammaw and my pappaw. This is our lives. And I’m very proud of it.”
“As a kid, I never asked my mom for documentation when she talked about our Native American heritage. What kid would? But I knew my father’s family didn’t like that she was part Cherokee and part Delaware, so my parents had to elope,” she said.
Admittedly, Warren has taken a lot of heat over these claims, especially since 2012 when Scott Brown, who, at the time, was running against Warren, accused her of lying about her heritage, and things got ugly from there.
Their quarrel took a nasty turn around this time, when Brown’s staffers were filmed doing “war whoops” and “tomahawk chops” during an outdoor rally.
Brown told WCVB in Boston that he didn’t condone their actions, but said “the real offense is that (Warren) said she was white and then checked the box saying she is Native American, and then she changed her profile in the law directory once she made her tenure.”
More recently, President Trump supposedly challenged Warren, saying he’d donate $1 million to any charity she named if she’d take a DNA test and it proved she was Native American.
So she took a DNA test and guess what? According to an NPR story, Warren very likely has native ancestry going back between 6 and 10 generations ago. The original report stated that Warren possesses between 1/32 and 1/512 native ancestry, although, the Boston Globe (as reported by NPR) had to issue an update, because a corrected math error now states that the lower end of the probability is 1/1,024.
EDIT, October 16, 2018: The Boston Globe issued a second update for a second math error, and now suggests that Warren may have between 1/64th and 1/1,024th Native American ancestry.
Be that as it may, Warren is calling for Trump to pony up a cool million to the National Indigenous Woman’s Resource Center, but now he says he didn’t make the bet and further states “Who Cares?” It doesn’t help Trump that, according to New York Magazine’s “The Cut” as reported at Yahoo.com, he was televised making the bet, so perhaps Warren has a point.
But is this her only point? Probably not. Again, according to The Cut:
Warren is currently running for reelection, and while polls show she currently has a significant lead over her Republican opponent Geoff Diehl, many, like Jonathan Martin at the New York Times, have speculated that this is a “preemptive public relations offensive” to get ahead of any potential scandals before a widely anticipated 2020 presidential run.
This is backed up by CNN:
Sen. Elizabeth Warren has released the results of a DNA analysis showing she has distant Native American ancestry, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt further questions and attacks should she run for president in 2020.
Okay, she’s a politician and she’s doing damage control. That’s not unusual or unwise. However, according to yet another story, this time at CBC.ca:
A suspected Indian status scam that told a man he shared genetic ancestry with a dog should serve as a reminder of the perils of DNA testing for Indigenous ancestry, says an Edmonton researcher.
Kim TallBear, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience and Environment, said she has long been wary of DNA testing for Indigenous heritage.
No, I’m not trying to make light of Senator Warren’s claims, but I am pointing out that such testing can have its issues.
Why do I care?
I belong to a closed Facebook page for Indigenous People (long story, and to the best of my knowledge, I have no indigenous ancestry), and this news is being hotly debated. The consensus opinion doesn’t seem to be impressed, and as one person in the group stated:
I’m a Democrat, but she better not use this to try to get the native vote! Dont [sic] claim your [sic] native if you dont [sic] know anything about your tribe or heritage.
Back to the CBC story, TallBear states:
Genetic ancestry tracing back to unnamed ancestors among the founding populations of the Americas is not the kind of biological tie that matters for gaining status, she said.
Even the most credible tests for Indigenous ancestry rarely provide detailed tribal affiliations and are prone to inaccuracies due to the lack of a diverse sample size of genetic profiles in their databases, said TallBear.
Even if a person is told they belong to a specific tribe or ethnic group, having matching genetic markers from ages ago doesn’t mean they have the lived experience to become part of that community.
Now even Warren correctly says that there is a difference between ancestry and tribal affiliation. There are over 500 recognized tribes just in the U.S. and each one has a different standard for affiliation, and further, that standard can change based on who is leading the tribal council at any given period of time (I learned that from a woman who is married to a native and very familiar with council dynamics).
It seems that Warren is primarily relying on family stories to establish her lineage, and that’s fine and well on a personal level. However listing herself “as a minority in an Association of American Law Schools directory” was probably a mistake, because having a single (as far as we know) unidentified native ancestor between 6 to 10 generations ago, and having a blood line of between 1/32 and 1/1024 percent native not only doesn’t make you native or a minority, it may not even be an accurate value (high or low).
Oh, before anyone says it, Cherokee Nation principal chief Bill John Baker is 1/32 percent Cherokee by blood, but he “was born in Cherokee County, Oklahoma, where his family has been for four generations,” so there’s a little more to it than taking a DNA test.
Now Warren is a politician, and as we’ve seen, once you enter the public eye, just about everything you’ve ever said and done will follow you. So naturally, relative to events in the 1990s, 2012, and her more recent criticism by (and insults from) Trump, it’s expected she’d lay a little preemptive ground work, especially if she’s strongly considering a 2020 run for POTUS.
Frankly, I’d just as soon have her say something like, “It’s personally important to me and my family history to cherish the stories from my mother’s side of the family, but in terms of my career, it’s not a relevant factor.”
My fear is that she will make it a factor in her career even though, doing the math, the vast, vast majority of her heritage is European. Racially, ethnically, and culturally, she’s just as much a white bread American as I am.
Oh, and yes, Donald Trump is rude.