On Elizabeth Warren, DNA Tests, and Native American Heritage


Senator Elizabeth Warren – Image found at the Washington Examiner – no credit listed

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.

25 thoughts on “On Elizabeth Warren, DNA Tests, and Native American Heritage

  1. And this tempest-in-a-teacup has an impact on her politics? Is it presumed to make her more sympathetic to some demographic, such that she might garner more votes? Or is it somehow an excuse to exacerbate the racism that divides the USA into smaller and smaller enclaves that are easier to defeat separately than together as a nation united against enemies who deride Constitutional liberties?


      • If so, then it appears she will face opprobrium also from the leader of the Cherokee Nation, per this article: [https://www.newsmax.com/politics/dna-warren-cherokee-undermines/2018/10/15/id/886413/?ns_mail_uid=fa403154-4243-4bb7-8b09-62622e35fb20&ns_mail_job=DM6995_10162018&s=acs&dkt_nbr=010504n1joie].

        I don’t know by what criteria one might be recognized by either the Cherokee or the Leni Lenape (“Delaware”) tribes, from which this senator claims some ancestry, but clearly she is too far removed from those generations to justify any such claim. It strikes me as not unlike some gentiles who would claim some Jewish connection because of the Assyrian decimation and dispersion of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel 26 centuries ago, who thus were assimilated into the surrounding gentile nations. Even if this were not neglecting the fact that the survivors who fled southward to Judea became part of the Babylonian captivity a century later and re-emerged after that captivity as Judeans and an integral part of the ongoing Jewish people, the only ways to claim participation in the Jewish covenant have been well-codified to eliminate any ambiguity. Either one is born of a Jewish mother or one has undergone conversion. A slightly broader definition for Israeli citizenship has been defined, because of identity confusions induced by the Holocaust; but this will be narrowed again as those generations pass.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. “very likely has native ancestry going back between 6 and 10 generations”

    Big deal, so do I. We had the stories in our family, just like many families that trace back to the Revolution. I did some genealogy research a few years back and found a Cherokee ancestor. Does not make me Cherokee.


  3. Warren is a phony documents of her family tree has been traced all the way to the period of the “trail of tears” OK she may have had a distant relative from years ago who may have been park Cherokee otherwise she is no more Indian then a native born Scotsman…..


  4. It “amazes” me that “conservatives” have such antipathy for Elizabeth. She’s “such” a radical that she has forwarded the idea a household (family) ought to be able to function on one income (one adult working). But that’s so passe’ — the whole idea parents could give much time to their kids or save money and not struggle.


    • In a second story update to correct another math error, the Boston Globe stated that the DNA test suggests that Warren could be between “1/64th and 1/1,024th Native American.”

      I know a lot of people believe she took the test solely for the purpose of rubbing Trump’s nose in it, but as I stated in the body of my blog post, sources such as NPR and CNN believe this is a preemptive move on the Senator’s part prior to announcing her 2020 run as a Democratic candidate for POTUS. I’d have to say, reading the press coverage yesterday and today, that it spectacularly backfired.

      For instance, according to a 2014 New York Times article:

      European-Americans had genomes that were on average 98.6 percent European, .19 percent African, and .18 Native American.

      So the average European-American could have a greater percentage of Native American ancestry than Senator Warren.

      I haven’t mentioned anything else about her history, her career, or anything else, just the DNA test and possible motives for examining her ancestry. I can’t read minds, and if her family has stories of a Native American heritage going back generations if not centuries, those are their stories, and I can’t speak to them.

      However, taking the DNA test, or even making a big deal about her ancestry, at least in hindsight, seems ill-advised. I would have been better for Warren to run (for the Senate and perhaps for POTUS) on the merits of her career without the additional baggage she seems to have created for herself. I have looked at her history (Wikipedia), and she has many fine accomplishments to draw upon. She should try to remember that.


      • In cases it was not noticed, James said “She should …
        [whatever — implying or assuming she doesn’t or won’t and that he’s got her figured out].”

        I otherwise would not normally say you should … or “You should’ve.” But I’m glad you, James, nevertheless recognize “she has may fine accomplishments…”

        Whether she took this, the step under consideration of taking a biological test, as a response to Trump’s taunting (apparently seen as short-term thinking by her critics) or as a longer-term plan like looking ahead to running for the office of President — and I don’t think those are the only options of motivation nor that said running would be a sinister move — the “test” also just seems like something a normal person these days might do.

        Two of my sons have done DNA tests, so far. Just for fun, not out of confusion. I don’t remember what percentage Indigenous American was reported, but it doesn’t matter; they have tribal ties, although they haven’t registered yet. Their father registered recently after convincing his own dad to do so (who had the right to all his life). His mother already had registered long ago, and her dad sent that paperwork to us years back.

        Their dad did a DNA test, too. Something that came up as a surprise was “Iberian Peninsula.” But, thinking historically and logically it’s not really so surprising.


      • Hey, I’m enjoying the article. I’ve never, before now, seen anyone else with the name Ina (I had a grandaunt by the name of Ina) and have wondered.


      • Given
        On the plains of Oklahoma, where many of the nation’s tribes were forcibly relocated in the mid-19th century, the American Indian has long been a dominant[*] cultural force. The very name Oklahoma is derived from the Choctaw word for “red people.” Oklahoma has the second-largest population of American Indians and Alaskan Natives in the United States, with 8.6 percent of its people claiming such heritage in 2010, according to the US Census Bureau. But many local historians believe the number is more likely double that given the widespread mingling of the Native American and Caucasian populations.

        [* I question the use of this word; better would be “curious” or something else.]

        By the time Warren came of age in the early 1960s, [a certain] attitude still prevailed in certain quarters of Oklahoma society. In bars and restaurants outside Oklahoma’s urban centers, signs could still be seen saying, “No Dogs[*] or Indians Allowed.”

        While there was greater tolerance in urban centers such as Oklahoma City, Native Americans continued to encounter discrimination and hostility. As Jerry Bread, outreach coordinator for the Native American Studies program at the University of Oklahoma, puts it, “It was not acceptable socially or racially to be an Indian at the time,” said Bread….

        [* I would’ve thought this just means dogs, but my rabbi (brought up Jewish with Orthodox traditions in New York City in the first half of the twentieth century) said this meant Jews.]

        … A member of the class of 1966 along with Warren, Hammack said he is one-16th Cherokee and his wife is one-16th Apache.

        His Cherokee grandmother never enrolled, he said, “because she and others were afraid if they gave their name they would be shot.”

        Suzanne Pope, a friend of Warren’s from the school’s debate team who now lives in San Diego, had similar feelings back in school. Her father, she said, often “dragged out pictures of the Indian squaw, my great-great-grandmother on my father’s side. Word was she was Cherokee, but we could not prove it. Lots of people in Oklahoma have ancestry, but it wasn’t fashionable to put yourself on the tribal rolls.”

        For the small handful of students who looked distinctly Native American, the experience was quite different.

        David Yeagley, whose mother was Comanche, said that he and his brother Fred, who was a class behind Warren, were routinely teased for their dark hair and skin. When fellow members of the football team did not feel like playing on a hot day, “they’d say, ‘Fred, do a rain dance. Do a few steps for us,’ ” Yeagley said of his brother, who died in 2000.

        “Fred did not like that, and he was in fights every other day. Why would you ever bring up being an Indian if you didn’t have to? You’d just get teased or ridiculed,” said Yeagley. “If you were an Indian woman, you were thought of as an easy mark.”

        I don’t know how this “backfires” on Warren.

        One of my sons looks quite white, unless he has been extensively exposed to the sun. When he started eighth grade in the public school (after homeschooling up until then), he had been outside a lot and was very tan. A peer told him he thought he was “black” (a very light black I would say or Creole or something, but mostly I’d say that kid was not very observant or was just confused by someone not pure white… as my son’s skin was sort of orange). All of my sons have the same DNA, but two of them have blue style eyes (like mine), and one is about as white — looking — as I am (very), and cannot tan. They are Choctaw and Creek (from their father’s father and mother respectively). But I wouldn’t have known, from looking at him, that their father was Native American.

        As for my own Aunt Ina, she and my grandmother (on my mom’s side) moved to Missouri from what had been one of the original colonies. (That is in counterdistinction from Elizabeth’s family moving from Missouri to Oklahoma.) And my children (sons) never lived in Oklahoma (although we visited) because their father’s parents left there and lived many places, his father being a colonel in the Army, until they settled in Missouri.

        [My mom’s dad moved from Illinois to Missouri (and had brothers who spread out across the country). He thought he had a little American Indian heritage, but he didn’t know what tribe. So I stopped saying anything about it except to my sons as something that had bothered me for being so obscure… that some woman had supposedly been Native American, but nobody could be bothered to know what tribe. Oh, well; my grandmother was also not allowed to drive and could hardly even pick her own clothing, my grandpa was so dominant.]

        My children’s father was also in the Army (but not as a career), and he moved to Missouri (as his parents were there by then) from having been stationed in Germany (to pay for his ROTC scholarship). [My youngest son is now in ROTC himself and intending to make a career of it.]

        My own dad grew up thinking his parents were German, because they spoke German. But that doesn’t change the fact his mother was born in Romania and his dad’s parents were born in Czechoslovakia. Even after he learned his mother was from Romania, he kept getting mixed up and forgetting. [But he remembered a story of my grandfather telling my grandmother’s father (apparently too much a drinker) to go away and never come around again. I don’t know if the family had moved together from Romania or if the mother and children had tried to escape.]

        Stuff happens.


  5. https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/10/16/warren-defends-decision-release-dna-test/2XIlJ4rhq8osxb1ipFjsvJ/story.html?p1=Article_Recommended_ReadMore_Pos11


    Another of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes offered more support for Warren, telling Business Insider they did not take issue with her decision. “Senator Elizabeth Warren does not claim to be a citizen of any tribal nation, and she is not a citizen of the Eastern Band,” Eastern Band Principal Chief Richard Sneed told the outlet. “Like many other Americans, she has a family story of Cherokee and Delaware ancestry and evidence of Native ancestry.”

    Warren’s Republican challenger on Nov. 6, Geoff Diehl, has largely avoided mentioning the controversy surrounding Warren’s claims of Native American ancestry, though he has referenced it in some recent TV interviews, including during a Tuesday appearance on Fox News.


    He … attacked Warren by saying she benefited professionally from identifying as Native American. An extensive Globe investigation found clear evidence, in documents and interviews, that her claim to Native American ancestry did not help her remarkable rise through the legal teaching ranks.

    Warren has been attacked on the issue much more aggressively by the third candidate on the ballot, independent Shiva Ayyadurai of Belmont, whose main campaign slogan is “Only a real Indian can defeat a fake Indian.”

    Warren’s decision to share the DNA results is an unprecedented move by an American politician, and sets her apart from both Hillary Clinton — who resisted releasing personal information — and Trump, who continues to refuse to release his tax returns.

    In the interview, the Cambridge Democrat, who has said she will “take a hard look” at running for president after Nov. 6, placed the DNA results within the context of other recent moves she’s made to open her background to outside scrutiny.

    “I believe in transparency,” she said, pointing to her decision to release her tax returns back to 2008, and every employment document “that we could lay our hands on” to show that her claims to Native American blood did not help her professionally. “This was just another part of it.”

    An in-depth Globe review of Warren’s professional history, including interviews with 31 professors on the Harvard Law hiring committee who offered her a job in 1993, found that Warren was viewed as a white woman by the hiring committees at every institution that employed her.



  6. I think the reason why this is being heavily focused by the republicans is because dems always take this holier than thou stand. Like everything they do is righteous and civil. Then here is a clear case of one of their own abusing the system and claiming she is a minority with 1/1024 percent to garner a higher position for herself and they(media) completely back her up. Trump is probably more African American than she is Native American.


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