By Ravi Smith
Last week, in a rebuttal to President Donald Trump’s derision over her self-proclaimed Native American ancestry, senator and Democratic Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren published the results of a DNA test strongly suggesting Warren had a Native American ancestor between six and 10 generations ago, the equivalent of having 1/64 to 1/1024 ancestry.
The test was administered by Stanford Professor and renowned geneticist Dr. Carlos Bustamante and utilized the latest and most rigorous methods in genetic analysis, but it did little to quell the controversy surrounding Warren’s self-identification as Cherokee in her early years as professor at Harvard Law School. It is a well-worn trope to hear Americans opine about a distant American Indian ancestor, most commonly and perhaps not coincidentally, that their great-grandmother was Cherokee.
I do not deny that it is important to acknowledge our heritage, but everyday Americans sometimes draw unfounded conclusions about their indigenous history from such family lore and even perpetuate stereotypes of Native Americans as a people who existed only in the past. Indeed, as recently as her 2012 campaign for office, Warren seemed to view her ancestry as a cute foible of her family history rather than a lived experience.
“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 during her first campaign for US Senator. “My Aunt Bea … at least 1,000 times remarked that … her father, my Papaw, had high cheekbones like all of the Indians do. Because that is how she saw it, and ‘your mother got those same great cheekbones, and I didn’t.’”
It was partly a fear of this exoticizing sentiment which led to wide censure of Warren’s actions among Native American tribes and her fellow Democrats. Much of the criticism emphasized that Native American ancestry does not automatically equate to identity, which is a lived experience.
In response to Warren, The Cherokee Nation, one of three federally-recognized Cherokee tribes, released a statement emphasizing that DNA tests are not evidence for tribal affiliation, which is the status of membership in a particular tribe.
Tribal affiliation is an important concept to know when evaluating Warren’s actions. It not only underlies some of the criticisms of Warren but illustrates the complexity of Native identity. Tribal affiliation is a direct result of colonization — as Native American tribes negotiated treaties with the U.S. government, tribal nations conceded most of their previously held rights, reserving a select few for the federal government to protect in perpetuity. Because of these agreements, the tribes, sovereign nations themselves, are required to determine who is a member of their tribe and a beneficiary of these rights. Outside of the basic requirement of being a direct descendant of an original member, each tribe has their own criteria for membership, which may include factors such as tribal blood and residency.
Tribal affiliation is a common criteria for schools and other organizations to verify that someone is Native American, but the system has many flaws. There are hundreds of Native American tribes which have not received recognition from the federal government, leaving their members unable to claim the political status of being tribally affiliated. The original people of the Bay Area, the Muwekma Ohlone, are one such tribe. Also, political infighting over who can be a member or not exists in several recognized tribes. Members with very legitimate claims of tribal blood, residency and social connection are disenrolled simply because of tribal powers-at-be moving to secure more influence and, often, a larger share of casino profits. In addition, there are many Natives who cultivate a strong cultural connection with their Native American heritage but do not meet the standards defined by their tribe, such as the required amount of Native American ancestry.
These edge cases represent the idiosyncrasies between Native American identity and tribal affiliation and underscore that there are no true rules defining who can identify as Native American. As an enrolled member of the Makah Tribe who is also half South Asian and bears a Sanskrit first name, I know that ethnic identity is a convoluted matter, informed by an interplay of factors such as ancestry, appearance and upbringing. I myself struggle with internal doubts about the worthiness of my Native identity and would never want to be judgmental about another person’s choice to identify as Native.
However, when figures like Warren talk about Native American ancestry as a relic from the past, it tends to perpetuate the stereotype of Native Americans as a bygone people. Yes, Native Americans existed in the past as some of our ancestors, but we are just as relevant today.
Contact Ravi Smith at ravi22 ‘at’ stanford.edu.