Senator Elizabeth Warren, Presidential Candidate, has claimed to be Cherokee for years.
After Trump questioned her claim in about the most racist way possible, Warren took a DNA test which shows a possibility of Indigenous ancestry 8-10 generations ago.
The Cherokee Nation was very unhappy with Warren’s claim and her DNA test.
White people everywhere said, “I don’t get it?”
So here’s a super abbreviated primer for white people, culled from recent real-life conversations, Facebook battles, and Twitter discussions.
The U.S.A. has long wanted to get rid of Native Americans, either by outright genocide, assimilation, or by destroying their environment. In keeping with the assimilation theme, the Bureau of Indian Affairs set up some nice little perks to go with blood quantum levels. If you could show you were 1/4 American Indian in the 1940-50s, you got a check from the government.
Nice, right? The catch is that at a certain point, the U.S. could say, “Oh, your blood quantum level is so low that we no longer recognize you as American Indian.” The longterm goal, of course, was that the U.S. could eventually stop recognizing any tribes and take their lands and resources yet again.
Most tribes figured this out and challenged the blood quantum level qualification, using other criteria to determine tribal status. The majority of Native American tribes maintain that ONLY the tribe can determine tribal members. To date, most Native tribes even have a moratorium on genetics research, lest that eventually be used to exploit them. Which is why Warren’s DNA test could only compare her DNA to the DNA of Indigenous people in South America.
So, yeah, it was both impossible and insensitive for Warren to insist upon using a DNA test to “prove” she’s Cherokee.
In fact, it’s offensive to a lot of Native Americans for Warren to claim to be Cherokee at all.
“But whyyyyyyyy,” the white people whine. “When I say I’m German, the Germans don’t get all bent out of shape!” (They didn’t used to. With the rise of Trump and the attendant resurgence of white supremacy in the U.S., German offense at Americans calling themselves German would be utterly understandable.)
Here’s the one of the great many things white America can’t seem to grasp. To many Native Americans, saying “I’m Cherokee,” means you are a member of the tribe. You are using a Cherokee word to claim lineage AND a specific cultural heritage with the use of their tribal name.
Warren could not prove lineage. If she could, she would already be a member of the Cherokee Nation and we’d only be having half this discussion, because the Cherokee Nation of Okalahoma allows enrollment based on descent. (Not every Native Nation uses that as their main criteria – they are not a monolith.) The Cherokee Nation keeps excellent genealogical records. Those records prove Warren has no Cherokee ancestors.
Warren said she was Cherokee based on nothing more than false familial lore. Despite Cherokee women telling Warren she was being obtuse and offensive years ago, Warren insisted on using her own, white American criteria of DNA evidence to claim Cherokee lineage rather than respect the Cherokee Nation’s sovereignty and their definition of lineage.
Warren recently apologized for the DNA test, first privately to the Cherokee Nation and then generally when her State Bar of Texas registration card surfaced, which showed her claiming to be American Indian:
But suppose Warren had been able to prove lineage? Would it be okay for Warren to shout, “See? I AM Cherokee!?” As Chuck Hoskins, Jr, Cherokee Nation Secretary of State said, “While we appreciate the affinity many Americans have for the family lore of native ancestry, stating, ‘My grandmother was Cherokee’…in no way confers the full rights and responsibilities of tribal citizenship.”
Despite this rebuke, plenty of white women offensively Instgram themselves daily with war bonnets or other regalia. (Don’t believe me? Search #warbonnet and cringe for yourself.) Some will defend their picture by saying they’re part “Native American,” though there is no universal Native American culture and tribal regalia varies greatly among the 573 different tribes in United States.
Other white women will say, “Well, my great-great-whatever-grandmother was Ojibwe, so I’m Ojibwe, so it’s not cultural appropriation so that’s cool.”
IT. IS. NOT. COOL.
It’s the height of white privilege. What this white woman is really saying is, “I don’t care what the actual tribal members of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe say it means to call yourself Ojibwe. I don’t care if the tribe says it’s wrong or offensive or painful for the very white people who persecuted them to now claim to be from their tribe because of a maybe ancestor. This is MY definition, and I’m going to keep using it.”
It’s like white people who insist that they should be allowed to use the n-word because they personally don’t find it offensive. They are willfully ignoring the history of kidnapping, genocide, slavery, Jim Crow lynching, and racism that are forever linked with the n-word when a white person uses it.
So don’t do it.
Don’t be the person who claims to be Cherokee from Oklahoma without understanding what it means to be a member of the Cherokee Nation or the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians.
Most importantly, don’t reference your maybe Indigenous ancestor if you do not have a deep and visceral knowledge both the heritage and traumas that are carved into the genes of actual Native American tribes.
If you’re interested in learning more about Native American perspectives, here are some women to follow on Twitter. Many have websites. Just don’t rudely demand that they educate you, okay? Listen and learn.
If you want more in-depth reading on the problems with Warren’s claims & DNA testing, check out their syllabus/ reading list.
19 thoughts on “Don’t (#247)”
Well done post. I’m one of the white people who didn’t understand the fuss. I thought it was more about a conflict with the president than anything else. I understand better the significance of the heritage.
Thanks, Kate. Well, I do like anyone who takes on Trump, but not at the expense of a marginalized community. I’m glad Warren apologized, but I wish she’d listened earlier and learned and then shared that knowledge while admitting her prior ignorance. Rebecca Nagle wrote a comprehensive apology letter that she gave Warren permission to use years ago.
Oh man, standing ovation! I couldn’t have said it better myself, Autumn.
I can’t believe she actually claimed she was Native American on her state bar exam! That is so insane. It’s also hard for me to fathom that most people would not think of this as ‘a big deal.’ Geez. I support women in politics, especially those who aim for the presidency, but man… in my eyes, this was a huge blow to Warren.
You know, I don’t know HOW MANY Americans I’ve met who have told me: “I’m 16th Cherokee” or whatever–oh man, it takes all of my restraint not to eye roll. I think Americans want to feel like they belong to some minority race to either a. feel like they belong to a different and special culture or b. express their sympathy with minorities. However, as you wrote above, it just massively backfires.
Great post. It need to be said.
Thank you! I was beginning to wonder if anyone besides Kate was ever going to read this post. 🙂
I am definitely guilty of mentioning the whole Cherokee blood quantum thing when I was young, but I could not bring myself to ever check a box claiming it. As Big Brother once said, “Those boxes are for the people who’ve suffered because of their heritage. They’re not for us.”
I just learned about Warren’s Texas bar card a day or two ago. I was shocked. She’s good on economic issues, and I value her in the Senate. But after all her missteps with this issue, I think her presidential hopes are dead.
It’s one thing to say you have a distant Native American ancestor (which may be a simple statement of fact). But it’s something else altogether to say I am a Cherokee.
Thanks for your good explanation.
I know, she was very good on certain economic issues and a smart woman. And certainly she’s going to be held to a higher standard than the white, male politicians. One of the things that makes Ocasio-Cortez so inspiring and effective is that she listens and addresses her missteps quickly. I think some of that comes from not having privilege–she’s hyper aware of her impact on others.
I used to have an ex friend from South Korea who was a Christian evangelist and even had the affrontery to once tell me that I am not a real Jew…Umm, please study Russian Jewish history to understand why we are the way we are before telling me that I’m not a real Jew…
Oh, man. What did you say to this incredibly clueless ex-friend?!! “Google before you speak?!”
The problem with a lot of evangelicals is that they merely parrot soundbites of their pastors. And Fox News. It’s an epidemic of obtuseness.
I have an ex-classmate who is a quarter Malay. Whenever situation permits, she’ll use her “aborigine” status to apply for governmental positions, scholarships and etc. When working in the private sector, she’ll use her English name and hide her real identity especially so when dating Chinese men. Seemed like hiding her identity increased her chances as not many men would want to convert to Muslim for love. Luckily I only had one experience being in the same assignment group as she was very unprofessional. She had the nerve to use heartbreak as an excuse not to complete her part of the assignment.
I really like the article on the correlation between DNA methylation, PTSD and genetic inheritance. That explain a lot on gang rape incidences in Cambodia. In Poland, the government will instigate people to steal cars in Germany, scam and xenophobia. Polish people will immigrate to whenever they want and expect host countries to treat them well but no reciprocity in return. The Polish government spent money to train a million medical personnel yet they will leave whenever possible. As a consequence, a million Ukrainians were recruited into Poland to fill the gap. After Brexit, a million Polish were sent out of the United Kingdom. If I see a Polish person on one end of the road, I will run to the other end. People with PTSD are way to complex for ordinary people.
Yes, there are quite a few white Americans who will use any presumed amount of Native American blood to help their chances in college applications. I am not surprised that it happens elsewhere.
There’ been a lot of upheaval all over the world, and PTSD is, if not becoming more common, becoming more accepted and recognizable everywhere.
I don’t know why you’ve singled out Polish people, though? The ongoing Polish car left ring is backed by organized crime, rather than the government. In fact the Polish Prosecutor’s Office had asked for help in busting one car thieving ring, which was also part of a money laundering setup. And last I heard, British PM Theresa May had indicated that she wanted the approximately 1 million Polish residents in the UK to stay there.
As for immigrants to Poland, their numbers are up by over 200% points in recent years, though that is mainly due to their acceptance of Ukrainian refugees. For the most part, Poland is not welcoming to North African or other Muslim refugees. Which is unfortunate.
Still, I feel you should be just as safe walking on the same side of the street as a Polish person as you would with anyone else except perhaps an American male white supremacist.
Ah, I singled out Polish people because during WWII they suffered the most losses. When I was in Paris, a woman tried scamming me. She “kindly” informed me that I dropped a gold ring on the floor. The truth was no idiot out there will wear jewelry while travelling. Then, she brazenly told me she was from Poland when asked of her origin. It was my first time meeting such a shameless scammer. There was a documentary about Polish people taking offence with EU. They thought EU committee and legislation was intervening too much with their internal politics. If Poland doesn’t want to adhere to EU, then don’t join EU. It’s like they want all the privileges that comes with EU status but refuse to follow rules. Complicated and complex people!
Poland did suffer, and they suffered tremendously during the Cold War also. However, Belarus suffered a greater percentage of casualties if you breakdown the number of deaths by per capita in each country, and the whole of the USSR suffered the most total European casualties, with over 16 million dead. China, though, lost over 20 million.
But no one suffered as much as the Jewish people, who lost about 40% of their population. They have yet to return to pre-holocaust population levels.
I think when we have personal experience with con men, scam artists, or violent people, we may look for reasons to blame an entire population for one persons misdeeds. Or even if we’re looking for excuses to blame someone for our unhappy situations in life. On the other hand, there’s is certainly plenty of existing racism and sexism that can hamper success in every country. Black women and Native American women earn a lot less than white men in the United States for the same work. But I would caution against any sweeping generalizations on the character of every member of certain countries or groups. Nationalist demagogues such as Trump are using this to gain power all over the globe right now.
Right now, for example, I’m very tired of hearing lies and inflammatory bullshit about how Mexico and Central America are sending “thieves, murders, rapists” to our border to distract from the old rich white men actually stealing with both the GOP tax scam and the Bureau of Land Management. Or the fact that the Saudi prince brags about “owning Kushner” or that Putin is pretty much going about his pet project of destroying NATO without any repercussions.
Being Polish myself, I find it interesting to have a mention about my country popping out under this post.
It isn’t a tangent you’d expect from a post on Cherokee heritage, is it? I expected some comparisons about the concentration camps China is creating for Uighurs, perhaps.
I’m really interested in the PTSD topic. Unfortunately, Chinese people rarely spend funding on PTSD research to justify or explain their behaviors unlike Native Americans.
PTSD is very complex. But at least some of the research is teaching the American populace about the costs of trauma from our endless wars.
The epigenetic research I find even more fascinating, though it’s kind of horrifying to think that survivors of everything from the Cultural Revolution and the Holocaust have sent various genetic time bombs to their descendants. As if suffering once wasn’t enough.
I agree with you in regards to epigenetics. To be honest, kids exist to keep parents on toes. Sometimes, hell on Earth if not dealt well. My parents are war babies. As a result of that, they have a tendency to store food as if there will be no tomorrow. Then, no one in my family has insomnia except for one sister. When my mom was pregnant with this sister, she went through tremendous amount of stress and as a result of that, my sister was born prematurely with insomnia.
Oh my god, what is wrong with people? How can she claim such heritage and even use it??
I mean a friend of mine is 1/4 Cherokee and she never ever uses it to get into some programs, she did it all through hard work. She only mentioned it once when asked about her grandparents.
This is really insane as the DNA tests are anyways not 100% and her chances to have some kind of Cherokee ancestors that many generations ago are pretty slim I’d say…according to a DNA test I am 1% Melanesian, don’t really see how that would be in any way possible but ok
Exactly, DNA tests are not always reliable anyway.
Good for your friend.