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.