Identity is an intricate concept. From race to gender to nationality and more, one’s identity has many facets. With technology advancing in the modern world, more and more people have been taking DNA tests to further understand their own identity and racial and/or ethnic makeup. Companies such as 23andme or Ancestry allow the average person to order tests from home and simply mail them in.
These DNA tests can be useful for those unaware of their ancestral background for reasons such as slavery, colonization or adoption. Learning about their history from DNA tests can give them a connection to their past and culture they did not previously have. These tests can also connect people to family members that they may not have had contact with or knowledge about. However, some question how DNA test results affect racial, ethnic and cultural identity, notably after Sen. Elizabeth Warren released her DNA test results.
Warren has been serving as an U.S. senator for Massachusetts since 2013. Although there was speculation she would run for president in 2016, she ultimately did not. Warren is considered to be fairly progressive and, should she run, is one of the front-runners for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. She has been very vocal with anti-Trump rhetoric through various platforms, including participating in protests and posting Tweets.
However, Warren has come under fire for identifying herself as Native American as a white woman. From white woman Rachel Dolezal’s assertions of being a “transracial” black woman, to white man Ralph Taylor suing the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program for rejecting the application he based on a DNA test showing his ancestry of 90 percent European, 6 percent indigenous American and 4 percent sub-Saharan African, white people have attempted to add cultural identity to the long list of things they have appropriated from those they oppress. Warren has added herself to this infamous group by recently releasing the results to a DNA test to “prove” her Native American ancestry.
While this newest attempt to prove her Native American ancestry has revamped the issue as a topic of conversation, the question of Warren’s heritage first arose when she was running for the Massachusetts Senate in 2012. A conservative paper called The Boston Herald reported that in the 1990s, Harvard University, Warren’s employer at the time, used her “Native American heritage” as proof of its diverse faculty. The Harvard school newspaper even called Warren “the first woman with a minority background to be tenured.”
Her political campaign did not have actual documentation of her Native American ancestry; instead, it said, “Like most Americans, Elizabeth learned of her heritage through conversations with her grandparents, her parents, her aunts and uncles.” Warren was also listed as Native American in the Association of American Law Schools’ directory of law professors from 1986-1995. She even cited her grandfather’s “high cheekbones” when questioned if she regretted self-identifying as Native American. Warren went as far as to say, “Being Native American has been part of my story, I guess, since the day I was born.”
There was talk of a marriage certification document citing Warren’s great-great-great grandmother O.C. Sarah Smith, who was born in the late 1700s, as a Cherokee woman. However, that document was not procured. The New England Historic Genealogical Society said they had “no proof that Elizabeth Warren’s great-great-great-grandmother O.C. Sarah Smith either is or is not of Cherokee descent.”
Even if that particular relative was Cherokee, that would not give Warren grounds to join the Cherokee Nation. A requirement of enrolling as a member of the Cherokee Nation is having a direct ancestor listed in the Dawes Rolls, which has a record of over 101,000 people from 1898-1914. O.C. Sarah Smith passed away many years before the rolls were created, making Warren unable to become a member of the tribe based on that ancestor alone.
Warren’s conservative opposition have continuously used her questionable heritage as a point of contention. During her senatorial run in 2012, her Republican opponent, incumbent senator Scott Brown, used Warren’s claim to Cherokee ancestry as a political tool, with his campaign pressing her to apologize for Harvard citing her as a minority. Warren did not do so, instead saying she had pride in her heritage. President Donald Trump has also joined in the fray, insulting Warren by calling her “Pocahontas” and promising to donate $1 million to charity if Warren proved her ancestry.
And that’s exactly what Warren tried to do. In an effort to show she is “really Native American,” Warren released the results to a DNA test that found she likely had a single Native American ancestor around six to 10 generations ago. This suggests Warren has between 0.1-1.6 percent Native American ancestry.
The release of Warren’s DNA test results has been met with its fair share of scrutiny. Researchers have supported the science of the test so far but have stressed that the result does not necessarily give one a cultural identity as Native American.
The Cherokee Nation issued a statement on Oct. 15 condemning Warren’s actions. Their secretary of state, Chuck Hoskin Jr., said, “Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”
Others have spoken out about Warren’s attempts to claim Native American heritage as well. Indigenous geneticist and bioethicist at Vanderbilt University Krystal Tsosie said, “I’m really grateful that Elizabeth Warren decided to consult a leader in the field. But I’m concerned that these issues will be weaponized.”
CNN writer Simon Moya-Smith questions why, if Warren claims Native American ancestry, has she not spoken out on the U.S.’s violations of Native American human rights and treaties, police brutality in Native American country or sexual abuse of Native women? He questions why one who professes herself to be progressive and for human rights only claims Native American heritage to “save face” and for a political advantage, citing Warren’s desire for approval in lieu of a possible presidential run as a key motivator.
An Atlantic article written by Caitlin Flanagan draws parallels with Warren’s “reduction of identity to percentages of a genome” and the actions of Richard Spencer, white supremacist and neo-Nazi whose wife recently come forward saying he abused her. Spencer took a DNA test as well to show how “white” he was, only to find out his DNA was only 99.5 percent European in origin. Flanagan wrote, “Doesn’t Warren realize that race is a social construct and whiteness is an idea? Doesn’t she know that the science of genetics is often used as a tool of the oppressor, that you cannot destroy the master’s house with the master’s tools?”
Even with her DNA test results, Warren is a white woman. She has benefited from the privileges that come with being a white woman and will always do so. Her actions have not only tried to politicize identity, but also equate racial, ethnic and cultural identity with DNA results, even if she did not explicitly say such or intend to do so. Race is a social construct with real-world effects and cannot be tied directly to just DNA test results.
As a black, mixed woman I understand how racial identity is a complex and complicated concept. However, simply having a single ancestor of a certain race or ethnicity generations ago does not give anyone the right to a cultural identity that is not theirs. Warren’s actions are a symptom of a larger problem: White people attempting to take what is not theirs, including cultures that serve as some of the remaining sources of connection for those ravaged by colonization. I truly hope Warren comes to recognize the error of her ways. Claiming a cultural identity that is not yours for personal or political gain is an egregious affront to people of color world-wide.