You don’t fight racists with racist junk science

October 22, 2018

Elizabeth Warren has rightfully faced criticism for her DNA test video — but the voices of Native Americans themselves have gone mostly unheard, writes Brian Ward.

FOR MONTHS, Donald Trump has been trolling Sen. Elizabeth Warren, calling her “Pocahontas” in reference to Warren’s claim of Native American ancestry and Harvard University describing her as a Native American professor when she taught there.

Trump even said he would pay $1 million of his own money if Warren took a DNA test to “prove” her ancestry. He’s since denied he ever said this, despite being caught on video.

If there’s one thing we all know, you don’t feed the trolls.

But Warren, a possible presidential candidate and darling of Democratic Party liberals, ignored this rule. She took a DNA test and made a cringeworthy, campaign-style video, in which Stanford University professor Carlos D. Bustamante claims that the test results “strongly support the existence of an unadmixed Native American ancestor.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Sen. Elizabeth Warren

In doing so, Warren promoted what New Yorker writer Masha Gessen rightly called “an outdated, harmful concept of racial blood” and “the pernicious idea of biological differences among people.”

Warren’s actions were an insult to Native Americans, not because of the use of junk science, but Warren didn’t even consult with any Native organizations beforehand. This compounds Warren’s already dismissive attitude toward a community to which she claims some distant relationship.


THERE IS a long and ugly history in the U.S. of “blood” being linked to people’s place in society. This shouldn’t be a surprise given that this country was founded as a settler colony, and is rooted in oppression and violence.

The country’s “one-drop rule” is a legacy of white supremacy. Under this rule, which was even written into laws in the 19th and early 20th centuries, people who had even one ancestor of African descent — “just one drop of Black blood” — were to be considered Black.

Then there were the “blood quantum laws” imposed by colonial rulers and the federal government to determine if someone was Native American. This involved calculating the percentage of someone’s ancestors who could be documented to be “full-blooded” Native American.

This was very different from how Indigenous Nations understood identity before invasion. Many Nations included people who used to be from other Nations, runaway slaves and even runaway Europeans.

Blood quantum laws were tossed out after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 was passed. However, some Nations still use different levels of blood quantum as a qualification for becoming a member of a Nation, though this is usually paired with other factors.

Kim Tallbear, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, who is on the Native Studies faculty at the University of Alberta, explained to Indian Country Today that Warren’s DNA test revives a discredited idea that “just won’t die”:

For Elizabeth Warren to center a Native American ancestry test as the next move in her fight with Republicans is to make yet another strike (even if unintended) against tribal sovereignty.

She continues to defend her ancestry claims as important despite her historical record of refusing to meet with Cherokee Nation community members who challenged her claims. This shows that she focuses on and actually privileges DNA company definitions in this debate, which are ultimately settler-colonial definitions of who is Indigenous. She and much of the reading public privilege the voices of (mostly white) genome scientists and implicitly cede to them the power to define Indigenous identity.


ANOTHER ELEMENT of this discussion is Warren’s identification as a Native American when she taught at Harvard Law School between 1995 and 2004 — and how Harvard used this identification as part of claiming it had a diverse faculty.

Warren was explicitly cited in a 1996 Harvard Crimson article in which Harvard spokesperson Michael Chmura attempted to deflect criticism about their lack of diversity on campus. “Although the conventional wisdom among students and faculty is that the Law School faculty includes no minority women, Chmura said Professor of Law Elizabeth Warren is Native American,” the Crimson wrote.

It’s not uncommon for Native Americans in the U.S. to “look white,” as Trump and his trolls say of Warren — But Warren wasn’t raised at all in the culture or lived experiences of Natives in this country.

And as Briahna Gray wrote at the Intercept, “By allowing herself to be held out as Native American, Warren enabled the university to leverage her identity as a pretext and decline to hire additional Native American faculty members.”

The irony, of course, is that both Trump and Warren are accepting the false idea that people can advance their career better if they are Native American.

This flies in the face of the lived experience of Indigenous people in the U.S., who are disproportionately working class, victims of police violence, incarcerated, unemployed and otherwise oppressed.

Though Warren’s campaign-style video does reference the injustices and racism suffered by Indigenous people, she didn’t shine a light on those injustices today.

Warren could have made this a moment to host a rally or event around Indigenous self-determination or speak out against the recent Texas court ruling against the Indian Child Welfare Act, one of the most important laws to remedy the past U.S. history of ripping Native children from their families.

She could have spoken out against the Supreme Court upholding a voter ID law in North Dakota, which will disproportionately hurt Native voters. Or she could have opposed Line 3, an Enbridge pipeline going through Ojibwe territory in Minnesota to Wisconsin.

These are just a few in a long list of issues that Native Americans are facing in the here and now.


NATIVE AMERICANS were overwhelmingly critical of Warren for her politically motivated use of DNA testing. Their voices were mainly absent from the media, though a few are being heard. As Chuck Hoskin Jr,, Secretary of State of the Cherokee Nation, said in a statement:

A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship. Current DNA tests do not even distinguish whether a person’s ancestors were indigenous to North or South America. Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation.

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 proof. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.

As socialists, we understand that race is socially constructed, but we also know that it has material consequences for people. We should understand this discussion in terms of the issue of self-determination.

As Nick Estes of The Red Nation wrote on facebook: “Native American DNA (despite the shakiness of DNA tests in general to prove “race”) does not mean you are “Native American.” Indigenous people are nations that select and determine their own membership, based on their own customs not DNA tests. No one claims Warren.”

Trump is a racist troll, but Warren fell right into his trap by participating in a racist charade. She has contributed every bit as much as Trump to the political debate on this and other Native issues being shifted further to the right.

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