Because I am Native American, many people have assumed that I would take Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s side in the ongoing debate about her Native American heritage. After all, she is standing up to President Trump and his supporters and not backing down on the issue of her heritage. What a champion for Native Americans, right? Wrong. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is not a hero to me and many other Indigenous people. Where was she during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests? What has she done in her life and political career to address the multitude of issues facing Native Americans? The fact of the matter is that Sen. Warren is a self-serving, opportunist politician who has used claims of Native heritage to get what she wants — in this case the Presidency of the United States.
To many non-Native people, this whole DNA debacle may seem like a non-issue. After all, Sen. Warren is not the first person to claim to be Native American based on DNA. As president of the Wellesley Native American Students Association, I have met many people at Wellesley who claim the same thing. In typical white settler colonial fashion, some people both on this campus and in The United States believe that they can self-identify as Native. To set the record straight, even those with family stories about being Native should not self-identify as Native American. Being Indigenous means belonging to or being claimed by your Indigenous community in some way, either via citizenship or via kin relations, and Sen. Warren has neither. The 1894 marriage license that would prove Sen. Warren’s ancestry does not exist, her genealogy is suspect, and none of her ancestors are listed on the Dawes Rolls, the document the Cherokee uses to determine tribal membership. In short, Sen. Warren is not Cherokee. When the Cherokee Nation, on October 15, 2018, in her home state of Oklahoma released a statement rejecting Sen. Warren’s claims of Cherokee ancestry, that should have been enough for Sen. Warren. Tribal nations determine their own membership. Unfortunately, Sen. Warren has continued to show a clear lack of respect for Indigenous peoples and their sovereignty. We have been telling her for years to own up and stop falsely claiming to be Native, yet still she persists.
By deciding to release her DNA test results, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has legitimized DNA tests, even though they are still viewed as a pseudoscience, particularly when it comes to Indigenous ancestry. She has also added to the fetishization and cheapening of Native American ancestry, in which people claim Native ancestry because they think it is exotic, or they want to steal elements of Native culture, or as a way of denying their role in perpetuating American society’s erasure of Indigenous peoples. In other words, Sen. Warren is participating in forms of cultural appropriation, erasure, and white supremacy. She is also perpetuating and promoting the outdated, racist and harmful concept of racial blood. Ancestry is not race. Genetics are not culture. It doesn’t mean anything to be 1/1024 Native American if someone has no ties to Native community, politics, or culture. Moreover, having a Native ancestor many generations ago doesn’t make anyone Native. It is the 21st century equivalent of white people claiming their great-grandmother was a “Cherokee princess.” No she wasn’t, Sen. Warren.
As if all of this isn’t bad enough, Sen. Warren is also drawing on racist stereotypes to defend her dubious claims of Native heritage. In 2012, Warren stated that she knew her grandfather was Cherokee because of his “high cheekbones.” This is racist because it assumes that all Native Americans look a certain way. We all have high cheekbones, black hair, dark skin and a feather in our hair, right Elizabeth Warren? This is damaging to those of us who do not look stereotypically Native, and it further reinforces the concepts of colorism and phrenology in our culture. As a white-passing Native American, I have to deal with the effects of Warren’s colorist and racist remarks. I am constantly having my heritage questioned because I do not “look Indian,” or having people say things to me like “what part Indian are you?” I am not part Native American. Racial blood, contrary to what the Elizabeth Warrens’ of this world may believe, does not work that way. I am not part Native, I am Native. I am a citizen of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gayhead Aquinnah and am also Oglala Lakota, and I am claimed by my community as Native.
Sadly this whole conversation is centered on a white person instead of on the very real issues that real Native people face. Sen. Warren and her supporters care more about her being called “Pocahontas” than the issues faced by real Native Americans in this country. Instead of erasing us or only talking about us in reference to someone white, the time is long overdue for increased coverage of the repeal of the Indian Child Welfare Act — which prevents Native children from being taken from their families — missing and murdered Indigenous women, environmental struggles, youth suicide rates, the ongoing theft of our lands and changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. What this whole situation boils down to is that Elizabeth Warren is using Native Americans as props in this astronomically stupid publicity stunt for her 2020 campaign, and she is playing directly into Trump’s hands. Senator Warren tried to play Trump’s game and lost. By proudly touting her laughable, miniscule amount of Native ancestry she has opened the door for Trump and his supporters to make racist remarks about Native Americans, she has made it acceptable for the “Nativeness” of real tribal citizens to be questioned, and she is continuing to normalize the white-supremacist idea that white people can determine the race of others. As Native American activist Kim Tallbear said: “Non-Indigenous Americans will never stop making claims to all things Indigenous: bones, blood, land, waters, and identities. The US (and in this case Warren) continues to appropriate every last thing.” Let’s stop giving Elizabeth Warren a platform to peddle her racist lies, and instead center Indigenous struggles!