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Why Many Native Americans Are Furious With Elizabeth Warren

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Why Many Native Americans Are Furious With Elizabeth Warren

Why Many Native Americans Are Furious With Elizabeth Warren
October 18
20:29 2018

If Senator Elizabeth Warren thought that releasing her DNA test results showing Native American ancestry would neutralize a Republican line of attack, she was wrong.

The test — part of her strategic preparations for a likely presidential campaign — did not placate President Trump, who has mocked Ms. Warren as “Pocahontas” and once promised $1 million to a charity of her choice if a DNA test substantiated her claims of Cherokee and Delaware heritage. And her announcement of the results angered many Native Americans, including the Cherokee Nation, the largest of the country’s three federally recognized Cherokee tribes.

DNA testing cannot show that Ms. Warren is Cherokee or any other tribe, the secretary of state of the Cherokee Nation, Chuck Hoskin Jr., said in a statement. Tribes set their own citizenship requirements, not to mention that DNA tests don’t distinguish among the numerous indigenous groups of North and South America. The test Ms. Warren took did not identify Cherokee ancestry specifically; it found that she most likely had at least one Native American ancestor six to 10 generations ago.

Ms. Warren defended herself by saying she was not claiming to be eligible for membership in the Cherokee Nation — and she isn’t, given that her ancestors do not appear on the Dawes Rolls, early-20th-century government documents that form the basis of the Cherokee citizenship process. She said she was simply corroborating the family stories of Native American lineage that she has often recounted.

But that distinction actually cuts to the heart of why Native Americans are so upset with her. Fundamentally, their anger is about what it means to be Native American — and who gets to decide.

“The American public doesn’t understand the difference” between ancestry and tribal membership, said Kim TallBear, a professor at the University of Alberta who wrote a book titled “Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science.”

While many people see “Native American” as simply a racial category, she said, “we have additional ideas about how to identify when one is Native American that aren’t really consistent with the way most Americans think. Our definitions matter to us.”

And so when someone like Ms. Warren emphasizes undocumented lineage over tribal citizenship criteria, said Dr. TallBear, who is a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe in South Dakota, “what they’re telling us is they are privileging nonindigenous definitions of being indigenous.”

Membership in a Native American tribe is “very precious to us,” Mr. Hoskin, the Cherokee Nation secretary of state, said in a phone interview. “It’s not just a card that we hold. It’s something that we consider a dear possession, and so we don’t take it lightly.”

This perspective is grounded in a long history of persecution, displacement and massacre. Over many decades of United States history, the government took the land of Native American tribes, including the Cherokee, and pushed them steadily west. President Andrew Jackson’s policies, continued under Martin Van Buren, forced the Cherokee into their current territory in Oklahoma in the Trail of Tears during 1838 and 1839. Administration after administration signed treaties with tribes and then violated them. It was not until the 1930s that tribes gained the sovereignty they now have on their reservations.

“Those of us who are Cherokee citizens, we know our ancestors in some cases perished along the Trail of Tears,” Mr. Hoskin said.

“Most reasonable people can understand,” in that context, why claims to Native American heritage based on a DNA test are fraught, he added.

Neither Ms. Warren nor anyone on her staff contacted the Cherokee Nation before publicizing the DNA results, Mr. Hoskin said. A spokeswoman for Ms. Warren’s re-election campaign, Kristen Orthman, declined to comment on this point.

Ms. Warren’s announcement was clearly intended to put to rest one of Mr. Trump’s favorite lines of attack. (Mr. Hoskin criticized Mr. Trump, too, for his repeated use of “Pocahontas” as a slur.) Instead, the DNA test brought a barrage of negative headlines and opinion pieces, in liberal-leaning publications like HuffPost as well as conservative-leaning ones like The New York Post.

Asked about the criticism, the senator’s campaign spokeswoman, Ms. Orthman, sent links to a tweet by Ms. Warren and to a statement posted on Facebook by the Eastern Band Cherokee, a separate tribe from the Cherokee Nation.

“Some people who have family stories or evidence of Native ancestry have sought to appropriate Cherokee culture, claim a preference in hiring, claim that their art is ‘Indian art,’ or advance their careers based on a family story or evidence of Native ancestry,” Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed added in the statement, which argued that Ms. Warren had not done any of those things. “We strongly condemn such actions as harmful to our tribal government and Cherokee people.”

By Wednesday, the post had been deleted from the Facebook page of the tribe’s newspaper, but Ashleigh Stephens, a spokeswoman for Principal Chief Sneed, said he stood by it.

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