Elizabeth Warren (AP/Elise Amendola)

Trump wants Senator Warren to prove her heritage with a DNA test. Here's why that may not work

“Everyone here is racially mixed”: Experts explain why it's "wrong to think genetics" can infer native heritage


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Andrew Lawler
July 29, 2018 11:30PM (UTC)

President Donald Trump recently offered to give $1 million to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s favorite charity. All the Massachusetts Democrat has to do is follow the instructions from an off-the-shelf DNA kit and publicize the results. It sounds like a reasonable way to resolve the ugly dispute over her claims to Native American ancestry. Even newspapers that endorsed the Democratic senator and some Native Americans are urging her to take the spit test.

After all, Warren’s insistence that she is of Cherokee descent is her “Achilles heel,” noted the Berkshire Eagle. “The same technology that can match a perpetrator to a crime with virtually 100 percent certainty could settle the question of her heritage for all time,” the editors wrote in an op-ed.

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Joan Vennochi at the Boston Globe agreed. “Taking a DNA test could solve at least one of Elizabeth Warren’s political problems,” she wrote. Debbie White Dove Porreco, a Mattaponi claiming descent from Pocahontas, told Tucker Carlson on Fox News Insider that while she respects Warren, “I just wish she'd take the DNA test” in order to “end a lot of this controversy.”

True, genetic testing frees innocents from jail and determines paternity. So why wouldn’t it definitively settle questions of heritage? “Defining ‘Indian’ has been controversial from the beginning, “one Southern Cheyenne acquaintance explained to me.

For half a millennium, Indian societies have absorbed Spanish, French and English deserters, captives, and shipwreck victims. The most famous example is the first English colony in the New World. More than one hundred vanished in 1587, and archaeologists and historians now believe they assimilated with local Algonquian speakers.

In many of these small-scale societies, blood was not thicker than water. It was common for outsiders to become full-fledged community members. What counted wasn’t your color or ancestry as much as your practical skills and cultural literacy.

White Europeans and black Africans often rose high in the ranks of Native American society. Scotsman Alexander McGillivray, for example, led some 10,000 Creeks in the 18th century against the onslaught of American settlers into the Deep South. This was true in the West as well. “To be one of us, all you had to was live with us — it didn’t matter if you were black or white,” my Southern Cheyenne source said. For many Native Americans, it is culture rather than blood that truly binds. “Knowing our stories is what really make us Cherokee,” a friend of mine from the tribe’s Eastern Band added.

Consider the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River, the Lumbee of southeastern North Carolina. Their ancestors took refuge in remote swamps to avoid Europeans and their diseases in the late 1600s. Over time, enslaved Africans escaped from nearby plantations into the marshes, while disaffected whites drifted in as well. As early as 1754 they were described as “a mixed crew.”

Walk through the town of Pembroke, in the heart of Lumbee territory, and you don’t need a DNA kit to see the result of some four centuries of racial mixing. There are fair-skinned people with kinky hair and dark-skinned people with straight hair, often within the same family. They are what anthropologists call “tri-racial isolates” — a mix of white, black and Indian — who have fought centuries of prejudice to maintain their unique identity. “Everyone here is racially mixed,” acknowledges Chief Harvey Godwin, who has a broad nose and a gray ponytail.

In a terrible irony, however, many Native American tribes use what is called the “blood quantum” to determine who is officially a member. Among the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, for example, “you must possess at least 1/16 degree of Eastern Cherokee blood,” according to enrollment rules. Among the Southern Cheyenne, the ratio is one quarter.

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This approach is directly descended from centuries of racist laws across the country — not just in the South — that used genealogy to define who could vote, own property, and who could marry whom. In much of 19th-century America, if just one of your great-grandparents was black, then so were you. By that time, determining Indian identity was a pressing economic issue, since full-blooded Indians often were considered too incompetent to sell land.

In the late 1800s, Congress passed an act designed to force Indians to assimilate by disbanding tribes and encouraging families to farm independently — what an approving President Theodore Roosevelt called “a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.” In his day, the U.S. government turned to science to help settle the vexing issue of Indian identity. The Bureau of Indian Affairs hired anthropologists to differentiate between mixed and full-blooded Indians. A good deal of time was spent studying hair types.

When the New Deal reached the reservations in 1934, in the form of the Indian Reorganization Act, the need to define who was and who was not an Indian was turned over to the tribes. They were, however, encouraged to use the blood quantum, similar to the rules that remained in force across the Jim Crow South. “From then on, the government could increasingly rely upon Indians themselves to enforce race codes,” notes controversial ethnologist Ward Churchill.

The issue remains economically charged, though today it is less about land ownership and more about the $32 billion in Indian gaming revenue recorded in 2017. Today, more than half of Native Americans are married to non-Indians, and some scholars estimate that in half a century, only one in 10 Indians will have a “full-blooded” parent.

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That brings us back to DNA testing. Biologists have fewer markers for Native American identity than for Europeans, though their data set is expanding. But even with better data, “it is wrong to think genetics can infer a Native American identity,” says Kim Tallbear, an anthropologist descended from Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. The new science is, in effect, simply a technologically more advanced form of blood quantum genealogy.

Senator Warren’s claims to Indian ancestry are based on old family stories. Whether or not these claims are true, she won’t resolve the debate to anyone’s satisfaction by taking the spit test. So while the advances in DNA promise major advances in medicine and the justice system, let’s accept that pie chart percentages can do as much to hide as to illuminate our country’s rich — and vexed — heritage.


Andrew Lawler

Andrew Lawler is author of "The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke."

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