Elizabeth Warren is still dealing with the fallout of her decision to publicly release the results of a DNA test that purports to show she has a Native American ancestor somewhere back in her family tree.
In the words of the New York Times, which on Thursday detailed how Warren is still trying to figure out how to respond to the multi-faceted criticism over her rollout of the DNA results and an accompanying 6-minute video, “the lingering cloud over her likely presidential campaign has only darkened.” In my words: everyone’s still wondering, what the fuck was she thinking?
In public, Warren continues to assert that releasing the results was the right thing to do, though her language has become decidedly more tepid over time. In October, she defended her decision to the Boston Globe, which she framed as necessary in the context of attacks from Donald Trump in which he repeatedly belittled her claims of Native ancestry. More recently, when asked by the Times if she had any regrets, she had this to say: “I put it out there. It’s on the internet for anybody to see. People can make of it what they will. I’m going to continue fighting on the issues that brought me to Washington.”
But privately, Warren and her advisers are concerned. From the Times:
Advisers close to Ms. Warren say she has privately expressed concern that she may have damaged her relationships to Native American groups and her own standing with progressive activists, particularly those who are racial minorities. Several outside advisers are even more worried: They say they believe a plan should be made to repair that damage, possibly including a strong statement of apology.
The advisers say Ms. Warren will have to confront the issue again if she announces a presidential campaign, which is expected in the coming weeks, and several would like her to act soon.
According to the Times, Warren has since met with Native leaders in an effort to smooth things over. But some of her progressive allies don’t feel she’s done enough. As Jennifer Epps-Addison, the co-director for the Center for Popular Democracy, told the Times, “If she wants to be considered the leader of our party or the leader of the progressive movement, she needs a reconciliation.”
It can be alluringly easy to brush all of this to the side in the name of political expediency. Why continue to focus on Warren’s claims of Native ancestry when Donald Trump is president? Here, though, I find it helpful to turn back to some of the criticism that first emerged in October from Native scholars and writers, who pointed out how Warren’s doubling down on her ancestry and her reliance on DNA testing to prove it is not only deeply flawed, but contributes to the ongoing systemic erasure of Native sovereignty. As Dr. Kim TallBear, a Native Studies professor at University of Alberta and member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe, put it in an interview with Jezebel: “Part of what’s troubling about this whole conversation is that it’s really a bunch of non-indigenous people debating whether or not [Warren is] Native American when none of them clearly know anything about our definitions of what it is to be Native American or Cherokee within that, and we want to privilege our definitions.”
When Trump called her Pocahontas, who cares if she’s offended? Why would she even be offended? She is running around making these outlandish claims herself. People who should really be offended by that are the indigenous people related to Pocahontas and other real indigenous people. Pocahontas is a historical character whose representation is used as a pawn in debates between Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren and the Republicans and the Democrats. Nobody cares about the pain surrounding the stories of Pocahontas and other indigenous whose lives were marked by colonial tragedy so when indigenous people hear about Pocahontas, we think about who she was as a person. We think about the way in which that era then led to all of this dispossession and massacre and loss of land, loss of family members, loss of religious freedom that indigenous people have subsequently gone through. If you go back to that era, there was a whole lot of violence and massacre and genocide. That’s what we think about when we think about somebody who lived at that time.
Nick Martin, in a piece on Splinter, also encapsulated some of the frustrations of many Native people: “Here are some facts: Warren will run for president in 2020. If she wins the primary, I will vote for her, and so will other Natives and white and black and brown people and whoever else doesn’t want a 2016 redux. All the while, my people will continue to trudge forward, through the onslaught of media and political efforts to keep us on the fringe, silent save for moments like this.”
As TallBear and Martin both noted, Warren in some ways has no one to blame but herself. “[S]he is the one who decided to cite her Native heritage, long before Trump was on the scene,” Martin wrote.
And that is one of the most frustrating—if unsurprising—aspects of all of this. She could have refused to engage with Donald Trump and other rightwing politicians and commentators wholly on the terms they have dictated. She could have, as one Cherokee writer and activist suggested she do in 2017, addressed Native communities directly. But here we are.