Dr. Kim Tallbear
Screenshot: YouTube

On Monday, 22 days ahead of the midterm elections, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a heartfelt, five-minute video about her family heritage. In it, she visited her hometown of Norman, Oklahoma, where she and her brothers condemned Donald Trump’s racist nickname for her, Pocahontas. Then Warren leaned into a decades-old claim: that she has Native American heritage.

Warren, who Harvard Law School touted as “Native American” when she taught there in the 1990s, listed herself as a minority in an Association of American Law Schools directory. Since making this discovery, Republicans have mocked Warren—first, former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, and more recently Donald Trump—by calling her “Pocahontas.” Last year, Trump chided: “I will give you a million dollars to your favorite charity paid for by Trump if you take the test and it shows you’re an Indian.”

In the ad, Warren says that her mother’s family had been discriminated against because the town believed she had Native American blood. She released a DNA test that, she argued, supports her heritage claim. Carlos Bustamante, a Stanford genetics professor and an adviser to website Ancestry.com and 23andme.com, concluded that the test suggests Warren had an indigenous ancestor “6-10 generations ago.” The Boston Globe reports that she is “between 1/64th and 1/1,024th Native American.”

The Cherokee Nation has stated, repeatedly, that Warren is not Native American, and the did so again on Monday. “Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong,” Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin, Jr., said in a statement. “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 proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”

Warren’s claims raise a series of questions about what it means to be Native American and who gets to decide. In her 2013 book, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, Dr. Kim TallBear, an Associate Professor on the Faculty of Native Studies at University of Alberta and member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe, argues that genetic testing—itself a scientifically unreliable method—reinforces white notions of identity by reducing cultural identity to dubious genetic markers that ignore the vast network of social ties, family relations, tribal rules, and other histories that form Native American identity.

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Jezebel spoke to TallBear about the limitations of DNA testing, Warren’s troubling, persistent claim to Native American heritage, and the racism of “good-meaning” white people.

JEZEBEL: Before we get to Warren, can you tell us why a person cannot prove Native American ancestry through DNA testing?

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KIM TALLBEAR: I think the better way to ask it is whether one can prove Native American identity through DNA testing. Although there are both social and scientific problems to this question, and the science would say that you can, with a great degree of probability, show Native American ancestry. That’s not the same as showing definitively that someone has the right to claim to be Native American as an identity, because it’s not ancestry alone that constitutes what it is to be a tribal member or even a Native American more broadly, at least from the point of view of Native Americans.

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. Part of what white supremacy has done in the United States is allowed white people to define everybody else’s racial category. It’s allowed white people to define what it is to be a member of a tribe and what it is to be indigenous. It’s one of the privileges of whiteness, to be able to define and monitor and control everybody else’s identity and that’s in part what’s going on here.

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It may not be setting race-based laws, but it’s contributing to a broader conversation in the popular culture in which it’s assumed that everybody has the right to weigh in equally on what constitutes a Native American, or what constitutes a Cherokee. And indigenous people are pushing back against everybody thinking they have the right to weigh in equally on that definition and that conversation.

In terms of the science, one of these so-called Native American markers are found exclusively in Native people. They are not found exclusively in one tribe or another. The very fact that 23andme was able to use populations that are found in what is today Latin America tells you that those markers are not found discreetly in one tribe or another. All of the people that have Native American markers today are people who are descended from a handful of “ancient” Native Americans and we’re all related, of course, across the continent, just like humans around the world are ultimately genetically related.

Whether she has Native American ancestry way back in her family tree, we don’t know that they’re Cherokee, and it doesn’t matter anyway. It just doesn’t matter because that’s not the way that the Cherokee nation defines who is Cherokee. It’s not the way that other Cherokee tribes who is Cherokee, and it’s not the way that indigenous people ourselves define who gets to be indigenous or Native American.

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So how do tribal governments and communities determine who belongs?

There are very specific tribal enrollment rules from tribe to tribe, it’s pretty complicated. Those rules sit within a broader idea though, that one needs to have relatively close or lived social relations with other tribal kin that you are claiming. Being able to produce the genealogical documentation to access tribal citizenship is one way of showing that a tribe claims you. They can claim you through official legal means. But you can also have your tribal community claim you through social means that are not official legal means.

That’s a very different story than somebody like Elizabeth Warren thinking she has an ancestor ten generations back who may have been Cherokee or Delaware, who they can’t even tie those markers to a particular individual. They don’t even know who they are, or even if they were Cherokee or not. There are no lived relations with indigenous people. All there is is a story of an Indian in the family tree, and that’s actually quite common among many Americans, especially in the South and the East of the United States. It’s a running joke in Indian Country when somebody finds out you’re Native when you’re away from the reservation or whatever, Oh, my great grandmother was a Cherokee princess! We hear that kind of stuff all the time and we just roll our eyes. That’s the context within which Elizabeth Warren’s identity claims are received.

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Let’s talk about Elizabeth Warren and that ad. In the ad, she’s claiming Native American heritage.

I couldn’t even watch it. I saw a clip of it with no sound, and I was just like, Oh this is going to make me angry. I couldn’t watch it.

I understand that.

This is a new ad?

She released, along with the DNA test, an ad about her Native American heritage and the stories she heard—the discrimination against her mother’s family, who was rumored to have Native American blood, and how her parents got married in spite of that. And then it explained that her “background” played no role in her hiring—that she was a hardworking student who didn’t benefit from her heritage, setting up a troubling dynamic that implies being hardworking and Native American are mutually exclusive things.

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It sounds completely confident with the narrative that she and her defenders have been spinning throughout this whole debate. I mean, none of that is new. It doesn’t sound like she’s gotten any more self-reflexive about how she overstepped in centering her claims to Cherokee ancestry. I can watch it, but it makes me feel kind of ill to hear that she did a new ad encapsulating the whole problematic narrative that’s been generated by her and her defenders since 2012, frankly. That’s when this all started; when she was running for Senate against Scott Brown and I think he’s the first one who called her Pocahontas.

[Ed. Note: After the interview, TallBear watched the ad and tweeted, “i’m nauseated. the video sums it all up. Non-Indigenous Americans will never stop making claims to all things Indigenous: bones, blood, land, waters, and identities. The US continues to appropriate every last thing.”]

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In politics, it’s easy to call out Donald Trump’s racism. It’s very overt, very derogatory, but what are the effects of what you see from this ad, this racist messaging from Warren and her supporters, who are seen as the face of progressive politics in this country?

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.

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I spent a lot of time in Charlottesville, Virginia, and there are all these white people around there that love to claim they are descendants from Pocahontas— privileged white people who have no lived relationships with indigenous people. To them, indigenous people are back in the 1600s, are back in the 1700s. We don’t really exist for them as living relations today. It really is, Well they’re dead and gone, so we can just claim to be them. There’s none of them around to correct us anyway. They really do believe, I think, in the East that we’re largely dead and gone. That’s what I discovered when I moved to Boston from South Dakota back in 1989. It was just a shock to me how many people—good-meaning progressives—because I was in Cambridge. Good-meaning progressives said, Oh, I thought there were no natives left. Can you guys leave the reservation? They asked me the craziest questions and showed me they had no reference points for native people at all, and so that’s the kind of environment that somebody like Warren I think is operating in.

Now that said, she’s coming from Oklahoma. There’s a whole lot of native people in Oklahoma, but there’s also, paradoxically, a real pervasive desire to claim to be native by white people in Oklahoma as well. Whether they have it in proof or not, this is a problem the Cherokee nation is constantly confronting and they’re really active in calling out well-known people who claim to be Cherokee, because again, most people who claim Native ancestry live no lived relationship to Native people, actually do claim to be Cherokee. They’re the biggest tribe in the country. They’ve got a really interesting history that I think allows a lot of white people to identify with that tribe in a way that they wouldn’t identify with other tribes. Warren is not the only person that they have challenged who claims to be Cherokee.

Why do so many people claim that they are Cherokee?

Circe Sturm is an anthropologist who has a book, Becoming Indian, where she writes extensively about this. I’m not a historian of this area, so I’m just kind of going to give you the vague outline: The Cherokee Nation is one of what were called the Five Civilized Tribes. They were called civilized because earlier on, say when my Dakota ancestors were still living in teepees and hunting buffalo on the prairie, you had these Southeastern tribes, the Five Civilized Tribes who had these basically nation-state forms of government.

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The Cherokee Nation had a printing press. They wrote their language down. They were attempting to establish a nation-state that was in a sense recognizable by the U.S. government so they could lessen the effect of colonization so they could stand as a nation among nations. So there’s a way in which they are more understandable as kind of noble and civilized people to white people because they were attempting to live more within a white person’s idea of what it is to be a nation. There’s this myth that circulates often that the Cherokees were actually white. And you even see genetic genealogists and some kind of crackpot scientists who want to trace Cherokee genealogy and ancestry back to Europe.

This is stuff that I don’t think the general public knows explicitly. I think they know implicitly that the Cherokee nation is this tribe that has been socially, it has seemed, closer to whiteness. Socially it seems closer to a real nation-state than a lot of other tribes, and I think it makes it more accessible to them, psychically.

She could have ignored Trump’s racist barbs. What do you make of the fact that Warren has instead chosen to build a moment around them, so close to the midterm elections? What message does that strategic choice send to you?

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I don’t think what Native Americans actually think matters to either party, frankly, unless it’s somebody running for office in a state where the Native American vote is actually going to count. And it doesn’t count in most parts of the country. Sure, if you’re in South Dakota, Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, and you’re running for especially state office in an area where there’s a big indigenous population then yes, you genuinely care what the Native American electorate thinks. But I don’t think overall, the Democrats and the Republicans both know that our vote matters very little in most elections.

It must be that she perceives it to be an issue that could hurt her, in terms of non-indigenous voters, but I don’t know that that’s actually the case. I don’t feel that Trump followers are going to vote for her no matter what, and most people who identify as Democrats aren’t going to vote for Trump. I’m not sure that it is actually politically efficacious, but I’m not a pundit.

Dating back to 2012 and since then, what have you wanted to see from Warren?

Rebecca Nagle is a Cherokee woman who wrote a piece for Think Progress and she writes a lot and tweets a lot on this issue. She wrote this piece back in November 2016, titled, “I am a Cherokee Woman. Elizabeth Warren Is Not.” At the end of that piece she wrote a two-paragraph Here’s the apology Elizabeth Warren should have given us:

I am deeply sorry to the Native American people who have been greatly harmed by my misappropriation of Cherokee identity. I want to especially apologize to the over 350,000 citizens of Cherokee Nation, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the United Keetoowah Band. In my family, there is an oral history of being Cherokee, however, research on my genealogy going back over 150 years does not reveal a single Native ancestor. Like many Americans who grew up with family members claiming to be Cherokee, I now know that my family’s stories were based on myth rather than fact. I am not enrolled in any of the three Federally recognized Cherokee Tribes, nor am I an active member of any Cherokee or Native American community. Native Nations are not relics of the past, but active, contemporary, and distinct political groups who are still fighting for recognition and sovereignty within the United States. Those of us who claim false Native identity undermine this fight.

I am sorry for the real damage that Native Americans have experienced as the debate about my false identity has revived the worst stereotypes and offensive racist remarks, all while Native people have been silenced. I will do my part as a Senator to push for the United States to fully recognize tribal nations’ inherent sovereignty and uphold our treaty obligations to Native Nations. I will use my national platform to advance the rights of Native Americans and I commit to building real relationships in Indian Country as an ally and supporter.

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If you talk to Cherokee people and other indigenous political commentators who have been following her actual voting record, she’s not been great about supporting tribal sovereignty. She’s all fine to go to talk to the National Congress of American Indians last February and shake some hands and say I’m on your side, but when the rubber meets the road, I don’t think that’s been her record. It has certainly has not been her record to respect tribal sovereignty in terms of actually meeting face to face and one on one with the Cherokee nation and with groups of Cherokee people who have come to Washington and requested that she meet with them to address this issue.

Instead, she’s addressing Republicans, she’s addressing her voters, she’s addressing the broader popular media.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.