Over the weekend, US Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) released the results of a genetic test suggesting she does have some Native American ancestry. Warren, who is likely to run for president in 2020, probably hopes that the results will stop President Trump and his supporters from mocking her by calling her “Pocahontas.” But even if these particular attacks stop, the test certainly doesn’t prove that she’s Native American. There is no DNA test for being Native American because DNA and genetic ancestry are not the same as culture and identity.
Carlos Bustamante, a prominent Stanford University geneticist and MacArthur fellow, led the analysis, so it’s far more likely to be accurate than direct-to-consumer DNA tests that sometimes botch results. He concludes that though Warren is mostly European, “the results strongly support the existence of an unadmixed Native American ancestor” six to 10 generations ago. This could support Warren’s claims, though if her ancestor is fully 10 generations back, she would be only 1/1024th Native American, a fact that critics would love to emphasize.
More importantly: who cares? Warren should never have made this claim to begin with. It doesn’t mean anything to possibly have 1/1024 Native American ancestry if she has no ties to Native American culture or politics otherwise. The test might prove she didn’t lie about family history, but it doesn’t tell us anything else useful, and plays into the dangerous ways that people already (wrongly) conflate genetic ancestry with culture.
People are always searching for identity, and direct-to-consumer DNA testing companies love to tap into this to sell kits. With the US out of the World Cup this year, 23andMe offered to help users find which still-qualifying country they could still root for, based on their ancestry. More recently, AncestryDNA partnered with Spotify to provide genetics-based playlists, even though we don’t need to be “from” a region to listen to its music. While these are silly examples, last month a man whose DNA test showed that he’s 4 percent black is legally filing claims to qualify as a minority business owner. And even when white supremacists receive news that their ancestry might not be all white, they’re rarely expelled from their groups.
This type of false DNA-equals-identity logic is even trickier when it comes to Native American ancestry. Many Native Americans have concerns about genetic testing and don’t participate in databases, given the long history of white colonizers exploiting their people. (This also means that many genetic databases are far too white.) Notably, in 1990, Arizona State University researchers collected genetic samples from the Havasupai tribe to study diabetes — and then continued to use their samples in other research. “We know who we are as a people, as an indigenous people, why would we be so interested in where scientists think our genetic ancestors came from?” Kim Tallbear, a University of Alberta professor and author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science told The Atlantic. (Tallbear is a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe and has written extensively on this topic.)
Additionally, having some Native American ancestry “proven” from a DNA test does not automatically mean that someone is or should be, say, a member of the Cherokee tribe. (Warren has never explicitly claimed to be a member of the Cherokee tribe, but did list herself as “Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee” under recipes she contributed for a cookbook in 1984.) “People think that there’s a DNA test that can prove if somebody is Native American or not. There isn’t,” Tallbear told New Scientist. Tribal affiliation is about more than genetics. It is also about history, culture, and political identity. The same is true of every culture, but these issues are especially sensitive given the history of the Native Americans in the US.
Tallbear noted that it’s popular for white people to claim Native American ancestry, but “tribe” is a federally recognized status, and being Cherokee is about more than DNA analysis. And as DNA tests have become more and more widespread, people are showing up at tribal-enrollment offices with their results. “That worries us in a land where we already feel there’s very little understanding about the history of our tribes, our relationships with colonial powers, and the conditions of our lives now,” she said.
In a statement provided today, Tallbear pointed out that Warren shouldn’t continue to defend her ancestry claims despite refusing to meet with Cherokee Nation members that challenge her. “This shows that she focuses on and actually privileges DNA company definitions in this debate, which are ultimately settler-colonial definitions of who is indigenous,” Tallbear writes. “She and much of the US American public privilege the voices of (mostly white) genome scientists and implicitly cede to them the power to define indigenous identity.” Similarly, the Cherokee Nation said in a statement that “Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”
At best, Warren’s DNA test means the “Pocahontas” name-calling can stop, and we can all move on. At worst, it’ll feed into more shortsighted obsession that the information provided by five parts of someone’s DNA provide meaningful insight.
Update October 15th, 7:00PM ET: This post has been updated to include a statement from Cherokee Nation and to clarify that Warren did list herself as Cherokee in 1984 cookbook.
Update October 15th, 1:30PM ET: This post has been updated to include a statement from Kim Tallbear.