ROCKY BOY'S INDIAN RESERVATION, Mont. — Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Manchin, Sanders in budget feud; Biden still upbeat Democratic frustration with Sinema rises Which proposals will survive in the Democrats' spending plan? MORE (D-Mont.) on Monday said Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSinema's office outlines opposition to tax rate hikes The CFPB's data overreach hurts the businesses it claims to help Runaway higher ed spending gains little except endless student debt MORE’s (D-Mass.) use of a DNA test to claim Native American heritage doesn’t “pass the test.”
“I don’t think that would pass the test, no,” he said during a visit to the Rocky Boy’s Reservation, one of two he visited on Monday.
But Tester waved off the uproar over Warren’s claimed Native American roots as a sideshow to the more important issues affecting reservations in his state.
“I don’t think that’s where we need to go. That’s a fight between her and Trump and she can continue to have that fight. The real issue here are the challenges in Indian country, especially the tribes that don’t have gaming,” he said.
Tester made the remarks in an interview at a voter turnout event with the Chippewa Cree tribe. The incumbent will need a strong turnout of voters on Election Day to win what is considered a toss-up race against Republican Matt Rosendale.
Warren earlier this month released the results of a DNA test showing that she is between 1/64th and 1/1024th— or 1.6 percent and 0.1 percent — Native American, touting it as proof of her claims of Native American heritage.
Tester, a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, says said he’s more focused on issues affective Native American communities, such as poverty, health services and access to clean water, than Warren’s claims of American Indian ancestry.
“The real issue that revolves around Native American people is poverty and unless you’re a gaming tribe, it’s a problem and we’ve got to figure our solutions to get it fixed,” he said.
Tester said missing and murdered indigenous women is another problem that deserves more attention.
“Two months ago I had a listening sessions in Missoula. Thirty women have been missing [there] since the first of the year. One of them have been found. We got a problem here,” he said. “Why aren’t we fixing this problem out there?”
Tester discussed Warren’s Native American heritage when asked about it by The Hill.
Native Americans, who make up nearly 8.6 percent of Montana’s population, are a key constituency for Tester, along with female voters and millennials.
They helped push him over the top in 2008 and 2012, when he won races with less than 50 percent of the vote.
“Bottom line, Indian Country is going to decide who wins the election,” Tester said at a Native American voter–turnout rally at Fort Belknap Indian Reservation later Monday.
Members of the Chippewa Cree tribe agreed with Tester that to claim Native American heritage based on a blood test showing just a percent or a percent and a half of Indian blood doesn’t carry much weight.
Ted Whitford, vice chairman of the Chippewa Cree tribe, said Warren’s DNA test doesn’t back up her claim of significant Native American ancestry.
“It’s really not a whole lot of blood degree to make an issue out of. If you looked at almost anyone’s DNA, at some point they’re going to have some Native American,” he said.
He said someone can always claim to be Native American but that such a small degree of blood “is probably not enough to be counted” as part of any tribe.
But he’s more focused on other issues affecting residents of his community, specifically the lack of access to clean water.
The Chippewa Cree on Rocky Boy's Reservation have been waiting more than 20 years for the completion of a water infrastructure project that would deliver clean water from the Tiber Reservoir.
The tribe negotiated a settlement with the state of Montana in 1996 to allocate 10,000 acre-feet of water to the reservation, but the project has been held up because of a lack of funding.
Tester, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told The Hill that he’s aware of the problem and is eying Interior Department funding as a possible fix.
“It’s been going on for 20 years and it’s about getting money,” he said. “There’s some money in one of the funds at Interior that could fund these water projects in the west.”
“It’s critical,” he said. “That pipeline has to be built.”
Warren’s use of DNA evidence to back up her heritage claims has split Native Americans.
The Cherokee Nation called her announcement of the DNA results “inappropriate and wrong,” while Richard Sneed, the principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, recently defended Warren, arguing she has not used her family story to gain employment or other advantages.
Warren’s defenders argue there’s a big difference between claiming some Native American heritage, as Warren has done, and claiming to be a member of a tribe, which she has not.
Warren released the DNA test results on Oct. 15 in an effort to put to rest President TrumpDonald TrumpHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Twitter's algorithm boosts right-leaning content, internal study finds Ohio Democrat calls Vance an 'ass----' over Baldwin tweet Matt Taibbi says Trump's rhetoric caused public perception of US intelligence services to shift MORE’s persistent criticism of her for claiming to have a minority background when she taught at law school. She has also stepped up her advocacy on Native American issues this year, meeting with tribal leaders and co-sponsoring several bills related to Indian affairs.
James Swan, who lives on Rocky Boy's Reservation, said the controversy over Warren’s heritage is overblown but that he thinks it was a mistake to release the DNA results.
“She kind of fell into the trap of the orange man who says I’ll give your charity a million dollars if you prove that your native. We have bigger fish to fry than whether she’s native or not,” he said, referring to Trump, who regularly mocks Warren as "Pocahontas."
“I think she was sick of being called Pocahontas and I think she made a mistake. Now it’s just going to be worse,” he added. “If she tries to run [for president], which I think she will, he’s just going to keep at it. I think she fell for his trap.”
Deb Haaland, a Democratic candidate for the House in New Mexico and a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, however, defended Warren in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal.
"She was not dishonest about what her DNA test revealed. She was on the contrary very honest about it,” Haaland told the Journal. “She had an idea from family stories that she had Native American ancestry — she proved that with her DNA test. She didn’t propose to do anything other than that.”