DNA is irrelevant — Elizabeth Warren is simply not Cherokee

DNA is irrelevant —  Elizabeth Warren is simply not Cherokee
© Anna Moneymaker

Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenNearly six in ten want someone other than Trump elected president in 2020: poll Schumer reelected as Senate Democratic Leader Merkley seeking to change Oregon law so he can run for president and Senate in 2020: report MORE has repeatedly identified herself as Cherokee. From 1986 to 1995 she listed herself as Native American in the Association of American Law Schools directory of law professors. After gaining tenure, she insisted University of Pennsylvania categorize her as Native American, too. She then identified herself as Native American to Harvard — in her application and hiring materials and in other forms beyond. 

Harvard has insisted that Warren’s Native American ancestry made no impact on their hiring decisions. Yet, the university immediately held up the recruitment of Warren, a “Native American woman,” to push back against claims that they were insufficiently diverse and diffuse pressure to hire more people of color. Warren was described as Harvard Law’s “first woman of color” in a 1997 Fordham Law Review article. She even published multiple recipes to a cookbook, Pow Wow Chow: A Collection of Recipes from Families of the Five Civilized Tribes — all signed, “Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee.”

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Warren has consistently struggled to substantiate her claims to Native American ancestry (beyond her grandfather’s “high cheekbones”). Warren asserts her mother was “part Cherokee and part Delaware,” yet a prominent Cherokee genealogist who traced Warren’s maternal ancestry all the way back to the Revolutionary War era found no evidence of any Native American heritage. Some relatives have publicly disputed Warren’s narrative about their family. And, of course, Warren phenotypically presents as white.

For these reasons, she has faced consistent accusations that her claims to Native American ancestry were either mistaken or cynical. The president of the United States mockingly refers to her as “Pocahontas” —  and told Warren he would pay $1 million dollars to a charity of her choice “if you take the test and it shows you’re an Indian.” He precited Warren would decline this challenge. It would have been better for her if she had.

What the test shows (and doesn’t)

According to the test, Warren’s DNA is between 1/64 and 1/1032 Columbian, Mexican and/or Peruvian (used as proxies for measuring Cherokee heritage for reasons described in the report); between 0.1 percent and 1.5 percent of her DNA may be Native American in origin; she may have had a Native American ancestor between six to 10 generations back.

Warren depicted this as “slam dunk” proof that she really is of Native American ancestry. This is a base-rate fallacy. In fact, the average white person in America has 0.18 percent Native American DNA — meaning they could be described as about 1/ 556 Native American or as having a Native American ancestor nine to10 generations back. Warren does not seem to have a unique claim to Native American heritage over and above the typical white American.

For comparison: the average U.S. white also has about 0.19 percent African DNA; they can be said to be 1/ 526 black or to have a black ancestor nine to10 generations back. Rachel Dolezal might have about the same genetic claim to being black as Elizabeth Warren does to being Cherokee. Already, memes are circulating comparing the two. Of course, Warren and supporters can make arguments explaining how the two cases are not similar, but this is beside the point. If it has to be explained why or how Warren is substantively different from Dolezal, the war is already lost. 

Non sequitur

Rather than acknowledging she has no meaningful claim to Cherokee / Native American heritage or identity, Warren has doubled down. She claims to have “won” the bet, and has demanded Trump donate $1 million to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. The president has refused, insisting he won the wager. Unfortunately, he is correct: although Warren did take the test it did not prove she is “an Indian.”

Genes, race and ethnicity are non-identical and the relationship between them is complicated. Warren is phenotypically white. She has no identifiable Native American ancestor, no clan affiliation, and no meaningful connection to Cherokee language, customs or culture. As a result, even if the DNA test had suggested she could meet the 1/16 blood quantum required by Cherokee for a federally recognized Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood(she was nowhere near this) — it would still not have established Warren is “an Indian.”

It was actually impossible for Warren to actually win Trump’s bet: Cherokee do not decide who is (or is not) one of them the basis of DNA; what matters are clan ancestry, tracing one’s genealogy to an ancestor on the “Dawes Rolls,” or being adopted into a clan by a Clan Mother.  Elizabeth Warren fails to meet any of these criteria. As a result, she is simply not Cherokee — not even a little. DNA is irrelevant.

This point was powerfully driven home by the Cherokee Nation’s Secretary of State, who described Warren’s attempt as wrong-headed and insulting. He went on to say that Warren is “undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage” (neither Warren nor her team consulted with Cherokee leadership before conducting the test or releasing the results).

And so, rather than neutralizing Trump’s attacks, it is now has made it far easier to portray Warren as a phony: She appropriated Native American heritage for years in both private and professional settings.

Confronted with evidence that her claims were illegitimate (her DNA is comparable to the average white; she has no other empirical proof of heritage) — Warren nonetheless claimed vindication, emulating Trump’s “post-truth politics.”

Throughout, she failed to challenge (and in fact, reinforced) Trump’s false narratives about race, Affirmative Action and the quality of the minority applicants who benefit from it.

Rather than using her platforms and energies to discuss her own agenda, hold Trump accountable for his record and proposals, or speak to constituents’ priorities — we are instead discussing Warren’s (lack of) Native American ancestry because she herself dragged the issue into the spotlight.  

Elizabeth Warren tried to play Trump’s game. She lost. Democrats, take heed.

Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld fellow in sociology at Columbia University.