By Caroline Sha
Race. Nothing has determined the lives of so many people than this construct. From slavery to affirmative action, it has been a source of fierce contention in politics since the founding of the nation. In fact, it is such a complex topic that today, even some of the most liberal politicians can still manage to fall while tiptoeing around it. Elizabeth Warren learned this the hard way when she released a DNA test which supposedly proved that she had a Native American ancestor. Warren has openly touted having an indigenous predecessor for years, attracting taunts of “Pocahontas” and accusations that she lied about her heritage on university and job applications. Though Warren has railed against the racism latent in these statements and published proof on her website that her reported Native American ancestry played no role in advancing her career, many, such as Donald Trump, have continued to mock her. As a result, Warren decided to ask Stanford scientist Carlos Bustamante to perform a genetic test which revealed that although she was largely white, her DNA, when compared to the DNA of those from places such as Peru and Mexico, did show that she did have an indigenous ancestor six to ten generations ago. Though these results may seem like a positive gain for Warren, the actual act of taking the test has garnered outrage from the very group she sought to win over.
The heavy criticism Warren faces from various tribes results from their perception that she is utilizing genetics as representation of native heritage. The Cherokee Nation decrees that "using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong”. By basically conflating her genetic results with undeniable proof that she is truly Native American, Warren advances the view that race is the determining factor in tribal heritage. According to many tribes, this type of thinking takes away their sovereignty in determining membership. Rather, it gives the power of deciding identity to genetics, as opposed to the Native concept of close social ties. In fact, the reason Bustamante could not use Native DNA as a reference for his test was that mistrust of racial genetic testing and their potential ramifications for tribal autonomy have stopped many from the Native community from offering up their blood. After all, the study of heredity in America has historically been used as a tool of white supremacy. For example, starting from the 1700s, the federal government enacted blood quantum laws to limit the growth of tribes. Under this system, federal employees recorded how much “Indian blood” individuals had and used those records to decide who could be considered a part of a tribe. Often, because of ignorance toward Native definitions of membership , people were falsely marked as “full blood” or non-natives based solely on appearance, not actual involvement with a certain tribe. This was problematic as white settlers basically redefined “Native American” as a race, throwing out previously established tribal standards for native identity. To many, Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test echoes this cultural imperialism, suggesting that she, a non-indigenous person, can choose her own interpretation of native heritage, and override existing indigenous benchmarks.
But will this tarnish on Warren's progressive image harm her in the context of her future political career? Though a likely hurdle for her presidential run in 2020, this misstep doesn’t seem to be completely destructive. Despite her base caring ever more about racial issues, according to a Quinnipiac University poll, 60% of Democrats still have a favorable view of her. Moreover, on the republican side, the criticism against Warren for her DNA test has been scant. Though Donald Trump recently tweeted a meme about Warren’s results, it carried the same message and intensity as the attacks he made before this controversy. While issues such as climate change, immigration, and the economy take their place as the top issues of the 2020 race, Warren’s blunder may not come back to bite her.