Elizabeth Warren’s claim to Cherokee ancestry is a form of violence

Be it by the barrel of a carbine or a mail-order DNA test, the American spirit demands the disappearance of Indigenous people.

 

In the early 1990s, I bought a T-shirt at a powwow that read “No! My great-grandmother was not a Cherokee princess!” It was a reference to the practice of non-Natives, with no lived tribal experience, who love telling Native people their own family myth of a Cherokee great-grandmother. The message may have seemed nonsensical to passersby, but to me and my family, it was hilarious.

In the United States, especially in the South and East, it’s common for us to hear improbable tales of being “part” Cherokee. Sometimes, there are assertions of Blackfeet or Apache ancestry. Considering how far away those tribal nations typically are from the claimants, both physically and culturally, many actual Native people struggle not to roll our eyes when the story comes up. The T-shirt, as it turned out, did not at all help to curb that tendency. Eye-roll.

Twenty years later, this most American of family legends began its journey to the spotlight in national politics when Elizabeth Warren, during her U.S. Senate run in Massachusetts in 2012, claimed to have Cherokee and Delaware ancestry. At the time, when asked if I would vote for her, I said, “Yes,” despite disappointment with her cliché claim to a Native ancestor with “high cheekbones.” These days, however, I can’t answer that question in the same way.

Potential presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren at an organizing event at Manchester Community College, New Hampshire in January.

Indian great-grandmother stories are a central part of the American myth. In his 1998 book Playing Indian, Harvard historian Philip Deloria documented the long history of non-Natives engaging in “redface.” Since the 18th century, non-Natives have dressed as Indians at the Boston Tea Party, in fraternal orders, in the Boy Scouts, at hobbyist powwows, within the New Age movement, and in sports, as racist mascots. For hundreds of years, Americans have donned and absorbed Indigenous images and histories even while massacring and starving actual Indigenous people.

Be it by the barrel of a carbine or a mail-order DNA test, Indigenous people must disappear for the United States to thrive.

In his book, Deloria cites English writer and poet D.H. Lawrence, who wrote that an “essentially ‘unfinished’ and incomplete” American consciousness produced an “unparalleled national identity crisis.” He continued: “No place exerts its full influence upon a newcomer until the old inhabitant is dead or absorbed.” For Lawrence, the “unexpressed spirit of America” could not be fulfilled without Indians being exterminated or assimilated into white America. A few decades later, Spokane author Sherman Alexie echoed these sentiments in the poem “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel,” concluding that “In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written, all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.”

In the case of DNA, science now offers a kindler, gentler hand in the disappearing of Native people. The personal genomics industry unwittingly retains older racist and colonial ideas of the unassimilated Native — notions that shape scientists’ search for the supposedly biologically distinct, or “unadmixed,” Native, which privileges the “purer” Native in research in order to gain a better view into an ancient, less-civilized humanity. Living Indigenous people sampled in the course of research become proxies for ancient humans. Ironically, genetic science, which seeks to sample Indigenous people before they vanish into a sea of admixture, actually helps to vanish Indigenous peoples by implying that “mixed” Natives are less Native.

In the settler-colonial belief system, genetic ancestry is expressed as a defining trait of what it is to be “Native American,” or even “Scandinavian,” for that matter. Yet Native people’s own notions of belonging, in addition to contentious but vital tribal political definitions of citizenship, emphasize lived social relations, both with human relatives and with our nonhuman relatives in our traditional lands and waters. Genetic ancestry alone is a shallow definition of who we are, as are the human-centric views of settler-colonists that place humans above nonhuman plants and animals.

Indigenous analyses run counter to many of these settler-colonial ideas, but are often misunderstood, ignored or framed as being fodder for one political party or another. In the 19th century, for example, settlers accused us of being in the way of “progress” in order to justify land theft, massacres of unarmed Native people, and forced assimilation for those who survived. Today, we are seen as in the way of progress if we resist a pipeline, or genetic research and DNA testing that objectifies us as bodies and identities to be studied and consumed for the benefit of non-Natives. Both then and now, settler states and actors, in the pursuit of private property, profit, individual advancement or self-actualization, do not understand Indigenous world-views, and resort to violence or appropriation instead of collaboration; colonialism instead of kinship. 

Today, the Democrats peddle a story to Americans of multicultural progress, inclusion and absorption into the imperial state. Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test and the arguments defending it reflect that narrative. But that story, like the one sold by Republicans, is based in a worldview that holds private property as sacred and America as morally exceptional. For Indigenous people, private property has been, and is, devastating to our lives and cultures. It devastates the planet by enabling natural resource extraction, including Indigenous DNA, for the profit of settler societies. Meanwhile, the idea of moral exceptionalism in North America is informed by, and affirms, the genocide of Indigenous people: physically, symbolically, politically and scientifically. The stories that settlers insist on telling about the world, their world, have life-and-death repercussions for the planet, humans included. 

This is the legacy that Elizabeth Warren inherits and champions. In the years since her claims to being Cherokee, she has ignored Cherokee requests to meet and rectify her assertions — a clear illustration of her lack of integrity, commitment or relation to the very people she claims to have descended from. Instead of kinship, she has chosen colonialism. She is a bad relative, as are the political conservatives and liberals that share a common, anti-Indigenous bond — a story that sacrifices Indigenous worldviews and the good relations between humans and non-humans those beliefs espouse.

Would I vote for Warren if she becomes the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee? Today, the answer is, “No.” I was raised deep inside the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor party by a mother intimately involved in party politics. But she also centered a Dakota view of history and peoplehood, and a sense that our primary allegiance is not to the settler state, but to Dakota ancestors and living relations, including our traditional lands and waters – relational views of peoplehood not uncommon to Indigenous communities.

I lost that Cherokee great-grandmother shirt years ago, but the painfully funny joke continues to circulate through Indian Country as much as it did 25 years ago, this time, with a presidential candidate as the punchline. Raised on settler narratives and mythologies, Warren is one of millions of Americans who would “play Indian” in a quest to absorb the original inhabitants of this land, whom the state has failed to completely exterminate.

Kim TallBear is Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience, and Environment in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. 

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • TECHNICAL ADVISOR TO THE GOOD NEIGHBOR AGREEMENT
    Northern Plains Resource Council seeks an independent contractor to implement the Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA) between local communities and the Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company in Montana....
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening in its Salt Lake City office for a staff attorney. SUWA's...
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.