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
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Wild Public Lands (COWPL), based in Basalt, is an exciting nonprofit working to keep public lands open and accessible. Our growing organization is seeking...
  • BUSINESS SUPPORT ASSISTANT (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time business support assistant to provide...
  • SOCIAL MEDIA AND DIGITAL ADVERTISING SPECIALIST
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening for a full-time Social Media and Digital Advertising Specialist. This position...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    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...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...