Power  /  Comment

Is Elizabeth Warren Native American?

What the DNA controversy reveals about race, identity politics, and the Native American present.

But where Warren appears to have gotten the most serious pushback from the left is on the topic of race itself. Her decision to take and publicize the results of a DNA test that seems to substantiate the claim that she has a Native American ancestor (that DNA testing can actually do this has been disputed) has been roundly criticized. Spokespeople for the Cherokee Nation, which Warren is said to have applied to and been rejected from, argue that it equates Native American “identity” with DNA rather than participation in a distinctive culture and history. Non-Native American critics also point out that, when it comes to race, scientism has been a key element in the white supremacist toolbox.

And there is a politics to contemporary racialism that is not just about personal identity and college admissions. According to Laura Briggs, professor and chair of women, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and an expert on international adoption, Warren’s reveal has particular implications for the dismantling of tribal governance, something that has been on the conservative agenda for some time and has become ever more urgent since the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline protests. You thought conservatives wanted to get rid of race? Well they do, except when it is useful to them. By redefining Native Americans as racial in the recent decision in Texas v. Zinke, the Indian Child Welfare Act was declared unconstitutional, setting up a Supreme Court challenge that would potentially allow a return to the removal of Native children from their communities as candidates for adoption by whites. You can read the argument for that strategy at The Goldwater Institute’s website, the Arizona conservative think tank where the strategy was devised and promoted.

“So, the big national issue in Native politics rights now may not even be the North Dakota voter disfranchisement — as awful as that is — but the Zinke case last week,” Briggs explains, “because its goal is precisely to undermine land, water, and treaty rights by reducing Indian-ness to a racial/biological category.” Re-introducing biological race into law then means that “there is no sovereign entity that holds these rights, the land, and basically all of Indian law is null and void.”
In Briggs’ view, Warren’s use of a DNA test as evidence that she is not a liar “is the most politically toxic possible way” to make that claim because “playing Indian has real consequences in taking people’s stuff. It’s not a distraction: the rights of 5 million people depend on the outcome, and Warren just massively put her foot in it.”