Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s release of a DNA test, which suggested a lineage to a distant Native American ancestor, has roiled the indigenous community frustrated about the seizure of cultural and social ties for political maneuvering.
The Massachusetts Democrat, a likely presidential contender in 2020, released the test Monday in an attempt to neutralize attacks from President Donald Trump and other Republicans. She has previously cited family stories to claim Cherokee and Delaware Indian heritage.
But the public rollout, accompanied by a campaign-like video, has provoked strong rebukes from tribal leaders and activists.
“It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven,” Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement. “Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”
Hoskin said the tests cannot even reliably determine lineage among North or South American tribal groups.
Trump seized on the Cherokee Nation’s criticism Tuesday morning in a three-tweet salvo in which he resumed using his derisive nickname for Warren, “Pocahontas.”
“Thank you to the Cherokee Nation for revealing that Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to as Pocahontas, is a complete and total Fraud!” he said.
Warren has defended herself, saying she did not benefit professionally from claiming indigenous lineage. But she appeared to concede a main line of criticism from Native American leaders – that sovereign tribal groups determine citizenship and cultural lineage, not DNA tests such as the one she took.
“I won’t sit quietly for @realDonaldTrump’s racism, so I took a test,” Warren wrote on Twitter. “But DNA & family history has nothing to do with tribal affiliation or citizenship, which is determined only – only – by Tribal Nations. I respect the distinction, & don’t list myself as Native in the Senate.”
Kim TallBear, a researcher at the University of Alberta, called Warren’s claims “yet another strike” against “tribal sovereignty.”
That erosion, TallBear said Monday on Twitter, has been long-standing.
“Non-Indigenous Americans will never stop making claims to all things indigenous: bones, blood, land, waters, and identities. The U.S. continues to appropriate every last thing.”
Gyasi Ross, an author focused on Native American issues and culture, told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes that “there is definitely a level of anger, of tone-deafness” in Warren’s approach.
Trump had previously challenged Warren to prove her claims of Native American ancestry, saying he would donate $1 million to charity if she did so. He later claimed he hadn’t said that.
Ross said Warren and Trump should each give that amount to the National indigenous Women’s Resource Center for “making indigenous ancestry into a campaign prop.” Warren had already suggested that Trump’s promised donation go to the center.