Oh, Elizabeth Warren. Let’s talk.
There are so many ways to assess American Indian identity. All of them are problematic.
For some of us, it’s simple. We have tribal citizenship. This is my situation. My dad is a citizen of the White Earth nation. Both of my grandparents were too. I haven’t ever had to question my identity because it’s right there on a fairly official looking paper that lists my blood quantum.
Have you heard that term? "Blood quantum" tracks what fraction of native we are. It’s a weird tool of colonialism and genocide, not a traditional aspect of our cultures. But it’s the mechanism used to grant citizenship to many tribes, receive government benefits, or determine program eligibility. Many people say that blood quantum is a poor way of measuring who is native, because it counts people out for all sorts of reasons. Maybe their tribe isn’t federally recognized, their parents are native but not enough from one tribe, paperwork got lost...there are many reasons why it’s not foolproof.
Indigenous people, including myself, like to look more critically and talk about who shares our culture by looking at how you grew up, the community you were surrounded by, the ceremonies, food, language, and traditions that you were raised with.
After all, that’s what culture is, right?
But this doesn’t work seamlessly either.
There are weird white folks who are really good at passing, there are people with native parents or grandparents who were adopted out to non-native families, and even non-native people who were raised in tribal communities. There are class differences, differences between urban and rural native populations. It can be hard to measure the authenticity of someone’s claims. And it feels weird. Who is allowed to say, really, how people can identify?
My family (including Fox News-watchers) sat together and talked about what they think of @realDonaldTrump’s attacks on our heritage. And yes, a famous geneticist analyzed my DNA and concluded that it contains Native American ancestry. pic.twitter.com/r3SNzP22f8— Elizabeth Warren (@elizabethforma) October 15, 2018
But I feel comfortable saying this: When I woke up this morning and saw Elizabeth Warren waving her DNA results around, I felt incredibly comfortable saying: “Hell no.” That test result doesn’t make her native. It doesn’t excuse her false claims of native status to be treated favorably in academia.
I am not alone in thinking this. Tribal governments, almost unilaterally, do not accept DNA tests as proof of heritage. Dr. Kim TallBear wrote a fantastic book about the topic, called Native American DNA.
It’s a hot topic, because there is all kind of bullshit that forces American Indians into conversations about who is native in the first place. People steal from us all the time, and the thing they love to take most is our identity. Not our credit cards, but our claim to our ancestors. There’s a variety of reasons to do it, some even with good intentions. Thieves romanticize the glory of the great-grandma who was a Cherokee Princess (they didn’t have princesses, okay?)
There are some who, upon hearing that I am Anishinaabe, have looked me in the face and told me that they were “spiritually Indigenous” or that they “knew they were native because of their cheekbones.” There are the ceremonial thieves, who claim to be part of a tribe so they can charge $1,000 for a sweat lodge fantasy.
My favorite type is the white folks who claim an Indigenous ancestor because they want to justify their own racism or the racism of their favorite sports teams. They always seem to pop up when Dateline is asking people in Washington, D.C. about their NFL mascot. Four real native people against the mascot, four people against, all of whom claim to be native but couldn’t tell you anything more about it.
As more and more people get their Ancestry.com results back, and use their "2 percent Native American" results as an excuse to feel entitled to represent themselves as native, or to speak on our behalf, or to receive any kind of benefit because their pinky toe is native, they should first ask themselves: Why am I so easily able to use my great-great-great-great-great-grandparent’s identity to steal from Indigenous people today?
Across the country, American Indians still face some of the greatest disparities from whites in almost every single marker of health, wealth, and political power. People who capitalize on their fractional identity are simply performing another extension of white supremacy and colonial violence.
Of course it’s easy for them to steal from Indigenous people. It’s what Americans have always done.