Growing up in a predominantly Native American area of rural Oklahoma, it was almost unheard of for someone who wasn’t Native to claim our ancestry. For us, that would have spurred a communal backlash. Everyone knew everyone, and to make such a claim would have been seen as seen as dishonest or nefarious.
On Monday, I awoke to the news that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) had provided the results of a DNA test to prove she was in fact Native American. I felt the immediate pangs of dread. As the editor of the Cherokee Phoenix — the nation’s oldest Native newspaper founded in 1828 — I’m constantly fielding requests from people trying to track down their heritage. I’m also constantly getting emails from angry tribal citizens wanting to report someone who is fictitiously claiming to be Native American.
This is our reality. We are faced with an onslaught of people who have never lived in our shoes saying, “Those are my shoes too,” simply because they spit into a small hermetically sealed glass tube and got back DNA results that say they are 7 percent Native American.
Too often, Native Americans hear the words “I took a DNA test and …” Too often, our heritage and racial identity has been coopted by others for monetary gain, to claim some exoticism in their identity, or simply because someone wanted an excuse to wear a really pretty Halloween costume. But Native identity is not just about tracing a distant ancestor back to our tribe. It’s about cultural heritage, our shared experiences, and participating in our community.
People claiming Native heritage is something we deal with all the time
I’m often amazed at the lengths some people will go to in order to become “Native American.” Our newspaper has reported on groups that create fake organizations under tribal-sound names: For under $100, a person with no claim to Native American heritage is given a bogus membership card and walk away with the mindset that they are Native.
They post on online forums as Natives, they wear regalia from Eastern tribes mixed with Western tribes, they even go so far to start community groups and give themselves “Native” names that are often so laughable and stereotypical they cease to be insulting.
Our identity isn’t present in a faux buckskin outfit or a “Made in China” headdress. It is in our communities, it is in the words of our elders and the faces of our children. It goes beyond whom our ancestors were — it dictates how we live, how we raise our children, and who we are as a people.
For Cherokee Nation citizens to be recognized as such, we must retrace our roots back to a family member who signed the Dawes Roll, essentially a turn-of-the-century census for Cherokees. This is considered a legal status as we are members of a sovereign nation within the borders of the United States. But Warren has never claimed actual citizenship in our tribe. She has infringed on this without evidence or understanding that it takes more than a DNA test to claim an identity.
Warren’s actions could further encourage this behavior
I understand why Warren released her DNA profile to the masses; she has been dogged by scandal since proclaiming she was in fact “Native American” based on her family’s oral history. President Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to Warren with the very racist moniker “Pocahontas” during several of his rallies. She is attempting to put to rest the only question mark on her otherwise upstanding character, but at what cost?
Warren made her DNA claims to stop the name calling. But she, in my opinion, has propped up a growing sect of people who think they can rely solely on a DNA test to confirm their identities. A DNA test will not explain the struggle or plight your ancestors had to go though to make it to a rough patch of dusty earth in exchange for their ancestral homelands. A DNA test will not help you determine what language your ancestors spoke, the food they ate, or where they essentially originated.
The Cherokee Nation is currently on the precipice of a court case decision that could have devastating consequences to our tribe. This month, a judge in Texas struck down a law governing the adoptions of Native American children by Native families as unconstitutional. Events surrounding Warren’s claims only add confusion to an already complex situation. When people are unclear about what makes someone a citizen of a tribe, misconceptions can lead to a change in the law, in this case it could prove costly to Native children.
I personally have no ill will toward Warren or others like her, they have simply been misled, and through no fault of their own they believe that they hold a claim to being Native American. Compared to other groups and individuals out there preying on the misinformed, Warren’s actions are relatively innocuous.
She does, however, add some legitimacy to the myth that Native American heritage is tied to DNA. Heritage is not just who you are biologically. It is about your community. It is the role you play inside of your tribe, large or small. Propagating the notion that a DNA test is all that a person needs to be Native American is damaging to tribes and the sovereignty they have earned through years of struggle and strife. It simplifies a process that was determined through lengthy courtroom battles and legal discussions.
Being Native American is an honor and privilege you are born with. It simply cannot be determined by scientific testing alone.
Brandon Scott is a Cherokee Nation citizen and lifelong resident of Oklahoma. He is the executive editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, the nation’s first Native newspaper.