The Slatest

Why Elizabeth Warren Needed to Apologize to the Cherokee Nation for Her DNA Test

Warren, wearing a purple sweater, speaks in front of a crowd of airport employees.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren on January 21, 2019.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who’s faced months of criticism over a DNA test that she claimed proved her Native American ancestry, has apologized to the Cherokee Nation, the Intercept reported Thursday.

Earlier in the day Warren had contacted Cherokee Nation leaders, “apologizing for furthering confusion over issues of tribal sovereignty and citizenship and for any harm her announcement caused.” Julie Hubbard, spokeswoman for the Cherokee Nation, told the Intercept that the leaders were “encouraged by this dialogue” and “hope that the slurs and mockery of tribal citizens and Indian history and heritage will now come to an end.”

According to the New York Times, Warren had a “brief and private” conversation with Bill John Baker, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. “The chief and secretary of state appreciate that she has reaffirmed that she is not a Cherokee Nation citizen or a citizen of any tribal nation,” Hubbard told the Times.

As Slate explained after Warren announced her DNA test results, Cherokee citizens have contended that taking a DNA test to determine affiliation with a tribe is dangerous: It promotes the idea that blood, rather than tribal records and social connections, determine who is Native American. In its scathing statement at the time, the Cherokee Nation called Warren’s decision “inappropriate and wrong.” The statement went on:

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. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.

And as Matt Miller noted in Slate two years earlier, when former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown attacked Warren over her claims of having a Cherokee ancestor, DNA tests cannot definitively prove a person is a member of any community, much less trace that person to a specific tribe. “[E]thnicity is not a trait derived from a single gene, because ethnicity is mostly our perception of a collection of traits, rather than a trait itself,” Miller wrote.

But even if a DNA test could be used that way, we would be wrong to use them in determining tribal affiliation, critics say. Tying genetics to race would push us perilously close to validating race science, a field that has helped to justify some of humanity’s worst crimes and that in its current form is peddled by pseudo-intellectual white supremacists and other violent extremists. But if it’s wrong to match genetics to race, it’s even more incorrect to match genetics to tribal identity: The Cherokee Nation is a sovereign nation with its own political and cultural practicalities, norms, and rules. To be a Cherokee citizen is not to have Native American “blood” but to be acknowledged by the rules and understanding of the tribe as a member.

Removing the power to decide membership from the tribe and placing it in the hands of individuals with DNA kits could endanger the identity of the tribe itself, the critics warned, placing at risk the services the United States agreed to provide in early treaties with the tribes—or at least allowing Americans with no legitimate link to the tribe to claim those rights and benefits for themselves.

And beyond that, some critics worried that defining tribes by genetics and therefore race could cause some judges to think about tribal benefits as preferential treatment based on race—a concept that could be challenged under the Fifth Amendment’s equal protection clause.

In fairness, Warren herself made it clear when she took the DNA test that she did not belong to a tribe. “Only tribes determine tribal citizenship,” she said in the video announcing the test results. “I understand and respect that distinction.”

Certainly not all of Warren’s critics have protested her actions with sincere intent: The whole controversy has been rooted in racially charged and often overtly racist mocking of Warren’s decades-long claims to have “family lore” suggesting a Cherokee ancestor. While mocking the extremely common tradition among Americans of claiming a Cherokee ancestor, many of her conservative critics, including President Trump, have gone on to mock and dehumanize Native American ancestry and identity in general. (See also: the president’s repeated use of the slur “Pocahontas” as a nickname and his flippant joke about Wounded Knee.) And laughing at the idea that someone who looks like Warren could be Native American racializes tribal identity even more.

But while many Native American activists would say that Trump’s words have been more offensive than Warren’s actions, some have expressed disappointment that Warren has repeatedly refused to apologize. According to the Times, Warren has privately worried about her image with Native American voters and with activists in general. Warren will soon begin her formal presidential campaign, and it remains to be seen whether this direct apology will mean an end to critiques from the left. Meanwhile, we can expect the scolding, and jokes, from the president and his party to continue unabated.