Native Americans React to Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Test: Stop Making Native People “Political Fodder”

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Native Americans across the country are criticizing Senator Elizabeth Warren’s decision to use a DNA test to assert her Native American heritage. Chuck Hoskin Jr., secretary of state of the Cherokee Nation, said, “Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation. Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong.” We host a roundtable discussion of Native American activists and journalists to respond to Warren’s DNA test and the subsequent media coverage. In Fargo, North Dakota, we speak with Tara Houska, national campaign director for Honor the Earth and an Ojibwe lawyer. In Anchorage, Alaska, we speak with Mark Trahant, editor of Indian Country Today. He’s a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. In Seattle, Washington, we speak with Gyasi Ross, a member of the Blackfeet Nation and host of the podcast Breakdances with Wolves.

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We continue to look at Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claims to Native American ancestry. She’s come under fire since releasing a DNA test showing Native American lineage in her family tree. In a video released Monday, she told her family’s story.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: My mother was born in eastern Oklahoma. It had been Indian territory until just a few years earlier, when it had become a state. My daddy always said he fell head over heels in love with my mother the first time he saw her. But my daddy’s parents, the Herrings, were bitterly opposed to their marrying, because my mother’s family, the Reeds, was part Native American. This sort of discrimination was common at the time. So when my mama was 19 and my daddy was 20, they eloped. And together they built a family—my three older brothers and me.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Elizabeth Warren has said her mother told her family had ties to the Cherokee and Delaware tribes. But Native Americans across the country are criticizing Warren’s decision to use a DNA test to assert her heritage. Chuck Hoskin Jr., secretary of state for the Cherokee Nation, said, quote, “Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation. Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong.”

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we host a roundtable discussion. Joining us from Fargo, North Dakota is Tara Houska, national campaign director for Honor the Earth. She’s an Ojibwe lawyer. And we go to Anchorage, Alaska, where we’re joined by Mark Trahant, who is editor of Indian Country Today, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. In Seattle, Washington, we’re joined by Gyasi Ross, author, speaker, lawyer and storyteller, member of the Blackfeet Nation, host of the podcast Breakdances with Wolves.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s go to North Dakota to Tara Houska. If you can respond first to Senator Warren releasing her DNA test, indicating Native American lineage, and her video, and your thoughts on this?

TARA HOUSKA: What I see are some non-Native folks arguing over what Native identity is, and Native people just being almost entirely left out of the conversation. So we saw that Lindsey Graham now is running around saying, you know, that “I have more Indian blood than she does; I should open a casino.” It kind of shows just how problematic Senator Warren’s decision to use this DNA test as her smoking gun—”Now, see? I’m Native. I said I was”—when in fact, common genetic markers and geographic location does not tell you anything about which tribe you might be part of or that you might have descendancy from. She couldn’t actually locate an ancestor, having done a genealogy study, who is a Native person. It’s kind of this one drop rule, that she’s reinforcing all these understandings of race being something by blood and there being this difference between different ethnicities. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Senator Warren in her own words, in that video that she released on Monday, talking about her Native American heritage.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: I’m not enrolled in a tribe, and only tribes determine tribal citizenship. I understand and respect that distinction, but my family history is my family history.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s Elizabeth Warren, Tara. Can you respond to that and also explain how is it that Native American tribes determine membership?

TARA HOUSKA: Yeah. You know, I think she’s kind of walking back her words because she got this really harsh statement by Cherokee Nation, who is saying that this is really disrespectful and has nothing to do with their sovereign right to determine membership. I don’t think that she’s very regretful about this. I think that she has just kind of bowled her way forward on this issue.

And, you know, yeah, it’s a sovereign right of tribal nations to determine who is a member. It is relationships of kinship, of community, of a lived experience. It’s all kinds of different factors that sometimes can include blood quantum, but blood quantum is something that was created by the colonial government, not by tribal nations. And it’s this kind of myth that’s been perpetuated by the United States and by many, many Americans who claim to be, quote-unquote, “part Cherokee” and continue these problematic ideas of who Native people are and were.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to Republican Senator Lindsey Graham on Fox & Friends Tuesday, saying he plans to take a DNA test in response to Senator Warren.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: I’m going to take a DNA test. All of you have. I’ve been told that my grandmother was part Cherokee Indian. It may all be just talk, but you’re going to find out in a couple weeks, because I’m going to take this test.

BRIAN KILMEADE: You are going to take it?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: I’m taking it, and the result’s going to be revealed here. This is my Trump moment. This is reality TV.

AINSLEY EARHARDT: Why do you want to take—why do you want to do this?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: I just—I’m dying to know, ’cause—I’m dying—you know, I didn’t really think much about it, but she’s less than one-tenth of 1 percent. I think I can beat her. I think I can beat her.

BRIAN KILMEADE: Right. And if you do beat her, will you ask for a million dollars from the president, too?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: No, I want a casino and a million bucks.

AMY GOODMAN: “I want a casino and a million bucks.” Tara Houska, that was Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

TARA HOUSKA: Yeah, it’s incredibly disrespectful and, you know, just really shows how Warren’s behavior, although it’s less crude than some of the comments that have made by Donald Trump about, you know, Pocahontas and demeaning women—it’s this historic figure and making that into somehow a slur—her behavior is less crude, but it’s still problematic, and it’s still a complete misunderstanding of what Native identity actually is, and it perpetuates this myth that so many people hold. I mean, you live on the East Coast, and you hear almost everyone having this story of being “part Cherokee on their mother’s side,” when there are real Cherokee people who still live today. And we should respect that and understand who Native people really are.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I’d like to bring in Mark Trahant from Anchorage, Alaska. Could you also comment on this controversy? You’ve been extremely critical of the fact that Elizabeth Warren has released—has taken a DNA test and released it. Could you explain what your problem with this is, your criticism?

MARK TRAHANT: Well, the DNA test itself is just another use of a colonial narrative, basically. The ultimate goal of a DNA test is to prove that Indians are immigrants like everybody else. And again, it takes away from the idea that there’s a tribal community with a governing institution that’s been around before the United States. And there are reasons that tribes are around with 10,000-year histories in North America.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Mark, could you explain what you mean by that, that DNA tests are there to prove that indigenous people, Native Americans, are immigrants like everyone else? Why?

MARK TRAHANT: Kim TallBear, who has written quite a bit about this, has talked about that, that it’s basically coming up with a narrative that says use—figure out where folks came from originally and trying to figure that out rather than to connect with the stories. I mean, Shoshone-Bannock, for example, one of the things that just I love about my own people is that if you look at the history of North America, we once hunted mastodon. And you think about that as an arc of history that goes back many generations, that is much deeper than a test that you can use.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And you even suggested, Mark, that her releasing her DNA test kind of disqualifies her to be president. Could you explain that?

MARK TRAHANT: Sure. I mean, campaigns are about stories and what story you’re going to tell about yourself. And here we are less than three weeks away from an extraordinary election, and we’re talking about this instead of the extraordinary election. I think, just from a strategic point of view, that makes no sense.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Gyasi Ross in Seattle, author, lawyer, member of the Blackfeet Nation. As you watch this from the Northwest, Gyasi, talk about your response, not only to Senator Warren doing the DNA test and all the ways she has variously represented herself, but also Donald Trump and his comments about her, continually, right through this week, talking about Pocahontas.

GYASI ROSS: Thank you, and good morning. Thank you for having all of us. It’s good to be on this very esteemed panel.

You know, I had a few reactions. Number one is one concerning the media generally. And it would be nice to have, quote-unquote, “Native stories,” Native-themed stories, that weren’t centered on white people. That’s something that’s very common, whether you’re talking about Hollywood—Dances with Wolves, Little Big Man—Elizabeth Warren. Every single time we see Natives in mass media, it’s in response to white people doing something really, really stupid or saving our communities. And that’s a false narrative. And so, it would be nice to see our communities, that are actually pushing for an amazing recovery, relationship to economics, in relationship to education, in relationship to language, actually have that centered around a story, as opposed to around a white person and the Native people being collateral to that white person.

Also, a reaction is that, you know, Elizabeth Warren, obviously, she wants to be an ally, but she doesn’t want to be an accomplice, meaning that she is still willing to make Native people political fodder for her own political survival. As Mark pointed out, you have Native women that are running historic numbers and doing historic things in this particular 2019 election—Sharice Davids in Kansas, Deb Haaland in New Mexico, Paulette Jordan running for governor of Idaho. But yet, with all of these amazing Native women’s stories, this white woman wants to center this Indian narrative, this Native narrative in politics, around her, as opposed to going out and campaigning for them two weeks in advance of the 2018 elections. And to—excuse me—and to me, that does make me question her judgment. We definitely, rightfully, condemn Donald Trump for his emotionality and his tempestuousness and unpredictability, but she does a Maury Povich-like spectacle revealing her DNA results as opposed to doing the actual work of a leader.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned, Gyasi, Deb Haaland. I want to turn to what she said, the Democratic candidate for Congress in New Mexico, who could become the first Native woman to serve in Congress. She tweeted this week, “Senator Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test confirms the family history she has long shared with the world, and I acknowledge her Native ancestry as testament to who we are as Americans. The oppression that Native people have experienced over the course of our history caused many Native American families to deny their heritage, language, and culture, and I understand why this was the case with her family. Senator Warren has been a sister in the struggle for years for Indigenous peoples’ rights, and for all of us who weren’t born into the top 1%. The revelation of Senator Warren’s Native American ancestry is significant for her personally, and I join her in celebrating her ancestry.” That is the quote of the Native American congressional candidate, Democratic candidate in New Mexico, who could well become the first Native American congressmember [sic]. Your response to what she says, Gyasi? Congresswoman. She’d be the first congresswoman.

GYASI ROSS: Well, it’s a typical—and I believe that her and Sharice Davids will co-occupy that title as the first Native congresspeople in the House. And that’s going to be an amazing celebration and wonderful, wonderful event for United States politics and United States history generally. But for Congresswoman Haaland, that is a typically gracious and amazingly brilliant response. And absolutely, I’m sure she does celebrate, just like all of us—cool, if you want to be into the fold socially, that’s a beautiful thing. You want to find out why—you know, this is the year of the Native woman, and Elizabeth Warren evidently wanted to upgrade herself, you know, Beyoncé-style.

But that doesn’t mean that it requires these Maury Povich-like theatrics in which they do it and disrupt a flow, where Native women are rightfully getting a lot of attention politically and a lot of resources politically, and do this, as opposed to doing the work. It’s an incredibly gracious and generous response from Congresswoman Haaland, but that doesn’t mean that the timing is correct, number one, nor that it wasn’t something that she necessarily thought out or her people thought out properly.

AMY GOODMAN: And your response to Trump saying he’ll give her a million dollars if she takes a DNA test, and now saying, “I never said anything like that”?

GYASI ROSS: Trump’s a pig. I mean, he’s a liar. So, that shouldn’t surprise us. I think both of them, for making Native ancestry into a spectacle, into a three-ring circus, in which non-Natives—and specifically white people, by the way—feel completely emboldened to posit their opinions and actually challenge Native people about Native ancestry—Elizabeth Warren and Donald Trump both opened that door. And so, I believe that both of them should donate a million dollars to the National Indian Women’s Resource Center, you know, because both of them helped create this spectacle, and both of them have an obligation to Native women, I believe.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re talking to Gyasi Ross, author, lawyer, member of Blackfeet Nation, speaking to us from Seattle, Washington; Tara Houska with Honor the Earth, Ojibwe lawyer, speaking to us from Fargo, North Dakota; and Mark Trahant, editor of Indian Country Today, speaking to us from Anchorage, Alaska. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

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