Native American Is Not My Race—It's Who I Am
Elizabeth Warren may feel vindicated about her ancestry, but defining Native American identity by race often results in dangerous challenges to Indigenous rights and sovereignty.
Alex Wong/Getty / Mariah Gladstone
As a Cherokee citizen, a Blackfeet descendant, and a mixed-race woman, I’m tired of measuring my identity. Non-Native strangers demand my pedigree upon meeting me, asking “How much Native American are you?” Or, they say, “Hm, you don’t look Native American,” their eyes narrowing at my light skin. Their words give voice to a blood quantum system they couldn’t name themselves: Historically in the United States, blood quantum is the problematic legal metric that defines Native people based on the fraction of their “blood” that can be traced to Native ancestors. To much of the world, my worth as a Native woman only extends to the fraction of my ancestors that I can trace to government enrollment lists or through flawed genetic science.
Responding to President Trump’s repeated taunts around her claims to Cherokee heritage, Senator Elizabeth Warren released her DNA results in a Maury Povich–style spectacle on Monday. It was not unprompted: At a July 5 rally in Montana, Trump challenged Warren to take an ancestry test. “I will give you a million dollars to your favorite charity, paid for by Trump, if you take the test and it shows you’re an Indian.” The premise of this is inherently flawed: No DNA test will prove that one is Native American.
Since Warren made her results public, politicians and pundits escalated their arguments around Indigenous identity. On Tuesday, Senator Lindsey Graham announced that he would also take a DNA test, claiming that his Indigenous genes could “beat” Senator Warren’s.
This public debate about the validity of Indigenous relationships based on phenotype or genetics has created frustration among some Native people. Several Native writers have opined on how to more accurately label Warren’s Native identity, including some saying she is not, in fact, Native, which “is about belonging to a community,” as Julian NoiseCat writes in HuffPo. The Cherokee Nation has also issued a statement clarifying that “Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong.”
Identity, especially as it relates to communities of color, has long been regulated by the settler state. Colonial leaders of a young United States, dependent in many ways upon the labor of enslaved people, had an interest in recognizing as many people as Black as possible; the resulting policy was the one-drop rule, which meant any amount of African ancestry rendered someone Black by definition. Meanwhile, the US government used an alternative system, aimed at discounting Native American identity. Unsurprisingly, White Americans benefited from discrediting Native identity at the same time they did enforcing Blackness: When the developing US government expanded into Indigenous nations, it signed treaties that created lasting obligations between the American government and the descendants of those tribes. As a result, the US developed a vested interest in defining the smallest number of Native individuals as possible in order to reduce its legal burden. Native Americans were then subjected to the blood quantum policy. As Native identity became defined by fractions, it is unsurprising that mail-in DNA kits presented additional challenges for Native communities.
As Dr. Kim TallBear, an Associate Professor at the University of Alberta and a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe, has repeatedly pointed out that genetic testing uses Western science to reduce cultural identity to dubious genetic markers that ignore the vast system of social connections that create Native identity. Using such settler-colonial definitions undermines our existence and our sovereignty. In her book, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Sense of Genetic Science, TallBear asserts that tribal membership is a legal category, not a genetic one. Recognizing the flaws in DNA testing, she issues the reminder that it is “impossible to disentangle individual genetic information from the constellations of family relations, reservation histories, tribal rules and government regulations in which genes are formed.”
Unfortunately, the consequences of this debate are more than just a political distraction. The reframing of Native identity into a settler lens has the ability to destroy policies that protect us and dismantle the sovereign nations of which we are a part, as Kelly Hayes (Menominee) and Jacqueline Keeler wrote in a piece for recent piece NBC. Race and sovereignty continue to exist at odds when it comes to defining Native identity. Framing identity in terms of observable characteristics and phenotype creates a criterion where Native people will no longer qualify for treaty rights or even existence, as when, in the race-based Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the “pencil test” was used to decide if Lumbees could be codified as Native Americans, basing the decision on whether a pencil inserted into one’s hair would fall out.
The Indian Child Welfare Act, passed in 1978 to combat the long history of removing children from Native families, was recently struck down in a Texas court, based on the judge’s assertion that it is “race-based” and deemed unconstitutional based on the 14th Amendment and the equal protection clause. But this is factually incorrect, considering that ICWA only applies to federally recognized tribes, each of whom determines their own standards for citizenship. Under the law, a Native child from a state-recognized tribe is not entitled to the same protocols that a Native child from a federally recognized tribe is allowed. If ICWA is not upheld in higher courts, the vanishing protections could lead to 75–80 percent of Indian families again facing separation with their children.
As Jacqueline Keeler (Diné/Ihanktonwan) has written, the Trump administration seems determined to define Native identity as race-based, likely in an effort to dismantle the protections that sovereignty allows. Long before the president attacked Elizabeth Warren’s claims based on her appearance, Trump expressed problematic ideas about how Native people should appear. In 1993, he testified in Congress against Native-owned casinos in Connecticut, saying, “Now, maybe we say politically correct or not politically correct, they don't look like Indians to me.” Regardless of “political correctness,” his statement was not factually correct—there is no singular Native look. At this time, Trump’s casinos were facing competition from the Native-owned enterprises, and like settlers before him, he had an interest in defining fewer Indigenous people by racial signifiers in order to eliminate the gaming rights allowed of sovereign nations.
With this precedent, Trump set the tone for the actions of his administration. In early 2018, the fight over health care was exacerbated in Native communities, as new Medicaid work requirements threatened Native people’s access to healthcare. The US Human and Health Services contends that tribes are a race, as opposed to a separate sovereign governments, and thus won't be exempt from these rules. Given Indian Health Service’s reliance on Medicaid funding and the lack of available jobs in places with high Native populations, the change in policy could be devastating. Later, the department issued a partial reversal, and clarified that states would be able to exempt Native populations at their discretion. This is a massive shift from the traditional approach to US–tribal relationships. The Supreme Court has ruled the federal government can confer special benefits on Native people in accordance with treaties or laws, with status being defined by tribal nations rather than to a particular racially identifiable group.
The idea that one can benefit from being Native American has led to individuals like Warren reaching back into their family histories for myths of Native ancestors and justifying those tales with flawed Western science. DNA testing is still developing, and with such a small sample size, Indigenous DNA is not yet well understood. I have Cherokee citizens within my own family that do not register as Native, according to the popular genetic testing site 23andMe. As an administrative specialist in the Montana Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs, I answered dozens of calls from individuals whose DNA test revealed Native DNA; they were calling to reap their imagined rewards. Unfortunately for those callers, the principal benefit to being an Indigenous person is our communities, a sanctuary in which they will likely never find themselves.
The debates surrounding “the pretendian phenomena,” using family lore to claim to be Native, and the cultural convenience of identifying as Native will continue: Unless we begin to use the same paradigm, one which Native people are allowed to define, these fights will continue to be fruitless and frustrating.
This plays out in my own life as I resist the urge to produce a fraction to enumerate my identity to people who ask me “how much” I am. To shift the discussion, I tell them: “I look like a Native woman because I am a Native woman. I am 100 percent Native, because I am Native in 100 percent of my life.”