Warren’s Cherokee Ancestry

I was at coffee with a friend a few days ago when we got mired in a debate about Elizabeth Warren. I was struck by how much misinformation I was hearing. It doesn’t need to be this hard.

There is a political narrative that says Warren lied about her Cherokee ancestry. That’s a story for suckers.

First, anyone with experience doing American genealogy will be aware that stories about Cherokee ancestry are a dime a dozen. It seems like half the people in the American South and West think there’s a Cherokee princess somewhere in their ancestry. And, the number is significantly higher in Oklahoma, where the Feds ultimately settled the Cherokee tribe.

Very few people who claim Cherokee ancestry can prove it. Many of them spend a lifetime trying to find some evidence, anything at all. It shouldn’t surprise anyone–except maybe an insular New Yorker–that Elizabeth Warren, who is from Oklahoma, would have a family tradition about Cherokee ancestry. It’s even less surprising that she can’t prove it. (Welcome to the club, Liz.)

Second, Warren made the mistake of taking a DNA test, in hopes of ending the controversy. That was probably just about the worst thing she could have done. The test ticked off Indians across America without producing an answer that would satisfy non-Indians.

Anglo America has defined tribal membership for Indians by using European kinship rules rather than Indian rules. Anglos ask how much Indian ancestry someone has. Indians nowadays generally want to ask whether someone is part of the culture of their tribe. One of Warren’s mistakes was exactly this. By taking a DNA test Warren was using Anglo rules to claim an Indian identity.

In an ideal world, the DNA test that showed Warren’s Indian ancestry might have satisfied non-Indians but it didn’t. The test showed she is about 1 / 1024 Indian. In other words, speaking very approximately her DNA is about what it would be if she had a 10th great grandparent who was Indian.

Except it doesn’t work that way. The science isn’t that exact. One of the problems (there are others) is that DNA gets shuffled. Percentages are an average. No one gets an exactly equal amount of DNA from every ancestor in a particular generation. After about 5 generations the DNA tends to wash out. In other words, there is no way to know whether Warren’s 1 / 1024 is luck of the draw from a 2nd great grandparent, or a miraculous survival from 10 generations ago, or even a false positive.

The Cherokee Tribe presents another wrinkle to the problem. Almost every Cherokee I know, including some close relatives, appears to be very Anglo judging only by physical appearance. One reason for that is membership in the tribe depends only on having an ancestor who appears on the 1906 Dawes Roll, a citizenship roll prepared by the Federal government. Neither biology nor cultural plays any role here. If Warren were to discover an ancestor on the Dawes Roll, the political debate would be resolved immediately.

Over and above these problems, there is another. Not all Indians are critical of Warren’s claim of Cherokee ancestry. There are competing schools of thought. One is that Anglo America can never be secure in their conquest until they have entirely exterminated or assimilated all Indians.

The other school of thought is that Indians gain increased security for the future by having White allies. The Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma in reported to have said in 2012 that he wished “every congressman and senator in the U.S. had a kinship or felt a kinship to the Cherokee Nation.”

Elizabeth Warren’s case interests me because in my father’s family we have some contested Indian ancestry, although the details play out differently than Warren’s. For myself, I find the problem of Indian ancestry to be a reason to ask questions, to learn and grow, and not so much a reason to dig in. If Warren weren’t so busy with other things, that would be my advice to her.

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