Elizabeth Warren’s announcement that she took a DNA test to prove she has a Native American ancestor likely inspired countless people to pursue genetic testing to investigate their own family lore.
Yet there’s a reason why the Democratic senator’s declaration was met with harsh criticism, including from the Cherokee Nation’s secretary of state Chuck Hoskin Jr., who said Warren was “undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”
Indeed, there are sensitive, appropriate ways to talk about potentially having Native American ancestors. The Massachusetts lawmaker actually got it right when she made the critical distinction that an ancestral link is not the equivalent of belonging to a Native American community or culture, nor should it entitle people far removed from an ancestor to seek or claim tribal status.
But that’s just the beginning. If someone is compelled to explore their Native American family ties, they need to understand what DNA tests can tell them, be clear about what’s driving their quest, and consider becoming an ally of and advocate for Native American tribes and communities.
1. Understand what a DNA test can really tell you.
Though Warren consulted an expert geneticist, there simply isn’t enough Native American genetic data to draw from to conclusively show a person as descendent from a specific tribe. As a result, no consumer DNA test can prove a person’s Native American ancestry. What Warren’s test did show was a statistical tie to a potential “Indigenous” ancestor, which is not the same as showing direct biological descent to the tribal peoples of the United States.
“If anybody wants to think they can use a genetic test to determine which tribe they came from, it’s impossible to get that type of information,” says Krystal Tsosie, a member of the Navajo Nation and a doctoral student in Genomics and Health Disparities at Vanderbilt University.
Native American tribes have long been skeptical of attempts to collect their DNA. Among other concerns, they fear their members’ genetic material will be turned into a profit-making machine for private companies eager to give customers detailed information about their lineage. They also believe that DNA testing shouldn’t override the lived experience of being raised in and belonging to a Native American tribe.
Tsosie says that Native American tribes possess sovereign status that hinges on their right to dictate who can enroll in a tribe and who cannot. Focusing solely on DNA as a requisite for enrollment could threaten the sovereignty of Native American tribes, which is why documented lineage to a tribal citizen and enrolled member is so important.
This might not matter as much if Warren, a politician with a massive platform, hadn’t turned her investigation into front page news. She did so because President Trump has frequently attacked her for claiming Native American heritage without evidence. But now Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, is talking about taking a DNA test to confirm stories that his grandmother was part Cherokee. “I’m dying to know. I think I can beat her,” Graham told Fox & Friends, referring to Warren’s ancestral claims.
Tsosie says she doesn’t fault people for being curious about their family tree, but she emphasizes that this is a complex issue for Native American tribes. Powerful people like Warren and Graham could potentially harm tribal communities by putting DNA at the center of conversations about identity.
Those who want to investigate potential ties to a Native American tribe should consult genealogical records, including tribal census rolls, says Tsosie. People who don’t have their ancestors’ names, or the name of the tribe to which a distant ancestor belonged, won’t find any new information through a DNA test.
2. Understand your motive.
Some people construct family trees as a pleasurable hobby. But when it comes to Native American ancestry, others might think claiming ties to a tribe will bring a windfall of federal benefits. Those people should educate themselves about common myths surrounding tribal membership and the reality of how federal resources are appropriated to tribes, says Tsosie.
“The question of motive is huge.”
In general, people should develop a nuanced understanding of why exploring Native American ancestry is so important to them. If it’s about personal mythology and relying on stereotypes or tropes about Native Americans to tell a story about one’s self, that’s worth looking at critically. If someone craves belonging to a marginalized group, that too should be questioned.
“I think everyone, of course, has the right to investigate these types of questions about themselves. This question of, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who did I descend from?’ is essential to all of us,” says Tsosie. “The question of motive is huge.”
3. Be an ally and advocate.
If someone knows or thinks they have distant Native American ancestry, that’s no license to walk up to a Native American person and declare a “shared” genetic link. In fact, says Tsosie, such declarations are often a painful reminder that Native American tribes were forcibly removed from their land, subjected to rape, and died of genocide.
“There are a lot of demeaning cultural messages, and people who are not of the culture may not understand but maybe inadvertently project those onto a Native American person when it’s announced as a plea for acceptance,” says Tsosie. “That’s definitely not the way to go.”
It’s also easy for people interested in their Native American ancestral ties to think about the historical treatment and present-day reality of tribes as abstract. Don’t be that person and risk fetishizing a culture or community because it’s a compelling way to think about heritage. Instead, spend some time learning about what Native American tribes face today and find ways to be an ally and advocate, fully recognizing that doing so doesn’t grant someone admission or acceptance into a community or tribe.
“A person doesn’t get to declare they’re part of the community — the community has to accept them,” says Tsosie.
No DNA test will change that simple truth.