I am so very tired.
Before we dive into this, allow me to head one future issue off real quick: Elizabeth Warren, no matter what any DNA test says, no matter what the outcome of the 2020 election is, will never, ever be the first Native American anything. It is possible this particular political ploy will never be brought forward, as it was when someone touted her in 1996 as the “first woman of color” to be hired by Harvard Law. But after Warren’s decision Monday morning to release a six-minute video about what she calls the “Native American ancestry” in her DNA, I cannot be sure anymore.
My rejection of this label for Warren has nothing to do with her looks, her legislative decisions, or the genetic makeup of the blood in her veins. She is not Native because she is not, and has never been, a Native American to anyone else, especially not Native peoples.
The most depressing part of Warren’s six-minute long attempt to subvert questions of Native autonomy and focus solely on a rebuttal to Donald Trump was how predictable the entire scenario felt. Every Native (and I do mean every Native) understood the moment Donald Trump first started calling Warren “Pocahontas” that this would be where we end up, with an otherwise fine Democratic politician opting to prove her Native-ness by completing one of the most demeaning trials that Native peoples have been forced by white people—like Warren—to put themselves through.
Warren’s video and subsequent release of her DNA report was a disgrace, a vicious rejection of Native sovereignty, and, more than anything, completely foreseeable. Had Warren spoken to any Native with a clear mind, this idea would have been dead on arrival; instead, I now have to grit my teeth to the nerve and solemnly nod my head in agreement with a motherfucking Donald Trump tweet.
In the coming days, there will be Natives far smarter than I that come forward and explain why, exactly, what Warren did was so insulting. They will lay out the way that Indigenous peoples have long been forced to institute blood tests so as to keep prying non-Natives from reaping the few financial and professional benefits granted to federal and state tribes in America. They will tell you, the presumably non-Native reader, how hurtful and distressful it is to have constantly faced the same set of questions every fucking time they tell someone outside their tribal community that they belong to a nation of Natives:
There is a reason this line has become so infuriating, and it doesn’t lie at the feet of Native tribes, even those who still maintain blood quantum requirements for tribal enrollment. It lies with the underlying decision by white society to measure Native peoples by their DNA and race.
If there is one item you remember, let it be this: I am not Native because of my blood; I am Native because I belong to a tribe, and despite what courts like the one in Texas say, a tribe is not a group of people gathered together because they are of the same race. It is a collective, a nation of citizens bonded by ancestral and historical commonalities, the likes of which no other group has on this land. On this, there is no budging. For anyone to decry this, or declare it moot, is to walk into the same trap Warren did—that of denying Native people the sovereignty and autonomy to declare, for themselves, who is Native and who is not. In voice, both through her video and past statements, Warren has maintained that only tribes have the power to determine who is a member; in practice, by completing this DNA test as some sort of rebuttal of truth to Trump’s repeated jabs, she has circumvented this acknowledgment of tribal sovereignty and clung to that heritage for no other reason than being able to claim a cheap political victory.
Now, if you’re looking for a scientific explanation of why genetic testing is both squishy and inapplicable to Native Americans, I suggest this thread by Dr. Kim TallBear. Essentially, while there are some DNA markers that exist in Native genetics, it is basically impossible to determine whether one was indigenous to North or South America—let alone a specific tribe. Chuck Hoskin Jr., the Secretary of State for Cherokee Nation, the tribe Warren claims to have roots in, explained this all in a rightfully scathing statement yesterday.
What Warren did is despicable—not just because of how short-sighted and selfish it was, but because it betrays the agreement between tribal governments and the United States government that our people are their own people. In publishing this video, and believing it to be the right thing to do, she simply played the political cards exactly as she and every other white politician have been taught: wherever useful, wherever it is most expedient and pragmatic, borrow from the Native people and communities and governments. Borrow their children, borrow their land, borrow their culture, and, if you think you need to, borrow with no intent of returning what you took.
Elizabeth Warren is nothing new. She is more of the same for us. She will claim that this was the necessary response, that she can’t allow the President to constantly mock her as a liar. But she is the one who decided to cite her Native heritage, long before Trump was on the scene. In other words, she brought this mess on herself unnecessarily.
And today, more than most, my shoulders, and the shoulders of every other Native person upon which she has ground her heels, ache for the simple relief of being allowed to stand without having to answer, “How much?”
In the video, which is somehow six minutes long, Warren hits all the notes that she apparently believed she needed to hit to convince her fellow white people that she could proudly claim her Native heritage.
She starts off going back home to Oklahoma and giving us a history of her parents, saying that due to her mother’s perceived Native ties, her father’s family disapproved of their coupling. The tale is just short and perfectly vague enough that she believed it would make the average non-Native tilt their head to the side as they begin to buy her message. It certainly drew that head tilt for the Indigenous audience, though, in my case at least, the raised eyebrows were soon followed by a profane stream of curses and guttural exclamations that only true rage can bring from the depths of one’s chest.
In laying out her tribal background, neither Warren or her relatives who appear in the video provide specifics about this tension between her grandparents’s families, with her brother adding only that it was “a real riot.” That is because there was no “real riot.” The truth is this section would have included specifics about the segregation or ostracizing had the Warrens of the 1930s and 1940s truly been labeled Native people.
Allow me, if you will, a moment of anecdotal evidence to bolster my point. My father, a member of the Sappony Tribe in North Carolina, was born in 1963, a year after the North Carolina state government decided to integrate the local Sappony school in with nearby white schools.
When my dad attended high school in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he had to sneak around to date my mother, who is white, when they started seeing one another. (As we all know, official integration does not end racism.)
One winter night, he showed up to her house late to surprise her, but couldn’t get her attention without waking up my grandparents, who weren’t fans of their daughter dating a Sappony boy; he nearly froze to death waiting outside in the car all night. My grandfather found him in the morning when he went to go to work. Mercifully, he brought him inside and they bundled him with blankets; as he thawed out, so did their feelings for the brown-skinned boy who was willing to freeze just to see their daughter. My grandparents are the best, most loving grandparents in the world and are now living proof of how much a person can change over the course of a single lifetime if simply granted exposure to people of different background. But countless stories like these—of discrimination both large and small—are the ones I grew up hearing, from my parents, from aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and whoever else occupied an elder spot in my tribal community.
To put it simply, Warren, a person born in 1949, never once faced any of the kinds of hurdles of racial integration or discrimination that existed long after she came into this world. She obviously cleared the hurdles placed before all women in this country and made a magnificent, unquestionably laudable career for herself. But not once was she ever categorized as a Native woman, and in her video, she makes this point crystal clear for everyone to shortly after her family history segment.
What follows in the video are what I call the I-Earned-It clips, where Warren rolls out a list of law school deans and other former employers who all say the obvious: They did not hire her because of her Nativeness.
The matter of affirmative action allowing Native people access to otherwise typically white institutions is just as thorny a subject as it was when it was introduced decades ago. It is one that I myself understand well.
I was admitted to Duke University because I was Native American. It took me years to come to terms with it, even if I knew that to be true. I had fine SAT scores, but they were about 300 points below Duke’s average. My GPA was good, for my small-town public high school, but compared to the litany of rich kids that gained admittance alongside me—I was the odd one out.
A couple weeks before everyone else received their admittance letters, I got a letter telling me I got in and inviting me to attend a weekend where I would spend time alongside my fellow Native students that had found their way in—there were, maybe, eight of us total out of a class of 1,700. When I told people at my small-town North Carolina high school, I knew what came next, either out loud or in their heads: It’s just because he’s an Indian. And so, I ran from this truth. I sprinted as far as I could in the other direction, denying it, pointing to my record, to my inane summer camps, to anything that would reject the premise that I, a boy who had been raised in an homogeneously white, Christian town, had somehow been granted a step up because of my tribal heritage. I had to deserve it, you see, because otherwise I was a fraud.
I carried this weight for years, releasing it only a year or so back; it was then, after many conversations and dozens of hours of research on my tribe’s history, that I recognized that shame to have manifested itself from a place of misunderstanding of what affirmative action is meant to accomplish.
Once I grasped the notion that my spot at Duke and at this company and where I go in the future will in part be predicated on this history that white people and companies love to capitalize on but not promote, I poured myself into telling Native stories, because I understood the responsibility that came with being one of the few Natives to gain admittance to so-called elite institutions or to break into the Ivy-heavy (and thus white-heavy) industry of media.
What Warren and her ilk fail to understand—or have purposefully obscured—is that by rolling out a litany of former bosses saying her race had nothing to do with it, they are betraying the realities of Native representation. As it relates to the systemic and institutional powers that dominate American society, Natives exist within this country only to be used when convenient; otherwise, due to years of methodical denial of access to these power structures, we have been denied the chance to speak for ourselves, be it in politics, entertainment, or media. I mean, come on, would anyone other than a white person actually publish this headline?
Even the story we ran at Splinter, headlined “I Really Don’t Get Why Elizabeth Warren Did a DNA Test to Prove Her Native American Heritage,” was a perfect example of a normatively white media outlet not fully grasping why Warren felt this issue would be so simple to address with a DNA test (though we still did better than most). Warren took the test and paid someone to shoot and edit the video because white people have been getting away with this shit literally since they landed on our shores. They have routinely laid claim to what is ours, and when they fail to present a worthwhile reason to sustain their faux-moral validation, they have stolen from us all that they could—to the point that our genetics, not our ties to the soil and water or ancestral history, would be an acceptable measuring stick for them to join our ranks in name alone and ascend through the outlets of power.
This is not a game of Who’s More Native? It is a simple question of to whom Elizabeth Warren feels responsible to when she travels to Washington. If her record is any indication, it is not Native peoples.
Let’s look at Warren’s legislative record since being elected six years ago.
In the past two months, she has sponsored two Native-specific bills: One on suicide prevention, and one on voting rights. Both of these pieces of legislation are laudable, positive steps toward addressing real issues faced by tribal peoples across the nation. Hopefully, they will initiate a push from Congress to further protect and serve the indigenous communities and cultures this nation has long betrayed and undermined.
Prior to 2018, though, Warren’s work on Native-specific issues is virtually nonexistent. This is no accident.
Before Donald Trump started to prod at her story, Warren never had much reason to work for Native peoples, because she is not one herself. As Trump continued his “Pocahontas” jabs, even in front of Native World War II veterans (in front of a portrait of dirtbag president Andrew Jackson), Warren maintained her story out of political necessity—if she reneged, or budged on her claim, then she would be ceding ground to the vile president, and that wouldn’t do. So, instead, she leaned into it. She spoke in front of the National Congress of American Indians, a remonstrance meant to assure us Natives that she was really on our side.
“I’m here today to make a promise: Every time someone brings up my family’s story, I’m going to use it to lift up the story of your families and your communities.”
The optimist in me, bouncy and staring at that half-full glass, says, “This is great, I’m glad someone is taking up the fight for us in the Senate.” The cynical realist, meanwhile, is stomping about my spine, curling my fists, hollering, “IT’S THE SAME FUCKING WHITE-ONLY POLITICAL CHESS GAME! SHE’S JUST USING HER DNA TO BEAT TRUMP IN A BACK-AND-FORTH THAT WILL LEAVE OUR PEOPLE HOLDING THE BAG!”
Here are some facts: Warren will run for president in 2020. If she wins the primary, I will vote for her, and so will other Natives and white and black and brown people and whoever else doesn’t want a 2016 redux.
All the while, my people will continue to trudge forward, through the onslaught of media and political efforts to keep us on the fringe, silent save for moments like this, when shouting seems to be the only way to ensure that when one of us finally does ascend to the highest office in the land—and that day is coming—that tribal brother or sister will stand alone in the history books.
Until then, shouting will have to do.