Opinion: Elizabeth Warren’s claim to Cherokee ancestry is a form of violence: Be it by the barrel of a carbine or a mail-order DNA test, the American spirit demands the disappearance of Indigenous people.
BY KIM TALLBEAR, Indian Country Newsletter
This recent opinion piece in the Indian Country Newsletter has some interesting discussion about things I’ve been wanting to understand. At first I thought the DNA ancestry results would help people stop clinging to the idea of white supremacy, when people learn of their diverse ancestry. But, as quoted below, “Ironically, genetic science, which seeks to sample Indigenous people before they vanish into a sea of admixture, actually helps to vanish Indigenous peoples by implying that “mixed” Natives are less Native.”
This most American of family legends (of being “part” Indian) began its journey to the spotlight in national politics when Elizabeth Warren, during her U.S. Senate run in Massachusetts in 2012, claimed to have Cherokee and Delaware ancestry. At the time, when asked if I would vote for her, I said, “Yes,” despite disappointment with her cliché claim to a Native ancestor with “high cheekbones.” These days, however, I can’t answer that question in the same way.
Be it by the barrel of a carbine or a mail-order DNA test, Indigenous people must disappear for the United States to thrive.
In his book, Deloria cites English writer and poet D.H. Lawrence, who wrote that an “essentially ‘unfinished’ and incomplete” American consciousness produced an “unparalleled national identity crisis.” He continued: “No place exerts its full influence upon a newcomer until the old inhabitant is dead or absorbed.” For Lawrence, the “unexpressed spirit of America” could not be fulfilled without Indians being exterminated or assimilated into white America. A few decades later, Spokane author Sherman Alexie echoed these sentiments in the poem “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel,” concluding that “In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written, all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.”
In the case of DNA, science now offers a kinder, gentler hand in the disappearing of Native people. The personal genomics industry unwittingly retains older racist and colonial ideas of the unassimilated Native — notions that shape scientists’ search for the supposedly biologically distinct, or “unadmixed,” Native, which privileges the “purer” Native in research in order to gain a better view into an ancient, less-civilized humanity. Living Indigenous people sampled in the course of research become proxies for ancient humans. Ironically, genetic science, which seeks to sample Indigenous people before they vanish into a sea of admixture, actually helps to vanish Indigenous peoples by implying that “mixed” Natives are less Native.(from the article in the link above)
This summarized what little I have been able to learn so far. That being a member of a tribal nation involves much more than genetics.
In the settler-colonial belief system, genetic ancestry is expressed as a defining trait of what it is to be “Native American,” or even “Scandinavian,” for that matter. Yet Native people’s own notions of belonging, in addition to contentious but vital tribal political definitions of citizenship, emphasize lived social relations, both with human relatives and with our nonhuman relatives in our traditional lands and waters. Genetic ancestry alone is a shallow definition of who we are, as are the human-centric views of settler-colonists that place humans above nonhuman plants and animals.(from the article in the link above)
I’ve written before about how the shift in my whole worldview changed when I learned the Spirit is in all things, living and inanimate. I began to talk to the trees, flowers, birds and squirrels as I walked among them. This expanded my Quaker faith substantially.
Indigenous analyses run counter to many of these settler-colonial ideas, but are often misunderstood, ignored or framed as being fodder for one political party or another. In the 19th century, for example, settlers accused us of being in the way of “progress” in order to justify land theft, massacres of unarmed Native people, and forced assimilation for those who survived. Today, we are seen as in the way of progress if we resist a pipeline, or genetic research and DNA testing that objectifies us as bodies and identities to be studied and consumed for the benefit of non-Natives. Both then and now, settler states and actors, in the pursuit of private property, profit, individual advancement or self-actualization, do not understand Indigenous world-views, and resort to violence or appropriation instead of collaboration; colonialism instead of kinship.(from the article in the link above)