Who is Native American?

The Elizabeth Warren saga has raised many questions in the US, but not the right ones.

Elizabeth Warren Reuters
Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren's claim to Native American ancestry has caused much controversy in the US [Reuters]

“Today Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to by me as Pocahontas, joined the race for President. Will she run as our first Native American presidential candidate, or has she decided that after 32 years, this is not playing so well anymore? See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!”

In this February 9 tweet, US President Donald Trump is referring to not only Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s enduring claims of Native American identity, and the pushback she received from various native communities, but also one of the most infamous and traumatic events in Cherokee history, the Trail of Tears – the forced relocation of Native Americans in the 19th century that caused thousands of deaths.

Trump’s tweet sparked much debate over whether it is ever acceptable for a US president to use a racial slur or a genocide reference to attract attention to a political opponent’s alleged past indiscretions. However, the public discussions largely left out the very real complexities of Native American identity and history unexplored. The truth is, many Native American nations have struggled to define belonging for decades.

False claim to tribal membership

The controversy about Warren’s claims to Native American identity first surfaced in the public domain during her 2012 Senate campaign, when her opponent accused her of having lied about her heritage to gain an advantage in her academic career.

Consequently, an investigation by the Boston Herald revealed that Harvard Law School listed her as Native American in its federal affirmative action forms from 1995 to 2004. Further inquiries demonstrated that she also claimed Native American ancestry while working at the University of Pennsylvania in 1989 and identified herself as “American Indian” on a Texas bar registration card in 1986. 

In response to accusations that she fraudulently assumed a minority identity for professional gain, Warren maintained that she based all her claims to “family stories” passed down over generations, and that she never furthered her career by using her heritage to gain an advantage. An expansive Boston Globe investigation in September 2018 appeared to confirm that Warren did not profit from the claims she made about her ancestry. However, the expose failed to stop President Trump and other Republicans from continuing to accuse the senator of lying about her heritage. 

The storm over Warren’s ancestry claim only deepened when she sought to neutralise the attacks by releasing a DNA analysis in October 2018, which said that she had a Native American ancestor “six – 10 generations ago”. The Cherokee Nation blasted Warren for the test, which they said was a false claim to tribal membership, leading the senator to apologise.

But why does it matter if Warren alleges that she is Native American? And why did the Cherokee Nation denounce her claims?

Who is Native American?

By claiming to be of Cherokee heritage, Warren tapped into a long-running trope in American history: phenotypically white people, privy to all of the privileges associated with whiteness in the US, claiming a Native American identity. 

From the colonists at the Boston Tea Party to the hippies and hipsters of today, white Americans take on Native American accoutrements (feathers, buckskin, headdresses) or Native American ancestry (almost always a small percentage – enough to make them interesting and exotic, but not enough to actually make them a person of colour) as easily as putting on a pair of shoes, using it to signal independence from state structures and responsibilities, a connection to the Earth, a certain brand of spirituality (often used to make a profit), or a desire to return to a bygone era.

By participating in this roleplaying game, these white Americans demonstrate that they view native people as exotic artefacts from an imagined past, rather than modern-day citizens who wear the same clothes, listen to the same music and deal with the same contemporary issues as themselves.

While Senator Warren grew up in Oklahoma, the state with the highest percent of Native Americans in the nation and one where the Cherokee are the largest minority group, she was raised as a white person, not as a Cherokee. She did not learn about Cherokee culture, language, or history, and shared no formal or informal ties with the Cherokee Nation.

While she may be able to show that she possesses some degree of Native American DNA, this does not necessarily make her any more Native American than all the clueless white youths wearing feathers and headdresses as fashion accessories at music festivals. Besides, tying DNA to a specific tribe is almost impossible, as North American indigenous people consistently migrated and intermarried, and DNA companies use databases that overwhelmingly feature European genetic data, with small sample sizes from Native Americans and other people of colour.

Claims of Native American ancestry are closely tied to tribal citizenship rights – a sensitive issue combining identity politics with economics and political jurisdiction.

“Native American” is not just a racial category, it is also a political identity because tribal nations are acknowledged as sovereign governments in the US. When someone claims to be Native American, he or she also claims access to political and economic benefits hard-won by native governments in brutal legal battles over tribal sovereignty.

This is why the Cherokee Nation denounced Warren’s DNA test as “inappropriate and wrong” and accused the senator of “undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage”.

In this context, it is easy to see why Warren’s claim of Cherokee identity, as a phenotypically white woman with no real connection to the tribe, is problematic. However, the Cherokee Nation’s refutation of the senator’s claim is also not as honest and straightforward as it first appears. 

Inclusion and exclusion

In his response to Warren’s press release about the result of her DNA test, Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin, Jr stated that a “DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship”, implying what determines who is a Cherokee is not blood, but an individual’s proven shared history with the tribe. 

Yet, the Cherokee Nation have denied one group of people – the descendants of their former slaves – who had this very shared history, generations spent living alongside native people, simply because they did not see them as native “enough”.

Tribal membership has always been dependent upon induction into a native peoples’ community, either through birth, intermarriage, or adoption. But the formalisation of the idea of citizenship, a status that can be conferred (or disavowed) by a specific governmental body, is the product of colonisation.

Largely beginning in the 19th century, when native nations interacted with the American government to sell their land and receive annuities for it or distribute it in allotments, the US would send representatives to compile a list of the people who would then qualify to receive these annuities or land parcels. These people would then also be considered tribal citizens. Over time, many nations, such as the Cherokee Nation, have continued to use these same lists as the basis of tribal citizenship.

For Indian nations such as the Cherokees, as well as the Choctaws, Creeks, Seminoles, and Chickasaws, who owned black slaves, the evolution of tribal citizenship was more complicated. Their black slaves had lived among them, sharing their language, food, and homes, and this shared history spanned decades and generations.

Yet, many native people considered the people of African descent who resided in their nations a separate group, and when these five nations assembled their membership lists in partnership with the American government, they separated themselves from their former descendants, creating two categories of citizenship – one for “Indians by blood” and one for former slaves.

Then, throughout the 20th century, the Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles eventually rescinded the tribal membership of all the descendants of their former slaves, claiming they had no place in their nations because they did not have native ancestry.

The descendants of the former slaves of Cherokee women and men, an estimated 3,000 people, many of whom bear Cherokee ancestry, were denied the rights and privileges of Cherokee citizenship for years – but they fought back, filing lawsuits in tribal courts and then in American courts. In 2017, with the successful outcome of US District Court case, Cherokee Nation v Nash Vann, et al, these descendants, referred to as Cherokee Freedpeople, have been welcomed back into the fold.

Following this decision, the Cherokee Nation turned over a new, inclusive leaf and even celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr Day as an official holiday for the first time this January, in honour of their Freedmen citizens. Hopefully, this signals a readiness to return to traditional definitions of tribal inclusion that acknowledge the informal belonging and historical connection.

Now the descendants of former slaves of Creek Indians have filed a similar case in the US federal court, also seeking to reestablish their tribal membership.

As the largest of the former slaveholding Indian nations, the actions of the Cherokee Nation and the reactions of Cherokee Freedmen descendants have received the most publicity.

But all Indian nations deal with issues related to tribal membership (who should be allowed to be a member, how tribal resources should be used to provide for every member, etc), particularly in a historical moment when it is trendy to claim a Native American identity. Indian nations’ answers to these membership questions are shaped by the economic resources they do or don’t have and by their ideas of how a member of their tribe should live and what they should look like.

There is no one answer to how a Native American nation should decide tribal membership. After all, it is largely their prerogative based on tribal sovereignty. It is not the duty of Indian nations to welcome every person who takes a DNA test and finds that they supposedly possess native ancestry; it is not their duty to take lightly a prominent, completely unaffiliated person’s claims of belonging.

But as they begin to more publicly define the parameters of their definitions of citizenship, it should be their moral obligation to fully acknowledge and rectify the wrongful exclusions they have made in the past.

And, as Elizabeth Warren’s election campaign gains speed and this controversy, no doubt, resurfaces again and again, journalists have an occupational obligation to transition this narrative of Indian identity from a mere punch line to a nuanced conversation about race and belonging.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.