Elizabeth Warren's Native Identity Has Nothing to Do With DNA, Say Critics

The issue "is the notion that genetics can tell us about a person's identity, when it actually can't."

Unity Rally - Cambridge, MA

Native American scholars and genetic ancestry experts are not impressed with Senator Elizabeth Warren’s genetic test showing that she has a Native American ancestry. On Monday, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts released the test results as an apparent response to President Donald Trump’s repeated mockery over her purported Native American heritage, which has included his nicknaming her “Pocahontas.” While the test supports the claim that Warren has a Native American ancestor, critics say the DNA evidence is beside the point.

The genetic test, performed by Carlos Bustamante, Ph.D., compared 660,000 of Warren’s genetic markers to those of a small reference group. In his report (which can be found at the bottom of this article), Bustamante, a professor of genetics at Stanford University, concluded that “the vast majority” of Warren’s ancestry is European, but that “the results strongly support the existence of an unadmixed Native American ancestor in the individual’s pedigree, likely in the range of 6-10 generations ago.”

The test results are contested both on biological and cultural grounds.

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Elizabeth Warren's genetic test shows that she likely has a Native American ancestor, but that's about it.

Biological Criticisms

Digging a little deeper into Bustamante’s report shows that the test relies on shaky data. Part of what makes a genetic ancestry test reliable is the fact that other people have contributed their genetic information to a database. Since people of European descent are vastly over-represented in consumer genetic databases, any test of ancestry that involves non-European people will have a significantly smaller database to which researchers can compare a person’s genetic data. Basic statistics tells us that fewer items in a sample group will result in a less reliable analysis.

In the case of Warren’s test, the comparison group consists of just 37 DNA samples of people “from across the Americas with Native American ancestry.” These reference samples come from Colombia, Peru, and Mexico. None are from North America. The reasoning given is that Central and South Americans’ DNA is similar to that of Native North Americans since researchers theorize that the first Americans all came to the Americas from Asia over the Bering Land Bridge.

Cultural Criticism

But the total absence of Native American DNA raises another issue, one that’s bigger than the science of race and ethnicity. The reason there’s no Native American DNA to which Bustamante can compare Warren’s sample is that Native American tribal leaders have explicitly discouraged members from contributing to genetic databases.

“Tribal governments establish regulations that do not use genetic ancestry tests, but other forms of biological and political relationships to define our citizenries,” wrote Kim TallBear, Ph.D., on Monday. TallBear, an associate professor of native studies at the University of Alberta, is the author of the book Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. She issued a public statement about the Warren situation on Twitter:

In the statement, TallBear also emphasized that using science to determine Indigenous identity takes the right and power of self-determination away from Native Americans and puts it in the hands of the settler power structure that has stripped Native American rights for generations.

Genes ≠ Identity

In addition to colonial critiques of genetic science, other critics have pointed out that genetic markers are simply not the same thing as membership in a group.

“The genetic test tells us that Elizabeth Warren has an ancestor 6-10 generations ago who was Native American. But that’s not the same thing as saying she is Native American,” Jennifer Raff, Ph.D., tells Inverse. Raff, an assistant professor of population genetics at the University of Kansas, echoes TallBear’s sentiment, pointing out that a DNA test showing Warren’s ancestry doesn’t really change anything about her identity.

“Being Native American is an issue of cultural and social belonging, and not something that DNA results can address. She has not been claimed by a Native American community or tribe; therefore she isn’t Native American. To be fair, she isn’t claiming that is the case, merely that she has an ancestor who was. In that respect, she’s correct.”

This may all be getting far afield of the main point of Warren’s genetic testing story: She wanted to silence President Trump’s jabs at her, but unfortunately she may not have even done that. “Who cares?” he responded when confronted with her test results, CNN reports.

At the root of this issue is the idea that genetic ancestry reveals some unknown truth about who we are. Raff says this is the core misunderstanding of the Warren story:

“The fundamental problem with this whole discussion is the notion that genetics can tell us about a person’s identity, when it actually can’t.”