Opinion: Why White Americans Love To Claim Native Ancestry

This week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren doubled down on her claims of Native American ancestry. (Photo: The Washington Post via Getty Images)
This week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren doubled down on her claims of Native American ancestry. (Photo: The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), I grew up believing I was part Cherokee. Like her, I was persuaded by the family mythology that my grandfather’s “high cheekbones” were sufficient evidence of our Indian ancestry.

Then I read Vine Deloria Jr.’s book Custer Died for Your Sins, which punctured a hole in the genealogical fabric I’d inherited. In this classic book about the American Indian Movement, Deloria wrote about his time at the National Congress of American Indians, during which white people came through his office almost every day claiming they had a “Cherokee grandmother.” I recognized that my fond belief in a Cherokee ancestor was, in fact, a cliche, and I mostly let go of this false narrative about my family’s heritage.

But not everyone gives up on that narrative. Elizabeth Warren certainly hasn’t. The senator’s doubling-down on her claims to Native American ancestry — and the Cherokee Nation’s disavowal of her claims — highlights that the way that claims to indigeneity for white people, and specifically, for a white person like Elizabeth Warren, supports white supremacist ideas and practices.

For many white Americans, there is something appealing about being a “little bit Cherokee”; some observers call it the “Cherokee Syndrome.” In the 2010 census, more than 819,000 Americans self-identified as Cherokee ― but the combined population of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes (the Cherokee Nation and United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee in Oklahoma, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina) amounts to fewer than 400,000.

Material benefits are part of the allure. The ability to assert a Native American identity on official forms can lead to result in access to additional resources. For instance, in the late-nineties, a company owned by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) in-laws won more than $7 million in no-bid and other federal contracts at U.S. military installations and other government properties in California based on a dubious claim of Native American identity by McCarthy’s brother-in-law. At Harvard Law School, Warren was celebrated as the first “minority” woman to receive tenure. This was based on her own claims of Native American identity on employment forms, although she and Harvard Law have denied her identity had anything to do with her promotion.

Then there are the more ephemeral appeals to claiming Cherokee identity. “I believe that there is a retreat from white guilt that is happening here,” writes University of Texas anthropologist Circe Sturm in her book Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity. “Whiteness is responsible for indigenous dispossession and the lack of societal connection that characterizes modernity,” she said in an interview. Sturm calls people who claim Cherokee identity without prior tribal affiliation “race shifters,” who are seeking connection to an identity outside whiteness. Claiming an indigenous identity, however flimsy the evidence, relieves some of the discomfort of being a white settler.

(Photo: CNBC)
(Photo: CNBC)

Race shifters are commonplace in American history; perhaps the most infamous recent example is Rachel Dolezal, who claimed in a 2015 interview that she’d been born in a “tepee” and spent parts of her childhood hunting for food with a “bow and arrow.” These claims turned out to be false. Sturm argues that race shifters associate Indianness with a set of values and a feeling of community belonging that is “the near opposite of the anomic individualism ... associated with the modern condition of whiteness.” Dolezal, like other race shifters, was able to get a paid position with the NAACP using yet another racial identity. Claiming Native American identity means that some white people have access to material resources and the emotional distance from a legacy as an oppressor.

When Elizabeth Warren took the bait of her political rival by using a DNA test to “prove” her claims, she endorsed a way of thinking about race, DNA and Native ancestry that reinforces white supremacy. The notion that an individual can discover their tribal affiliation through a DNA test reinforces the white supremacist notion of “race” as a biological trait tied to a specific gene, discoverable from saliva. It’s the same idea at the core of the Ancestry.com advertisements that you’ve surely seen on TV. This simplistic view of how genetic markers work strengthens retrograde notions about about “blood quantum” and race.

Research by Kim TallBear, a professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, has established that there are no genetic markers of Native ancestry. In her book, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Sense of Genetic Science, TallBear observes that tribal membership is a legal category, not a genetic one. She points out that it is impossible to disentangle individual genetic information from the constellations of family relations, reservation histories, tribal rules and government regulations in which genes are formed.

When the question of using DNA to establish Sen. Warren’s lineage first emerged in 2016, Professor TallBear wrote about the fallacy of using genetic markers to establish tribal membership. “Because we are all genetically related, there are no tribe-specific markers, i.e., no Cherokee, Pequot, or Lakota markers,” she wrote. So, Warren’s claims that she has a “gene” that proves she is Cherokee is false, but her championing of this idea to score political points reifies a particular set of ideas about Indianness and biology.

Insisting on the idea that there is a genetic marker for Indian identity, as Senator Warren is doing, is another way of reinforcing white supremacist ideas. And here’s the thing I learned from my own family’s Cherokee Syndrome: there is a lot of overlap between believing you’re a “little bit Cherokee” and white supremacy. My grandfather with the “high cheekbones” was also in the Ku Klux Klan. Most people think of these two identities ― Native American and KKK member ― as on opposing ends of a racial spectrum, but in the American context, there is a lot of overlap between the two. White families tell their children about a connection to a mythic Native American past as a way to lay claim to territory and to a sense of belonging. It is a way of asserting: we are the true First Peoples.

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Elizabeth Warren is trying to weave her family lore of a Cherokee past into her political future. And, in that way, she is not so different from the “race shifters” that Sturm documents in her research, or from my family.

No matter what her DNA test says, Warren is no more Cherokee than I am, which is not at all. But by claiming a Cherokee identity when she has none, she is propping up white supremacy.

“It’s not about what identity you claim,” TallBear said in a 2016 interview about the issue, “it’s about who claims you.” Senator Warren isn’t being claimed by the Cherokee nation, and that’s what matters.

Jessie Daniels is a Professor at The City University Of New York, and the author of the forthcoming book Tweetstorm: The Rise of the “Alt-Right” and the Mainstreaming of White Nationalism.


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