What an illuminating thing it is for Sen. Elizabeth Warren to assert Cherokee ancestry to access affirmative action and burnish her diversity credentials. To support her claim of Cherokee ancestry, Warren provided “proof” from a DNA test that detected a trace of suspected Native American DNA, likely from six to ten generations earlier.
Unlike other ethnicities, there is a legal definition of what it means to be a member of the modern Cherokee tribe. Let’s see if Warren meets it.
Does Warren Have Any Legitimate Claim?
Let’s first define our terms. To qualify for Cherokee Nation tribal citizenship, Warren must be able to document a direct ancestor listed on one of the Dawes Final Rolls of Citizens of the Cherokee Nation. She must demonstrate that she descends directly from a person listed on these rolls, which were taken between 1899 and 1906 and documented members of the tribe residing in Indian Territory, now northeastern Oklahoma.
Warren was born in 1949. Assuming each generation consists of about 20 years, if Warren’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother was the last full Indian from which she descended, this person would have given birth to Warren’s first ancestor that wasn’t full Indian between 120 and 200 years before Warren’s birth––or roughly between 1750 and 1830.
So it’s very unlikely that a woman old enough to bear a child in 1830 would also have been included in the Dawes register 70 years later. For frame of reference, the Cherokee experience with the Trail of Tears transpired in the late 1830s and beyond. It’s likely that Warren’s Indian ancestry was already integrated into European-American culture at this point.
President Trump has repeatedly provoked the senator’s outrage by nicknaming her “Pocahontas,” drawing attention to her dubious claims of Indian heritage. In July, he taunted her with an offer to donate $1 million to a charity of her choice if Warren could prove her Native American ancestry with a DNA test.
In spite of Warren’s calls for support from Native Americans to join her outrage at the president, real Native Americans and the Cherokee nation have sided against Warren, stating that her claims of membership to the Cherokee tribe are “inappropriate and wrong.”
Victory For Warren? Hardly
Warren nevertheless claimed victory in this dispute with Trump because her ancestry is at best somewhere between 1/64th and 1/1,024th Native American. Actually, it’s less than that because the database of known Native American DNA is so spare that much of this conclusion is extrapolated from known Hispanic heritage. If you go far enough back, the average American of European descent has more trace amounts of Indian DNA than Warren herself does.
But here’s what makes all of this so interesting: sure, Warren might not have more than 1 percent American Indian DNA, but who is to say that’s not enough? In an era when gender has become a choice, why not race?
The idea of a transracial person migrating his race from the “assigned” race to a race of his own choosing is not unique to Warren. In 2017, another pioneer in the emerging transracial movement came out as transitioning from a white man to a Filipino. Rachel Dolezal, a woman with “assigned” European heritage, held an office in her local NAACP chapter as a transitioned African American (and faced significant subsequent public scrutiny).
Warren may be our first transracial senator. Although nature may have assigned her European ancestry, she nevertheless identified with Native American culture to such an extent that she contributed a recipe called ”Pow Wow Chow” to a cookbook. Now, before you get offended by her appropriation of Cherokee culture, she’s actually allegedly guilty of stealing many elements of the “Cherokee” recipes by plagiarizing French chefs. No word on her percentage of French DNA. Va te faire cuire le cul, Madame Warren.
Warren: Progressive Pioneer!
The president should stop criticizing Warren. She is a pioneer leading the way to a society in which race is no longer destiny. If Warren can join an ethnic or racial group just by saying she belongs to it, then racial divisions will simply become individual preferences. This would actually further the American founders’ vision of a melting pot in which all men and women are created equal. Self-determined racial identity represents an existential threat to political power based upon racial grievances.
The transracial phenomenon has tied academics in knots as they openly debate how to deal with “ethnic fraud,” the practice of falsely claiming to be from an ethnic group or racial identity. The consensus appears to be that if a student claims to be African American, for example, there’s nothing a university can legally do to challenge it. While Warren voluntarily submitted to a DNA test, requiring such a test of a college or job applicant claiming minority status could run afoul the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance on the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.
Pay up, President Trump. Warren has transitioned her racial identity. Let her say she’s whatever she wants to be, because if she can be Native American by simply saying she is, we are closing in on the end of all preferences based upon racial identity. Regardless, I agree with the Cherokee Nation: Warren is not a Cherokee any more than she belongs to that baseball team in Cleveland.