Posted on December 7, 2018

Elizabeth Warren Stands by DNA Test. But Around Her, Worries Abound.

Astead W. Herndon, New York Times, December 6, 2018

The plan was straightforward: After years of being challenged by President Trump and others about a decades-old claim of Native American ancestry, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts would take a DNA test to prove her stated family origins in the Cherokee and Delaware tribes.

But nearly two months after Ms. Warren released the test results and drew hostile reactions from prominent tribal leaders, the lingering cloud over her likely presidential campaign has only darkened. Conservatives have continued to ridicule her. More worrisome to supporters of Ms. Warren’s presidential ambitions, she has yet to allay criticism from grass-roots progressive groups, liberal political operatives and other potential 2020 allies who complain that she put too much emphasis on the controversial field of racial science — and, in doing so, played into Mr. Trump’s hands.

Advisers close to Ms. Warren say she has privately expressed concern that she may have damaged her relationships to Native American groups and her own standing with activists, particularly those who are racial minorities. Several outside advisers are even more worried: They say they believe a plan should be made to repair that damage, possibly including a strong statement of apology.


Asked if the criticism of the test has inspired any regret, Ms. Warren said: “I put it out there. It’s on the internet for anybody to see. People can make of it what they will. I’m going to continue fighting on the issues that brought me to Washington.”

For some Warren allies and progressive groups, Ms. Warren’s standing by the DNA test amounts to profoundly poor judgment. Some said she was too reactive to Mr. Trump’s attacks — test results would never silence a president who often disregards facts, they said — and created a distraction from her own trademark message of economic populism. The president revels in repeatedly slurring Ms. Warren as “Pocahontas,” and conservative commentators like Howie Carr of The Boston Herald have enjoyed holding the DNA issue over the senator’s head.


Ms. Warren’s allies also say she unintentionally made a bigger mistake in treading too far into the fraught area of racial science — a field that has, at times, been used to justify the subjugation of racial minorities and Native Americans.

Ms. Warren has also troubled advocates of racial equality and justice, who say her attempt to document ethnicity with a DNA test gave validity to the idea that race is determined by blood — a bedrock principle for white supremacists and others who believe in racial hierarchies. Native American critics, including Kim TallBear, a prominent scholar from the University of Alberta, said in October that Ms. Warren’s actions relied on “settler-colonial” definitions of who is an indigenous American and amounted to a haughty refusal to hear out her longstanding critics.

This line of criticism has particularly stung Ms. Warren, who has made a point to hold several private talks with Native leaders since taking the DNA test, emphasizing her respect for tribal sovereignty and making clear she does not claim tribal citizenship.


Ms. Warren’s claim to Native American heritage first became an issue in her 2012 race for Senate, when The Herald reported that Harvard had once identified her as a member of a minority group when she was a law professor there. The Warren campaign at the time also confirmed she had listed herself as a minority member in a legal directory, but said she had done nothing wrong and said Native American ancestry had been part of her “family lore.” Her Republican opponent that year, Scott Brown, seized on the disclosures; she ultimately won the race by seven percentage points, but Republicans like Mr. Trump have continued to accuse her of misrepresenting herself for years.

{snip} Some white progressives have stumbled on issues of race and identity, but before the DNA test was released, Ms. Warren had built a reservoir of good will among liberals on these issues. She received praise for lending her national platform to highlighting injustice against Native Americans recently and, in one high-profile incident, she impressed social justice activists when she refused to backtrack after calling the American criminal justice system “racist” from “front to back.”


“Race is a true third rail in American politics, and you can make a lot of mistakes when we don’t have a diverse set of folks who are in the room and empowered to make decisions,” said Eric Lundy, program director of Inclusv, a group that pushes for more diversity in political campaign staffs.


Allies in Boston pointed out that, in Ms. Warren’s recent re-election effort in Massachusetts, there was no evidence that the DNA announcement hurt her standing among voters. Those close to Ms. Warren also note they had several allies in the progressive and Native American communities who supported their decision from the outset.

Deb Haaland, the newly elected House member from New Mexico who will be one of the first Native American women to serve in Congress, said she believed the senator was seeking to learn more about her past. Other tribal leaders, including those from the Lenape Indian Tribe in Delaware and the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina, have also supported Ms. Warren’s decision. Ms. Warren’s DNA test, which was conducted by the renowned geneticist Carlos Bustamante and released by her office, showed strong evidence that Ms. Warren has Native American pedigree “6-10 generations ago.”


This is not a view universally shared. The Cherokee Nation declined repeated requests for comment, but in a previous statement, tribal leaders said Ms. Warren’s decision dishonored “legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven.”


Twila Barnes, a Cherokee genealogist who has thoroughly tracked Ms. Warren’s claims of native ancestry since it became national news in 2012, {snip} said Ms. Warren had an opportunity to teach the broader public about how genetic testing has historically been used as a weapon against Native communities, but instead she “helped perpetuate a very dangerous idea.”

It has pushed Ms. Barnes, a self-described liberal, to make something of a personal pledge: She will never vote for Ms. Warren under any circumstance, including in an election against Mr. Trump.