With the release of DNA analysis results indicating that Senator Elizabeth Warren has traced Native American heritage, the likely presidential candidate might have expected to end President Donald Trump’s constant invocation of his race-based nickname for her: “Pocahontas.”
If the response from Native American tribes, advocacy groups and fellow politicians is any indication, however, Warren’s attempt to silence criticism of her past claims of Cherokee ancestry has largely backfired.
“If you’re a real Indian, as most Native American people I know call themselves, you know the running joke that comes with an eye roll when people say, ‘my grandmother was part Cherokee,’” said Alli Joseph, a writer, producer and member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation. “Senator Warren is disrespecting the heritage and culture of real Indians with her continued claims of tribal heritage, and impeding progress towards a greater understanding of Native American identity.”
At best, advocacy organizations working on behalf of Native Americans see Warren as potentially distracting from the real issues facing modern Native American populations and people. At worst, some Native Americans see Warren’s gambit as a more pernicious version of President Trump’s overt racism, ignoring the cultural, social and legal complexities of tribal membership by reducing Native American identity to genetics.
The Cherokee Nation swiftly decried the exercise as “dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens.”
“A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship. Current DNA tests do not even distinguish whether a person’s ancestors were indigenous to North or South America,” said Chuck Hoskin Jr., the secretary of state of the Cherokee Nation. “Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong.”
President Trump has dismissed the test results as “a scam and a lie,” putting Warren on the defensive against both Republicans and Native Americans, a minority group with whom the Massachusetts Democrat has attempted to cultivate a relationship—in part due to the accusations that her claims to Native American ancestry are without merit.
“I was disappointed that she made such a big deal out of a DNA test,” said Kirsten Johnson, a Republican running for the Minnesota House of Representatives and a member of the Leech Lake Band of the Ojibwe. “Honestly, I believed her for a while that she did have Native American lineage… But then when she came out like, ‘Haha, I have a DNA test, you owe me a million dollars,’ that kind of bothered me because I was like, ‘That’s not the point here.’ ”
Hoskin condemned Warren’s polished release of the test results—complete with a website noting the likelihood of a Native American ancestor in Warren’s pedigree, “likely in the range of six-10 generations ago”—as “dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens.” The senator’s continued claims of tribal heritage, he concluded, are “undermining tribal interests.”
The Cherokee Nation, from which Warren claimed she was descended while teaching at Harvard Law School in the 1990s, is not alone in pushing back against the notion that a DNA test is sufficient evidence of Native American ancestry.
“Tribal nations, as sovereign governments, have the inherent right to determine tribal citizenship,” Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, told The Daily Beast, noting that Warren had made a distinction between tribal citizenship and family history. “We will continue to remind policymakers and the general public about that fact as we work to defend the inherent rights and authorities of tribal governments.”
The Cherokee Nation’s rebukes sting all the more when viewed in contrast to the tribe’s strong defense of Warren in 2012, when her past claims of partial Native American ancestry became a campaign issue during her first run against then-Sen. Scott Brown. After Brown staffers were caught taunting Warren supporters with “war cries” and tomahawk-chopping arm gestures, Bill John Baker, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, defended Warren by saying that “we need individuals in the United States Senate who respect Native Americans and have an understanding of tribal issues.”
Even the group Warren hoped to shame Trump into sending a promised $1 million check—as the president vowed to do if Warren took a DNA test demonstrating Native American heritage—was hesitant to fully defend her, beyond praising the Massachusetts senator for raising national awareness of the issue of violence against indigenous women.
“While the conversation today has centered around claims of ancestry, we wish to remind the general public of the actual experience of being American Indian and Alaska Native and the urgent safety issues that our communities contend with daily,” Lucy Rain Simpson, executive director of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, told The Daily Beast.
Simpson, whose group works to end gender-based violence against American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and Indigenous peoples, noted that such populations face disproportionate rates of domestic and sexual violence.
The president had challenged Warren to test her genetic background during a rally in Montana over the summer, telling the crowd: “And we will say, ‘I will give you a million dollars, paid for by Trump, to your favorite charity, if you take the test and it shows you’re an Indian.’”
When asked by reporters on Monday whether he would honor his pledge, Trump denied that he had said it. Later, Trump told reporters in Georgia that he would only donate the promised $1 million if he could “personally” conduct Warren’s DNA test, which would “not be something I will enjoy, either.”
The White House did not respond to repeated requests for comment as to whether the president would honor his pledge, whether he had really not made the pledge in the first place, or what “personally” testing Warren would entail.
Still, Warren’s shoutout to the group’s work may provide a financial boost for the NIWRC, even without President Trump’s promised cash: Simpson told The Daily Beast that as a result of the story, numerous individuals and organizations have donated to benefit tribal survivors of sexual violence.
“As marginalized communities, we often struggle to bring tribal interests to the center of the debate,” Simpson said. “We are grateful to Senator Warren for elevating our work within the national arena.”
“We will continue to do this lifesaving work with or without the president’s donation,” Cherrah Giles, the board chair of the NIWRC, told The Daily Beast.
As Trump has continued to use the nickname “Pocahontas” for Warren—even once using the jibe during a ceremony honoring Native American code talkers for their service during World War II, as a portrait of the genocidal President Andrew Jackson gazed on—the senator has made outreach to indigenous communities part of her platform. In a surprise speech addressing the National Congress of American Indians in February, Warren addressed her claims of Native American heritage by pledging to respond to the president’s taunts by focusing on Native American issues.
“I’m here today to make a promise: Every time someone brings up my family’s story, I’m going to use it to lift up the story of your families and your communities,” Warren said.
That speech was seen at the time as a gesture of goodwill to Native American communities, where the sting of the president’s “Pocahontas” slur had been felt most acutely.
“Now we have a president who can’t make it through a ceremony honoring Native American war heroes without reducing Native history, Native culture, Native people to the butt of a joke,” Warren said at the time. “The joke, I guess, is supposed to be on me.”
Since that speech, Warren has sponsored legislation intended to expand access to voting for Native American communities, as well as a bill that would require states receiving grants intended to fund suicide prevention programs to collaborate with tribes.
But Johnson pointed to the previous five years of Warren’s tenure, in which her support of Native-specific legislation was conspicuously sparse.
“She hasn’t done much to lift up Native Americans using her platform, and she didn’t have the lived experience that many of us had,” said Johnson. “If you’re claiming that in your heritage, what are you doing to lift people up?”
—with additional reporting by Emily Shugerman