Indigenous Identity, Being, and Belonging
In her bid as a 2020 Democratic candidate for President, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren found herself on the defensive when President Donald J. Trump repeatedly called her “Pocahontas.” For years, Warren had claimed indigenous ancestry. In an attempt to address the nagging controversy about her claim, Warren took a DNA ancestry test. The results showed a small but detectable amount of Native American DNA, possibly an indigenous ancestor six to ten generations removed. Warren had long claimed that she was part Tsalagi (Cherokee) and Lenape (Delaware) based on family stories she heard growing up.
However, in turning to DNA testing to silence her critics, she reinforced one of the most insidious ways Americans think about race as an innate and immutable biological fact.
In the past ten years, DNA-ancestry test kits have become all the rage. Coinciding with the adoption of direct to consumer genetic testing is the budding popularization of family history and identity politics—a curious collision of interests, to be sure. The two phenomena—increasing technological advancements vis-a-vis genetic testing and the dynamics of determining identity—are indeed linked. By spitting into a plastic tube or swabbing the inside of a cheek, companies such as Ancestry and 23andMe promise their consumers insight into the deepest reaches of their ancestry. Simultaneously, the strongest appeal by these producers of consumer genetic testing is their promise to tell consumers who and what they are. The power to identify merged with various technologies of identification serve multiple, often self-serving purposes. Unfortunately, the implications of their coincidence are often lost on consumers of such tests seeking answers to questions of identity.
By 2019, more than 26 million Americans had taken an at-home DNA-ancestry test. Should interest in identity, family history, and genealogy continue, by 2021, the most prolific purveyors of such testing will have collected and stored the genetic data of more than 100 million people—according to DNA test kit vendors and market analysts.
For many, ancestry is synonymous with identity but there are important qualitative distinctions between what you are and who you are. To the extent that DNA ancestry tests might tell you what you are based on an algorithm of reference datasets, it cannot tell you who you are. While identity, or who you are matters, for many, so does what you are. Without an identifiable ancestry, one’s very existence is cast into doubt. Nevertheless, identity and ancestry are not the same, nor should they be confused with one another.
Ancestry refers to infinite lines of descent as well as socio-political, religious, and cultural origins. Identity, however, connotes in total the beliefs, values, and expressions that encompass the memories, experiences, and relations that enable individuals as well as groups to construct themselves in the present. For those seeking to establish or confirm claims to a Native American identity, this latest technology makes tangible the necessary evidence to do so. By unlocking timeless sequences of DNA, genetic testing vendors purport to determine what you are. Scientists interpret clues within genetic sequences embedded in blood, saliva, bones and other bodily traces that have been passed down through successive generations.
Genealogy companies such as Ancestry and 23andMe render the genetic material that they test into decipherable, easy-to-read pie charts that neatly divide percentages and probabilities derived from algorithms obtained through data accumulation. In so doing, for myriad consumers, the interpretive work of science translates hereditary genetic material into present-day constructs of identity, thereby determining not only what you are, but also, who you are. Moreover, while testing companies refrain from using the terms “race” or “ethnicity,” their interpretations of genetic material invariably translate into contemporary categories of race. The ramifications of marketing identity through genetic testing are significant. Consumers are encouraged to embrace or distance themselves from DNA test-kit ascriptions of racialized identities while confirming their belief in racial difference. By examining the means by which DNA tests assess genetic material such as blood and bones, we seek to both interrogate their myth-making power, while subverting them with indigenous constructs of belonging.
Prior to her Presidential bid, questions concerning Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry first surfaced during her run for the U.S. Senate in 2012. The Boston Herald reported that she registered as a minority in law school directories in the 1980s. Warren defended herself by claiming that she was told of her Native American ancestry in family stories passed down over generations and claims that she never furthered her career by using her heritage to gain an advantage.
In 2018, Warren joined the thousands of Americans turning to DNA ancestry testing to discover or recover the truth of their identity. She consulted Carlos D. Bustamante, a Biomedical Data Science professor at Stanford University’s School of Medicine whose lab focuses on Population Genomics and Global Health, Clinical and Medical Genomics, and Ancient DNA. Notably, Bustamante had already gained popularity—unusual for a “hard” scientist—on PBS’s Finding Your Roots, with Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In turning to Bustamante’s testing lab to silence her critics, Warren unwittingly reinforced two myths of the American imagination: first, the veracity of biologically-based notions of race and identity, and second, the long-held belief that many white Americans have indigenous ancestry.
One source of evidence of this myth-making can be found in Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. White fears of tainted “Negro” blood seeping into white lineages informed the Act and similar race laws throughout the American South. To maintain white racial purity, Virginia’s legislature made it unlawful for a white person to marry outside of their race. In so doing, the state racialized all non-whites, whether “negro, Mongolian, American Indian, Asiatic Indian, Malay, or any mixture thereof, or any other non-Caucasic strains” as “colored,” with one notable exception. Known as the “Pocahontas Exception,” the Act ensured that those members of Virginia’s elite families who claimed descent from Mataoka, better known as Pocahontas, were irrefutably and legally white.
Among citizens and descendants of contemporary tribal nations, Warren’s situation underscores the abiding interest that many people have in confirming claims to indigenous ancestry. When individuals who most consistently identify as white assume another racialized identity, the behavior advances the understanding that historically, politically, and culturally-constructed identities can be assumed and consumed without consequence, without cost, without understanding.
What makes Warren’s experience of laying claim to indigenous ancestry unusual, and indeed, laudably exceptional, is that in her apologia to contemporary Native Americans, and specifically, the Cherokee Nation, Warren owned her own actions, “having listened and learned.” In light of the controversy, Warren removed a video of her family’s ancestral history and released a 9,000-word plan on tribal rights that ran twice the length of her other campaign proposals. Nevertheless, for the Cherokee Nation, as well as a number of indigenous scholars, Warren’s planned policy and her apology rang hollow, was dismissed, and failed to receive serious consideration.
The popularity and proliferation of genetic ancestry tests aimed at would-be Native American clients is only the latest iteration of an ideological legacy of race and racial superiority rooted in the body, and specifically, the blood. The use of “blood” to trace ancestry, has multiple historical roots. In the English historical context, “blood” made material the mechanism whereby ancestry, lineage, and descent justified or delegitimized claims to property and status. Blood was infused with properties that confirmed or denied the tell-tale traces of authenticity. Authenticity, or its lack, was irretrievably embedded in either pure, or suspect admixtures of illicit blood.
For post-Columbian indigenous peoples throughout what is now the United States, “blood” initially operated as a metaphorical translation of forms of relatedness and lineage. Over time however, “blood” as metaphor devolved even as its literalness increased, gradually mirroring a European biologic of identity. In the 500 plus years since, technologies of establishing relatedness, identification, and evaluation, began to require the measurement of “blood quantum.” The belief that “Indianness” can be measured by the amount of “Indian blood” that one possessed gave new meaning to indigenous understandings of “descent,” “lineage” and “ancestry.” At the same time, this understanding usurped indigenous beliefs about identity and belonging rooted in culture, kinship, and community.
As of February 2020, there were 574 tribal nations legally recognized by the U.S. federal government. Among these, over 70 percent require a minimum blood quantum for purposes of attaining tribal citizenship. Similar to the one-drop rule once used to define someone as “Negro,” or anyone with known or purported African ancestry, blood quantum rules exemplify the elbowing guidance of the federal authority since the 19th century that defined as “Indian” persons with some minimum percentage of “Indian blood,” usually one-quarter or more. Rooted in a biologic of race, these directives were incorporated into tribal constitutions that determine both tribal belonging and citizenship status. To the extent that DNA ancestry tests may provide evidence of generic indigenous ancestry, they fall far short of providing the proof needed for tribal citizenship. This is why, in response to the release of Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test result, the Cherokee Nation released a statement that said in part that DNA tests are inappropriate and useless in determining tribal citizenship.
Many who turn to DNA tests in search of indigenous ancestry reinforce antiquated constructions of race and the abilities of science to determine identity. Yet, contemporary DNA ancestry-testing, and the marketing strategies that herald it as an unassailable scientific determinant of race, misinform people as to its ability to shed light on who or what they are.. There are also significant legal, historical, and ethical implications upon which such claims rely as they naturalize biological notions of relatedness apart from indigenous cultural moorings that are rooted in people and place. A striking example of the differing means by which many Americans determine racialized relatedness from the ways in which indigenous peoples establish being and belonging is the two-decade saga of The Ancient One, better known as “Kennewick Man.”
In 2017, the 9,000 year old remains of The Ancient One were returned to a coalition of tribal nations (the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, Nez Perce Tribe, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, and the Wanapum Band of Priest Rapids). Claiming him as their ancestor, for twenty-one years they sought to rebury him. Shortly after his discovery and subsequent appropriation in the name of scientific inquiry into his origins, anthropologist James Chatters purposed the skull to mold a sculpture of what The Ancient One looked like. Naming him “Kennewick Man,” Chatters described him as “Caucasoid,” who lacked the “definitive characteristics of the classic Mongoloid stock.” Chatters further noted that he could easily “lose him in the streets of most major cities.”
To Chatters, The Ancient One did not “look” Native American. Herein began a tale of multiple claimants: first, The Ancient One himself, whose post-mortem existence as the ancestor of present-day indigenous Columbian Basin peoples was now under threat. Second, Nordic racial paganists now claimed that, as their ancestor, The Ancient One represented evidence of an even earlier European indigeneity in the Americas. Lastly, a group of scholars—represented by the Army Corps of Engineers which oversaw the land where The Ancient One was “discovered”— sued the Federal government in order to prevent his remains from returning to the Columbian Basin peoples under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
Later still, physical anthropologists at the Smithsonian Institution completed an exhaustive inventory of The Ancient One’s bones, from probing his cavity-free teeth, to disarticulating, exploring, measuring, and weighing every inch of what his skeleton might reveal. Twenty years after his “discovery” in 1997, cranial analysis combined with genetic comparisons concluded that The Ancient One evidenced continuity with indigenous North Americans over the course of eight millennia.
Marketers of genetic ancestry testing readily exploit the American interest in genealogy. What is at the heart of such an abiding interest? The preoccupation with who we are and what we are has plagued Americans since the inception of the nation. The need to root oneself, to belong has always been a core American anxiety.This highlights the perniciously appropriative behavior all-too-common among non-indigenous individuals. Indeed, persons in the present who otherwise identify as white need never be cognizant of, or own any historical attempts of Native erasure by assigning to themselves a shared ancestry unencumbered by that history. More than happy to perpetuate a narrative of the “vanishing Indian,” these formerly reviled, historically subjugated peoples were blithely absorbed into the body politic of the nation, as well as the bodies of its citizens. Once made to vanish, Native Americans can now safely return in a strand of DNA. We as observers, academics, and participants in the varied dynamics of American identity politics should keep in mind the histories and narrative inventions that inform what it means to be indigenous in the 21st century.
At a 2017 event honoring the service of Navajo Code Talkers during World War II, President Trump acknowledged the historical presence of indigenous peoples by stating, “You were here long before any of us were here.” Implicitly, this is the same rhetoric that Trump wields against immigrants. This brand of American myth-making privileges some Americans to a kind of indigeneity that requires the erasure of their own immigrant ancestry in order to legitimize their claims to being American and belonging to the nation state.
Indeed, Trump has made a career of policing indigenous identities. In 1993, while still an entrepreneur, Trump campaigned to prevent New Jersey’s Ramapough Mountain Indians from entering into the gaming industry in Atlantic City. He invoked blood-based beliefs about indigenous identity when he stated, “I might have more Indian blood than a lot of the so- called Indians that are trying to open up the reservations.” In a similar vein, Trump attempted to delegitimize the Mashantucket Pequot, who operate one of the largest, most lucrative gaming operations in the U.S., saying, “They don’t look like Indians to me.” For Trump and many Americans, beliefs about race, whether based on blood, ancestry or phenotype, inform an understanding of who can be indigenous and what it means to be Native American.
In contrast to Trump’s narrative of indigenous illegitimacy and inauthenticity, the Cherokee Nation challenged Warren’s claims to Cherokee heritage and racialized constructions of identity. In a statement issued by the Chero- kee Nation, “being a Cherokee Nation tribal citizen is rooted in centuries of culture and laws, not through DNA tests.” The Cherokee do not claim to base their response to Warren on a construction of who may or may not be Native American. Rather, their response is specific to the Cherokee construct of belonging, and thus, being. Here, the Cherokee logic of being and belonging disables a racialized construction of who is or is not Cherokee and leaves to other tribal nations to define for themselves who and what they are. It also negates race as a premise for the legitimization of both people and personhood.
And yet, the concept of “race,” with its politicized pathology of purity and blood, continues to operate as a fundamental factor in the construction of both indigenous and non-indigenous identities. In the 500 plus years since Columbus made landfall, and well over a century since the abolition of slavery, biologically- based concepts of race remain deeply embedded and infused throughout U.S. society and the American psyche. Advances in genetic technologies have only strengthened such thinking about notions of individual and collective identity, and the fundamental basis of kinship and relatedness.
For many Americans, Native Identity is understood as something that resides in bodily traces, from blood and bones to DNA. The idea of genetics as an objective science continues to uncritically inform consumers, courts of law, legislators, and policy makers. How extraordinary that the past can be reduced to the flawless minimalism of DNA. Yet, this approach operates in accordance with an increasingly fragmented, socially-isolating approach to constructs of family, ancestry, and descent. All too vulnerable, are meanings of kinship across multiple historical and socio-cultural perspectives, as well as how such meanings reflect, refract, and conflict with larger social forces.
The possibilities offered by genetics perpetuate and promote ideas of identity premised on a cultural logic rooted in biologically based notions of ancestry and descent. In turn, this cultural logic stimulated the development of technologies that rely on the collection and analysis of both bodily traces and resulting data upon which science relies. In lieu of a larger knowledge of history and individual family histories, contemporary non-indigenous consumers have taken to purchasing DNA kits to better determine their ancestry, and thus, their identity. Moreover, Americans, in particular, seek confirmation of family histories that purport to include a distant, illusory indigenous ancestor upon which they can firmly assert a Native American identity. The simplistic construction of Native American identity defined solely by DNA is not only naïve, but also self-serving and ultimately, misinformed. In this sense, you are never entirely, and certainly never exclusively, your genes.
For many Americans, the idiom of “DNA” like that of “blood” conjures up powerful notions of ancestry and identity, being and belonging. For Elizabeth Warren and the thousands of Americans seeking proof of their “Indianness,” genetic ancestry testing provides a point of leverage upon which they can assert claims to indigeneity based on a “percentage” of DNA shared with indigenous peoples. In a New York Times article, Kim TallBear, an indigenous scholar at the University of Alberta argued that such testing privileges whiteness and relies on “settler-colonial definitions” of indigenous identity. It is in this abstract world of ideas as well as a lived reality that colonialism creates and reinforces the identities of the colonized in opposition to the colonizer.
The view of race as social rather than biological has been an enduring feature of sociological studies of race. The orthodoxy in the social sciences is that race is socially constructed, not an innate and immutable biological fact. In the United States, the social construction of race is underpinned by an ideology that has long-served the interests of certain groups in referential and strategic ways. In a nation consumed with enumeration, classification and categorization, family stories of being “part Indian” or algorithms of DNA are bound up in long histories of colonialism and racism that once usurped indigenous peoples of their lands, languages and lifeways. Today, DNA ancestry testing continues this process and further undermines indigenous defined ways of being and belonging.
Roth, W. D., Ivemark, B. (2018). Genetic Options: The Impact of Genetic Ancestry Testing on Consumers’ Racial and Ethnic Identities, American Journal of Sociology 124(1): 150-184.
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Wailoo, K., Nelson, A., Lee, C. (2012). Genetics and the unsettled past the collision of DNA, race, and history. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Angela A. Gonzales is in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Her research focuses on the interconnection between science, public policy, and the racialization of Native American identity.
Judy Kertész is in the History Department at North Carolina State University. Her research examines the emergence of a “nativist” American nationalism during the early American Republic, as well as the intersections of Indigenous studies, critical race studies, and museum studies.