L’enfer, c’est les autres.
Claims of Native American ancestry were once common in New England. My mother’s family, for example, still claims that my great-grandfather’s mother was Native American. I’ve done a fair amount of genealogical research, but I’ve found no evidence to support the claim. On the other hand, the same great grandfather’s grandfather was an Army captain in the Bear River Massacre, a battle the ended with the slaughter of hundreds of innocent Shoshone. Perhaps needless to say, I was dismayed to learn about my ancestor killing Indians.
In Cherokee country, claims of Cherokee heritage are still widespread, sometimes to the point of fraud, and it’s pretty clear Elizabeth Warren had no idea what she was signing up for when she once listed herself as Native American. There are fierce battles among the tribe as whom actually qualifies as a Cherokee. The Cherokee Nation has its own rules for membership. But in the latest controversy over Elizabeth Warren’s heritage, some people have gone too far. It’s one thing to control the membership of a group; it’s another to attempt to control that group’s identity. Ethnic groups, after all, are a social construct, the product not just of who we think we are and how we want to be seen, but how others think of us.
Elizabeth Warren’s release of DNA testing that shows she likely had a Native American ancestor. Time will tell if this was an effective political move, but complaints from and on behalf of Native Americans are largely unreasonable. Warren made no claims to tribal membership. She didn’t even make any claim to Native American identity. She merely provided evidence for the claim that had Native American ancestry. That’s not to say such claims aren’t irritating for the Cherokee.
We are faced with an onslaught of people who have never lived in our shoes saying, “Those are my shoes too,” simply because they spit into a small, hermetically sealed glass tube and got back DNA results that say they are 7 percent Native American.
His annoyance, one shared by a multitude of tribal members, is understandable. I’m sure there are people out there that lay claim to Cherokee identity because they have the right DNA. As Scott writes,
They post on online forums as Natives, they wear regalia from Eastern tribes mixed with Western tribes, they even go so far to start community groups and give themselves “Native” names that are often so laughable and stereotypical they cease to be insulting.
These people are laughable. Annoying. Ignorant and laughable. Scott notes,
“It is in our communities, it is in the words of our elders and the faces of our children. It goes beyond who our ancestors were — it dictates how we live, how we raise our children, and who we are as a people.
He’s correct, but I think, he only has part of the picture. DNA has no direct bearing on who we are, but it certainly has its indirect effects. It determines skin color and other surface features that impact our experiences and identity. The intersection of race and identity is irreducibly complex.
For example, I’m white, and, as far as my genealogical work can tell, European American. If a DNA test revealed I was 20% African, what would my identity change? I would have grown up as a middle-aged white guy without the oppression faced by the people who shared the same DNA. Clearly, my experience would not be the same as people who grew up as African Americans. Some people would now consider me African American–not just racists–but people who think I show own my newfound genetic heritage. I would try to learn any story my DNA heritage suggests. I might share my test results with my students to open their minds to the idea of race as a social construct. The fact is, none of us is the sum of our DNA or our community. We can’t separate how we see ourselves from how others see us. Even dominant social groups can’t separate their sense of identity from how other people think of them. We react to their reactions.