Venkata: Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s DNA debacle

Genetic lineage is fine and well, but it can be misused.

by Uma Venkata

When the going gets tough — and it sure is, for every single contender in the upcoming midterms — we can sometimes make snap judgments, or even heavily meditated ones, that in retrospect were wrong. Sometimes we mean one thing, but accidentally and loudly say something else.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, fell into that rabbit hole this past week when she announced the results of a DNA test that indicated some Native American lineage — six to 10 generations back. This statement came as a follow up from a previous across-the-aisle argument with President Donald Trump about her Native ancestry, or lack thereof. Warren’s allusions to family stories about their Native lineage have been a feature of her speeches and a connection from within her life that invites a sense of intimacy with her constituents. I understand why she would like to pursue a feeling of connection like that. And, I presume that Warren in no way intended to demean our nation’s original residents, historical or contemporary, by romanticizing the meaning of Native American heritage. But she may have accidentally and loudly done that.

Warren did not grow up in a Native American community, among Native American family members or with other Native American children. She is not Native American. Her Native American DNA is from an ancestor more than one hundred years removed. Claiming she is Native American trivializes the lineage of all tribal nations. What started out as a cosmetic point — frankly, not the best one, either — has left more of a bad taste.

Since then, Warren has scrambled to prove she has, in an official capacity, claimed nothing more than white heritage. She realized she made a point she didn’t intend. Maybe if she were to start this month over, she would keep this issue off the public airwaves entirely. It was one bad move in the game of political chess that all our elected officials seem to have no choice but to try to conquer without compromise.

To those of us who are not her family, Warren’s genetic makeup does not matter. In general, as Americans, we tend to aggrandize and idolize national roots from our foreign forefathers. Perhaps it’s because as a nation of immigrants, we only have a few hundred years of rugged, man-conquering land to cling to as roots, and that doesn’t feel like enough. Our neighbors on every other continent have rich histories that stretch thousands of years. But eventually, this becomes a moot point — family stories mean a lot personally, but we know who our real communities are.

If Warren were Native American, she would have spent a lot more of her platform on the woefully underserved state of Native American affairs, and she wouldn’t have needed a DNA test. Our DNA does not define us nearly as much as our lives and communities do.

The Native American community is often used as a pawn — whenever it’s not being ignored entirely. Warren has, ultimately, done that. Everyone puts their foot in their mouth sometimes, we’re only human. But this was an avoidable blunder. The Native American community is consistently overlooked, despite these instances being headlined far from infrequently. This lesson with the Native American community has been learned over and over again.