Elizabeth Warren, Native American?

May 1st, 2012 | By | Category: Ancestry, Politics & Law, Social & Ethics

(read update below)

Apparently, Elizabeth Warren has claimed some Native American heritage. Of course, this has brought out the normal racial politics and handwringing, nearly a birtherism reborn (which I’m not claiming Razib is dabbling in). I expect that from some circles, but But, from those of a scientific bent, it’s a bit disappointing to not see a more careful analysis of this  political persuasion trump the understanding of historical and scientific background.

Elizabeth Warren claims to have Native American heritage. Many have called for her to prove it. Razib Khan says in his post last week that “family lore often is inaccurate” suggesting Warren’s family lore could be. Let’s put aside the fact right now that it was her “maternal parents,” a short two generations back from herself. This isn’t distant family lore, it’s just a few generations. If someone told me that family lore claims that they are related to Lady Godiva, I’d question it. If they told me their grandparents had Native American ancestry, that gets a lot less inaccurate to say the least. So, yes, family lore can be inaccurate, but when’s it’s just a few generations removed, it’s often correct. My own experience with genealogy matching what has been told to me with my 20 years of research tells me that family lore is generally true, if not perfectly accurate.

But Razib and others suggest the most white Americans, putting Warren in this category, who  claim Native American descent find none. This shouldn’t be neither surprising nor does it suggest that they don’t have Native American descent. In fact, I’d trust the ‘family lore’ over the genetics in this one. Five generations of admixture is enough to wipe out any Native American/Asian ‘signature’ autosomal tests, which themselves are not perfect, would show. 23andme knows this. I would hope anyone weighing in on this would remind their readers of that  too. Start with a Native American population with hundreds of years of ongoing admixture with European and African populations since contact a half millennium ago already, and you can very easily get no obvious signature of that heritage after a few generations of family lore. It’d be the genetics that was inaccurate, not the lore.

Take my own experience. My grandmother said she was of Native American descent, that her mother was ‘full-blooded’ Mattaponi. I took her word for it. When I got my 23andme test back, I had barely any registry of that heritage. My father though, had a significant percentage. My great-uncle nearly 30%. So, just testing me would suggest I had little or no Native American heritage, even though two generations generations back, it’s quite clear. And through genealogical research, I am quite certain my great-grandmother and her parents considered themselves full-blooded, even though they weren’t. I suspect that’s true of most Native Americans today, not to mention African-Americans, Anglo-Americans, etc. The default in America, if you are more than a few generations in this nation, is mixed heritage.

Questioning If one questions a person’s claim to heritage, it also ignores American culture and history. Racial identity often has less to do with genetics than it does culture, and DNA testing is going to make this more clear;

Which is more “real?” Our genetic heritage, or our cultural one? I would strongly side with the cultural one being the one that is most important to our identity. Our genetic heritages can inform and illustrate, but they are tangential to who we are. So we return to the issue of Native American tribes, will they strengthen their cultural identities as an arbiter of who is a member, or will they use genetic heritage to eliminate people from their communities who are culturally, and all rights, a members.

Most Native American tribes recognize this, requiring a minimal “blood quantum” that ranges from a grandparent to a great great great grandparent. More importantly, many tribes have no minimum at all, only requiring a single direct lineal descent from one ancestor. Significantly, the two tribes Warren’s lore claims, Choctaw and Cherokee, fall under that category. So, even by those tribe’s reckonings, Warren would most likely be a Native American.

Demanding Suggesting someone could get genetic proof of claimed heritage in this country ignores the genetics and history of this nation. I also find it very somewhat disconcerting. Are we to start a “your genetic papers please” culture? (oh, sorry, already on that road in Arizona). It’s disappointing to see science and history ignored  not more fully described from those who should be able to do so shouldn’t.

But, it’s becoming moot at this point, as genealogists are beginning to prove Warren’s family lore indeed was correct.


UPDATE: This post and my tweets have caused a bit of a dust up with accusations of straw men and ‘mischaracterization’ and misreading of a post. I take those seriously  (aside from the name-calling and public ‘f-you’), so I’ve re-read the post in question. I’m going to summarize the post in question and my response. I’d invite anyone to show me where I or others are misreading or mis-writing.

1. Razib Khan says that ‘family lore is often inaccurate’ when speaking of Native American heritage and  quotes an anecdote and some information from DNA USA that many Cherokees have little sign of Native American heritage as evidence this is true. In his defense, he does say we need to ‘be careful about being too skeptical in this case, because of Warren’s roots in Oklahoma“.

2. And that’s my point, we have to be doubly careful even if roots aren’t in Oklahoma.  I write above that, based what we know historically and genetically, lack of genomic evidence means little or nothing, and definitely not that family lore is inaccurate when it comes to Native American heritage. It is neither fully genetic, there is a strong-even overriding- cultural component, and the lack of genetic evidence does not at all mean family lore is inaccurate. We know this from historical background and genetics.

3. Razib Khan suggests (ok, does not demand) that to ‘validate genuine Native American ancestry’, she need only to do a personal genomics service to dig through her genome.

4. Based on point 2, anyone should know that this will likely do nothing of the sort, and that the lack of genomic signs means little to nothing about ‘genuine Native American ancestry’.

(after re-reading, the strike outs and italics would be my rewrite. I think the point is still valid, nor did I misread the post in question).

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2 Comments to “Elizabeth Warren, Native American?”

  1. [...] Why assume genetic information is so omnipotent as to irrevocably unravel one’s identity?  I’d also ask the same question of a lot of decidedly non-postmodernists do indeed believe it does… as I explain today. [...]

  2. [...] into political debates at this point because it’s not my primary interest (additionally, people with stronger political views often end up willfully misrepresenting me because they think I’m taking specific sides, even [...]

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