I woke up this morning to the news that Senator Elizabeth Warren has released a DNA test “providing strong evidence” that she has a Native American ancestor 6-10 generations ago (I’ll unpack that later). While I appreciate Senator Warren’s take-down of banking executives and much of her politics, this is a misguided tug-of-war with Trump. To provide a little exposition, Trump has referred to Senator Warren as “Pocahontas” in very racist commemoration of Navajo Code Talkers from WWII (done in front a portrait of Andrew Jackson…). Trump then went on to state (and later deny that he stated it) that he would donate $1m to Senator Warren’s favorite charity if she could demonstrate her Native American heritage. Senator Warren did so in the only way one could, by appealing to the latest fad in the age of genomics, the DNA ancestry test. This reminded me of a manuscript I’ve been working on, some of which has been published on this website, and here, and here.

I coined the term ‘geno-colonization’ to refer to the process by which particular social identities are colonized through an appeal to genomics; essentially, using science and scientific authority to construct identities to which value and meaning can be prescribed. In this case, the Native American genome is constructed as fundamentally different and othered for some social purpose.

Firstly, to construct a Native American genome is to homogenize highly diverse peoples. It’s as if the vast diversity of cultures, languages, and biologies all belong under one banner and it can be summed up by some markers in the genome. It’s essentializing. Secondly, by constructing the Native American genome in opposition to the European genome (as is being done in this case), science–and by extension White scientists– is controlling the narrative of who is considered to be Native American (apparently having an ancestor in the last 6-10 generations that is indigenous).

And speaking of Senator Warren having an ancestor that is Native American 6-10 generations out: what does that mean? Well at one generation out, you have two ancestors (your biological parents) and it doubles every subsequent generation. That means at 6 generations you have 64 grandparents and at 10: 1024. To do the math then, you have 126 direct ancestors at 6 generations and at 10, you have 2046. How does it make sense to lay claim to an identity for which you have one representative out of the potential 2046 available?

Another process in action here is the fetishization of indigenous peoples. This is a long standing trope in North America, as White people like to claim some Native American ancestry. Growing up, I often heard “I’m 1/32 Cherokee” or “My great-great-great-grandmother was Cherokee” (it was always Cherokee by the way, at least in my experience, and Slate corroborates it). This can be seen in the TV show Shamelesswhere Carl, in order to be accepted int a military academy, uses a genetic ancestry test to demonstrate he is 30% Native American. Also see Halloween costumes (which i will NOT post a link to here.

What most disturbs me and what set me off to write this piece is the pretentiousness by which this all occurs. This another example of a White person claiming some heritage, accruing all of the benefits and social capital associated with our notion of the “noble savage” but without having to endure the lived experience. Native Americans at Standing Rock have to fight for access to clean drinking water while they are continually displaced by big business backed by the federal government. Reservation life is often unforgiving and so many health and social ills exist due to societal structural violence that harms indigenous communities. Racism against indigenous peoples persists. And on and on and on…

This is what I mean when I refer to geno-colonization. In this case, the Native American genome is constructed and then mined for all the political and social capital. White people like Senator Warren can claim all the benefit with none of the hardship or lived experience. This is easy to do from the outside while people that belong to indigenous communities suffer under centuries of genocide and broken treaties, structural violence, and racism. Senator Warren has used her Native American ancestor as a political tool to stick it Donald Trump. This devalues the experience of people that actually belong to indigenous communities.

See:

Work by Dr. Kim Tallbear and here response to Senator Warren here.

The Social Life of DNA by Dr. Alondra Nelson

Dr. Jennifer Raff’s response