BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Over the past decade, Elizabeth Warren has become a progressive icon.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Perhaps the most powerful voice among the progressive right now.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: I’d love Elizabeth Warren to be vice president. I’d love her to be anything. I'd love her to be a female Ghostbuster. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the senator has struggled with a personal issue since she first ran for office in 2012.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Ms. Warren, I want to start with questions about your Native American heritage. You've acknowledged that you list yourself as a minority in a faculty directory in 1986, you continued to list yourself in those directories until 1995. Do you consider yourself a minority? And if not--
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: I have answered this question many, many times and it starts with the fact that from the day I was born until the day my mother died she told me about who I am, who we are, who my brothers are, who my family is. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's just the ticking of a box, personal family lore, small set of data points and yet ones on which Warren's opponents, most notably President Trump, pounced.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: She said because their cheekbones were high she was an Indian, that she was Native American. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In July, he escalated.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: I will give you a million dollars to your favorite charity, paid for by Trump if you take the test that it shows you're an Indian. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week Warren responded by way of a five and a half minute pre-campaign video. In it she speaks with Carlos Bustamante, a Stanford genetics professor who examined her DNA.
CARLOS BUSTAMANTE: In the center of the genome, we did find five segments of Native American ancestry with very high confidence. The fact suggests that you absolutely have an emerging ancestor in your pedigree. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The response was probably not what Warren had anticipated.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: She came out and thought she scored it first.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Yes.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: And so did the media.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: And they started demanding Donald Trump pay off the million-dollar bet and then all of a sudden now she's at war with the Cherokee Nation.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Saying that her use of a DNA test is inappropriate and quote undermining tribal interests.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From both the right and the left opprobrium, accusations that she's not native enough, that she's reinforcing biological essentialism, that she's falling for a Trump trap before the midterms, that she's trying to claim native identity without ever defending native issues, that she allowed a university to use her to bolster its diversity bona fides. A political miscalculation but also a stumble into controversies that extend far beyond politics.
KIM TALLBEAR: There's a running joke in Indian country where people say, ‘oh yeah some other person told me that they have a Cherokee great-grandmother a Cherokee princess and their lineage’ and so when we're out in the world and we meet people and they say, ‘oh you're native oh my great-grandmother was Cherokee,’ our first response is to try not to roll our eyes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kim TallBear is a professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta and author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science.
KIM TALLBEAR: This story for us has a much longer timeline than I think many Americans understand. Elizabeth Warrens appropriation of Native identity, despite her disclaimers. I don't mean to sound cliché but everything that's taken from indigenous people, be it actual land and resources or be it, you know, an image that can be marketed and used for a football team or taking claims to ancestry and making those part of the identity that one is espousing to the world. Our understanding of kinship and family and tribe are not governed so strongly by the idea of having distance unnamed ancestry. We have a much stronger sense of what it is to be Native American that is governed by our family relationships, by lived social relations. That matters to us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We know in the 50s, Watson and Crick discovered the double helix structure of DNA and ever since talk of blood as lineage and fate, have given way to conversations about mitochondrial DNA and all the rest. At the same time, there are old metaphors that persist. You can still be related either by blood or by marriage. So talk about how the contrast between scientific jargon and traditional blood talk plays out in native culture.
KIM TALLBEAR: I caution people against equating blood with genes. These are pretty different ideas. When you are looking at tribal citizenship rules, even if they talk about something like blood quantum. These are fractions on paper that point to very particular ancestors. The Dawes Allotment Act at the turn of the 20th century, distributed 160-acre parcels of land to heads of household and of course only men, in settler ideas of family at the time, could be heads of household. They would get another eighty acres if they had a wife. Women become economically tied to men. That's not how it was in many Indigenous communities. Women were not economically tied to men. And then the man gets another forty acres for each child but in order to manage those land allotments, you have to have a register of Indians. Well, tribes and First Nations and other indigenous communities didn't necessarily have lists with names of their people and their kin. These are fluid kinship groups, right. But now we live with the legacy of those registers and that's how tribal enrollment is governed. What we care about is proving that you are descended from somebody on the base roll that was constructed during that time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And by the base role you're talking about families that were listed at the end of the 1400's.
KIM TALLBEAR: Yeah. When you see on the back of my tribal enrollment card that I'm 132nd this, one-sixteenth this, one-quarter of this tribe, those are all particular ancestors that they're pointing to that one quarter Cheyenne Arapaho blood quote unquote is my grandfather Randy TallBear. It's not as if blood, the physiological substance is being examined. We're really talking about symbolic blood and we're pointing to named people and so this is the problem with Elizabeth Warren taking a DNA test that's pointing to some distant probable unnamed ancestor that nobody knows who they were affiliated with or who they were. For us, it's who's your mom, who's your grandma, who's your great-grandfather, who are your cousins, who were your aunties and uncles.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say your daughter doesn't get to be a citizen of the tribe because of these blood quantum rules.
KIM TALLBEAR: So in my tribe the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, they will enroll you if you are descended from somebody on the base rule. But in my tribe, in addition, they have a requirement that you must meet a total one-quarter Indian blood quotient. They will accept the blood, there's always scare quotes around that word, from multiple tribes. So even though I don't have one quarter quote unquote Dakota blood, I have Cheyenne and Arapaho blood. That's where you begin to see the racial inflection I think. So my daughter, if you were to calculate all her ancestors because I'm supposedly 13/32nds Native American. My daughter would be one half of that. Because her father's non-native. Now if my tribe decides to move to a one-eighth total Indian blood rule instead of one quarter, my daughter and her a couple of cousins who can't get enrolled will be able to get enrolled and we debate this every year, we've got, you know debates and conversations on our reservations. Should we go from one quarter total Indian blood down to one eighth? And I think eventually we will. You do see tribes across the country moving away from a blood quantum standards more towards lineal descent rules to try to make our rules more inclusive. But that's up to us to debate. We don't need the rest of Americans telling us what we should do and how colonized we are by race. Everybody's colonized by race. Tribal governments and tribal communities are doing the best we can to try to tweak those rules to include our traditional notions of kinship but within a structure that has been deeply shaped by colonial power, we're at a severe power imbalance with the US federal government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that Warren was basically played by Trump, drawn into this? Because it doesn't seem that she got any kind of educational or financial advantage by her association with the Cherokee and it may have been part of her family lore. Do you think that she just got played into a discussion of race and blood in women and this is something Masha Gessen said in the New Yorker, you know, all the things that Trump loves to talk about in order to defend herself against his taunt?
KIM TALLBEAR: You know I don't think he has the intellectual ability to play somebody who is as intelligent as Elizabeth Warren. I mean really. She has for her entire life, like many people in Oklahoma and the south and in the east of the U.S., lived with this myth of an Indian in her family tree and I and that's really important to those people. She's probably really invested in defending her family's story. I've seen people break down crying when they find out that they don't have a Native American ancestor. This is a cherished idea for a lot of non-Native Americans.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you're saying it's really irrelevant even if they did.
KIM TALLBEAR: Right. But for non-native people who have a settler colonial idea of kinship and ancestry and family, finding that genetic proof is important to them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why do you think they do it.
KIM TALLBEAR: I think they're very much influenced by that one drop rule that is so prominent in racial discourse in the United States. I have one drop back there somewhere, therefore I can make a claim. That is very racialized thinking. And again native people in the U.S. are not completely exempt from that. We struggle with that because it's imposed on us. But we also have this much more powerful way of identifying that's about kinship and tribe and citizenship, that helps us mitigate some of the desire to invoke race in that way but for non-native people, that's all they got.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what was your reaction to the controversy over Warren's video presentation of her link to the Cherokees?
KIM TALLBEAR: When I finally sat down and watched that video the other night, literally I was, I started to feel nauseous and I felt slightly grief-tricken for a moment. And it's not often that that feeling of grief comes up for me because I've lived my whole life with the kind of indigenous erasure that we have in the U.S. But that video really brought to light the deeply held ideas in the U.S. popular imagination about how everybody can claim to be native. To have an ancestor in the family without actually having lived relations with native people it just, I don't know, something in that video crystallized for me the deep power imbalance that exists between Indigenous people and everybody else. Our voices just don't matter. Our definitions of who we are just don't matter because our images are so much more important to non-native people as they romanticize this American past. So who we are as people in and of ourselves is not important. We are only tokens that help most Americans feel comfortable in a land that's been stolen. I don't know how to put it more specifically than that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rebecca Nagle wrote last year in ThinkProgress. She said that as contemporary Native Americans, the Trumps and Warrens of the world leave very little space for us to exist. Which when you understand the history of the United States makes perfect sense.
KIM TALLBEAR: Yes, Rebecca Nagle put it perfectly. Yes, I agree.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dr. TallBear thank you very much.
KIM TALLBEAR: Thank you for having me on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dr. Kim TallBear is a professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta.