WASHINGTON ― Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was positioned to make a strong bid for president in 2020, but she infuriated tribal leaders by releasing the results of a DNA test to prove her Native ancestry and now her future is unclear.
That’s what lots of news outlets want you to think, anyway, after Warren unexpectedly released a carefully choreographed video in mid-October featuring a geneticist who confirmed that she had a Native ancestor six to 10 generations ago.
“Nearly two months after Ms. Warren released the test results and drew hostile reactions from prominent tribal leaders, the lingering cloud over her likely presidential campaign has only darkened,” The New York Times reported in December.
Warren “enraged tribal groups and other minorities concerned about her reliance on a test to measure ethnicity,” The Washington Post reported last month. “That episode injected uncertainty over the decision-making by Warren and her campaign staff and subjected her to both anger and mockery just as she was gearing up for a potential presidential effort.”
Wow, this sounds bad! Let’s see what all these tribal chiefs and Native people are saying about Warren’s DNA test and why her decision to release it was so outrageous.
Oops. Neither of these stories included comments from any elected tribal leaders. The Post story didn’t include comments from Native people at all. Of the three Native voices mixed in with political pundits in the Times story, one is a known Warren critic and one is a congresswoman-elect whose positive comments were buried ― a stunning distortion of how many tribal leaders and Native people in general feel about Warren’s move.
HuffPost talked to a dozen tribal chiefs, Native politicians, researchers and influencers to get a sense of why this narrative that has taken off in the media ― that Warren, who has been a strong ally to tribes, is suddenly on the ropes with them because of her DNA test ― seems off. Some spoke on record; others spoke only anonymously, given their close work with tribes whose privacy they wanted to respect.
The consensus was clear: This narrative is incredibly overblown. Tribal leaders have far more pressing matters to deal with than a senator’s DNA test. And, frustratingly, non-Native people are defining a debate about Native people without letting them speak for themselves.
Was Warren wrong to release DNA test results showing that she had a Native ancestor? Are tribal leaders and Native people mad? It depends on whom you talk to. In the group that HuffPost surveyed, the answer to both those questions was overwhelmingly no.
Richard Sneed, the principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said he’s not upset at all by Warren’s DNA test. He hasn’t heard from any tribal leaders who are mad either. His tribe is different from the Cherokee Nation and is based in North Carolina.
“It’s media fodder. It’s sensationalism. That’s what it is,” he said. “All it takes is for one person to say they’re offended, and then everybody does a dog pile. But to me, it’s ‘Wait a second. Let’s get to some of the facts here.’ Sen. Warren has always been a friend to tribes. And we need all the allies we can get.”
Sneed has been publicly defending Warren ever since she released her DNA test results, but he’s not being quoted in most of the coverage, despite being a Cherokee tribal chief. He emphasized that while he doesn’t want to diminish any Native person’s anger at Warren, given the injustice and historical trauma that tribal nations have endured, it’s important to be clear on what she did and did not do.
“She’s never claimed to be a tribal citizen. She’s never used her story of ancestry to her advantage. She just has a story of Native ancestry,” he said. “People tell me that all the time. Everywhere I go. I don’t think people are trying to gain some status by saying that.”
To date, Sneed is the only principal chief of a federally recognized tribe ― there are 573 of them ― who has publicly said anything about Warren’s DNA test.
Dennis Coker, the principal chief of Delaware’s Lenape Indian Tribe, which is recognized by the state but not the federal government, also defended Warren. His comments haven’t gotten much news play.
“Someone who is proud of having that native ancestor — no matter what percentage or what degree it is — in my view, is a person I honor,” Coker said in October. “I honor people who are seeking their roots.”
So where is this outrage?
The reason so many news outlets are reporting that tribes are furious at Warren goes back to a statement released by a single official at the Cherokee Nation, Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin. He ripped the senator after she released her video, and his statement is prominently featured in virtually every story critical of the senator.
“Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong,” read Hoskin’s statement (which, oddly, no longer seems to be on the tribe’s site). “Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”
It’s a brutal statement. And it reflects legitimate anger felt by some Native people over Warren’s handling of the situation. She didn’t get consent from the Cherokee Nation before dropping her video. Even if unintentionally, she amplified sensitive issues around tribal citizenship (including federal versus state recognition, benefits and Native identity) versus ancestry that most non-Native people know nothing about.
One Native politician irked by Warren said the situation was “just embarrassing.”
But several of the people interviewed by HuffPost emphasized that Hoskin is an appointee, not an elected official, and he was speaking only for himself, not on behalf of the Cherokee Nation, according to Doug George-Kanentiio, a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association and a former trustee for the National Museum of the American Indian.
“No one bothered to contact the principal chief of Cherokee Nation to see if he agreed,” said George-Kanentiio, who is Akwesasne Mohawk. “Instead, they took one phrase by this one official in Oklahoma, and it ignited this debate about Warren’s heritage.”
A Cherokee Nation spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on whether Hoskin was speaking on behalf of the tribe or only for himself in his statement, or whether Principal Chief Bill John Baker agreed with Hoskin.
Baker hasn’t said anything publicly about Warren’s DNA test results. But he previously weighed in on her heritage: He defended her efforts to understand her ancestry.
“She said that she has Native American ancestors,” he said in a 2012 interview. “I wished every congressman and senator in the U.S. had a kinship or felt a kinship to the Cherokee Nation.”
It’s media fodder. It’s sensationalism. That’s what it is.
Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
Warren’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether she regrets releasing the video or the way she rolled it out. She said last month that the video is out there and people can make of it what they want. A source close to her said she has had dozens of conversations and meetings with tribal leaders since October to apologize for any offense taken and to explain her intentions.
But is this really the issue on the minds of tribal leaders? George-Kanentiio said he recently attended the American Indian Justice Conference, which brings together tribal leaders, judges and lawyers to work on policies related to drug abuse, tribal security and tribal youths. Nobody talked about her DNA test at all, he said, because they were focused on tribes’ serious problems with domestic abuse, youth suicide, environmental contamination, loss of territory and horrifying levels of missing and murdered Native women.
“That’s the essence of what Native people are thinking about,” he said. “They’re just trying to keep afloat.”
If people really want to know how tribal leaders feel about Warren, they should watch the fiery speech she gave at the National Congress of American Indians in February, said George-Kanentiio. There were nearly 1,000 reputable tribal leaders there, he said, and “she stood there and was embraced.”
To some, the fact that any Cherokee Nation official issued a statement, along with Sneed publicly weighing in, should have made Warren’s DNA test a non-issue going forward.
“I think the jury’s out. I’ve heard both sides of the Cherokees. I respect both sides,” said Frank LaMere, a longtime Native activist and citizen of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. “I support Elizabeth Warren. Nobody’s going tell me what she is and what she’s not.”
Others lamented that it feels as though Warren’s personal journey of self-discovery is being weaponized against Native identity and Native people.
“She merely claims to have Native ancestry, as do millions of others like her,” said Ruth Hopkins, a Dakota/Lakota Sioux writer and co-founder of Last Real Indians, a news site focused on tribal issues. “Her claim is valid, and she and those like her have the ability to be powerful allies for Native nations struggling to deal with real-life problems stemming from colonization, imposed poverty, treaty breaches, forced assimilation and attempted genocide.”
Raina Thiele, a former White House liaison for tribes who now runs a consulting firm with expertise in tribal policy, said it has been “very odd” to see that the few Native people who are quoted in the press are critical of Warren for having pride in her ancestors because, as a Native Alaskan, Thiele said she was raised to always be proud of her heritage.
Beyond that, the reason Warren even decided to release her DNA test results, for better or for worse, was to try to move on from President Donald Trump’s constant mockery of her Native ancestry and racist attacks on her as “Pocahontas.” She has been relentlessly harassed. Boston shock jock Howie Carr said in March that he got her spit on a pen and tried to get a DNA sample from it. He encouraged readers of his Boston Herald column to grab her water glass at a St. Patrick’s Day event so he could do a DNA test. One of her political opponents mailed two DNA test kits to her house.
Trump’s bullying of Warren is part of the president’s record of disrespecting tribes ― like the time he made a Pocahontas crack about her during a White House ceremony honoring Native American World War II veterans ― and destroying or taking their land.
“I feel like a lot of anxiety and anger has been misdirected,” Thiele said of Warren’s Native critics in the press. “I do feel like it’s about the opportunity to get time in the media. If they are this critical of Donald Trump, no one is going to cover it. If they are this critical of Elizabeth Warren, they will get covered. I feel like there are some perverse incentives here.”
Still, if there’s one constant in the news coverage of Warren’s DNA test, it’s that non-Native political pundits have lots of thoughts about it while Native voices are largely missing.
“The thing that really, really got me about these articles is that the emphasis is on all of the outrage on behalf of Native Americans, but they’re not talking to any Native Americans about it. At all,” said Crystal Echo Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and the CEO and president of Echo Hawk Consulting.
Echo Hawk knows all about Native people being erased. She helped lead a groundbreaking $3.3 million research project called Reclaiming Native Truth, the largest public opinion research initiative ever conducted by and about Native Americans. Not surprisingly, it found that the majority of Americans know little to nothing about Native people. Most of what they know comes from popular culture, the media and the toxic stereotypes they perpetuate. Some people don’t even know that Native Americans still exist.
“We found that the invisibility of Natives is so deeply institutionalized and powerful that it dehumanizes,” she said. “The New York Times is absolutely reinforcing what we found. It’s a problematic pattern within the media.”
Politicians and cable TV news anchors have been unabashedly mocking Warren since she announced her DNA test results. In an October speech at a glitzy New York City dinner, outgoing U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley joked that when Trump found out she was Indian-American, “he asked me if I was from the same tribe as Elizabeth Warren.” CNN’s Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo called Haley’s jokes hilarious and appropriate. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson’s coverage has been dripping with racism. Last month Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) tweeted a photo of a wooden teepee and said he was looking for Warren but couldn’t find her.
Meanwhile, Native officials like Rep.-elect Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), who made history in November by becoming one of the first two Native women ever elected to Congress, have been celebrating Warren’s efforts to understand her roots. Haaland’s voice has been largely missing from news coverage.
Echo Hawk sees the opportunity for a teachable moment. Her research found that more than one-third of Americans claimed some sort of Native ancestry. It’s part of the national folklore of the country, she said, and when people are introduced to accurate information about Native people, it changes their perceptions in a positive way.
“We have a huge opportunity to teach people about claiming ancestry versus tribal citizenship,” she said. “Tribes are sovereign political Nations. We are not racial groups. We are citizens of Nations that pre-date the United States. It’s like nobody is interested in really hearing from tribal leaders and Native people on this issue.”
Echo Hawk is already doing something about this. She launched a nonprofit, IllumiNative, focused on increasing the visibility of contemporary Native people in popular culture ― and chipping away at the steady stream of ill-informed, racist narratives about them.
“We need to be able to talk for ourselves,” she said, “and not be used as an ax to grind because of Elizabeth Warren’s aspirations to run for president.”
Daniel Marans contributed reporting.