Elizabeth Warren DNA Test Results Controversy

In October 2018,Elizabeth Warren released DNA results [1] purportedly showing that she can trace her Native American ancestry to a single ancestor “in the range of 6-10 generations ago.” [2]

The results show that Warren is 1/1,024 Native American, or .09%. For context, the average European-American is reportedly.18% Native American [3].

As part of the DNA tests release effort, Warren released the following video [4]:

The Boston Globe ran a headline in the print edition (unlike the online edition) suggesting the results proved Warren’s purported Native American ancestry.

https://twitter.com/elizabethforma/status/1051820933982359553

The Globe online edition was more circumspect in its commentary. [5]

Senator Elizabeth Warren has released a DNA test that provides “strong evidence’’ she had a Native American in her family tree dating back 6 to 10 generations, an unprecedented move by one of the top possible contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president….

Warren, whose claims to Native American blood have been mocked by President Trump and other Republicans, provided the test results to the Globe on Sunday in an effort to defuse questions about her ancestry that have persisted for years. She planned an elaborate rollout Monday of the results as she aimed for widespread attention.

The analysis of Warren’s DNA was done by Carlos D. Bustamante, a Stanford University professor and expert in the field who won a 2010 MacArthur fellowship, also known as a genius grant, for his work on tracking population migration via DNA analysis.

He concluded that “the vast majority” of Warren’s ancestry is European, but he added that “the results strongly support the existence of an unadmixed Native American ancestor.”

Bustamante calculated that Warren’s pure Native American ancestor appears in her family tree “in the range of 6-10 generations ago.” That timing fits Warren’s family lore, passed down during her Oklahoma upbringing, that her great-great-great-grandmother, O.C. Sarah Smith, was at least partially Native American.

The Globe [6] acknowledged how weak the DNA findings were:

The inherent imprecision of the six-page DNA analysis could provide fodder for Warren’s critics. If her great-great-great-grandmother was Native American, that puts her at 1/32nd American Indian. But the report includes the possibility that she’s just 1/512th Native American if the ancestor is 10 generations back….

Warren provided a sample of her DNA to a private lab in Georgia in August, according to one of the senator’s aides. The data from that test was sent to Bustamante and his team for analysis. Warren received the report last week.

Warren didn’t use a commercial service, but Bustamante is on the scientific advisory board for Ancestry, which provides commercial DNA tests. He’s also consulted on a project for 23andMe, another major DNA testing company.

Warren said she was committed to releasing the report regardless of the results. However, Warren’s aides would not say whether she or any of her three siblings had previously done a commercial DNA test that would have provided them with some assurance about Bustamante’s analysis.

There were five parts of Warren’s DNA that signaled she had a Native American ancestor, according to the report. The largest piece of Native American DNA was found on her 10th chromosome, according to the report. Each human has 23 pairs of chromosomes.

“It really stood out,” said Bustamante in an interview. “We found five segments, and that long segment was pretty significant. It tells us about one ancestor, and we can’t rule out more ancestors.”

He added: “We are confident it is not an error.”

Detecting DNA for Native Americans is particularly tricky because there is an absence of Native American DNA available for comparison. This is in part because Native American leaders have asked tribal members not to participate in genetic databases.

“The tribes have felt they have been exploited,” explained Lawrence Brody, a senior investigator with the Medical Genomics and Metabolic Genetics Branch at the National Institutes of Health. “The amount of genetic data that is available from Native Americans is sparse.”

To make up for the dearth of Native American DNA, Bustamante used samples from Mexico, Peru, and Colombia to stand in for Native American. That’s because scientists believe that the groups Americans refer to as Native American came to this land via the Bering Straight about 12,000 years ago and settled in what’s now America but also migrated further south. His report explained that the use of reference populations whose genetic material has been fully sequenced was designed “for maximal accuracy.”

Bustamante said he can tease out the markers that these South Americans would have in common with Native Americans on the North American continent.

Bustamante also compared Warren’s DNA to white populations in Utah and Great Britain to determine if the amounts of Native American markers in Warren’s sample were significant or just background noise.

Warren has 12 times more Native American blood than a white person from Great Britain and 10 times more than a white person from Utah, the report found.

After the story was published and widely shared on social media, The Globe issued to its math[7]:

Correction: Due to a math error, a story about Elizabeth Warren misstated the ancestry percentage of a potential 10th generation relative. It should be 1/1,024.

https://web.archive.org/web/20181015141642/https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/politics/2018/10/15/warren-addresses-native-american-issue/YEUaGzsefB0gPBe2AbmSVO/story.html

The Globe then issued a second correction to the same article, in effect correcting their correction[8]:

Correction: Due to a math error, a story about Elizabeth Warren misstated the ancestry percentage of a potential 6th to 10th generation relative. The generational range based on the ancestor that the report identified suggests she’s between 1/64th and 1/1,024th Native American.


https://twitter.com/amber_athey/status/1051913331836096512

The DNA test shows that Warren may be less Native American than the average American of European ancestry[9]:

On average, the scientists found, people who identified as African-American had genes that were only 73.2 percent African. European genes accounted for 24 percent of their DNA, while .8 percent came from Native Americans.

Latinos, on the other hand, had genes that were on average 65.1 percent European, 18 percent Native American, and 6.2 percent African. The researchers found that European-Americans had genomes that were on average 98.6 percent European, .19 percent African, and .18 Native American.

Ultimately, the Boston Globe concluded that “Warren’s DNA test was a long-term strategy based on 2020 politics.”[10]

If that was her goal, it didn’t go to plan.[11]

The Cherokee Nation has issued a statement[12] rejecting Warren’s attempt to use DNA evidence to prove she’s Native American:

“A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship. Current DNA tests do not even distinguish whether a person’s ancestors were indigenous to North or South America,” Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin, Jr. said. “Sovereign tribal national set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for trial affiliation. Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”

https://twitter.com/JustinWingerter/status/1051943041576169476

Warren cannot declare herself Native American, for this is not something one can simply declare, as noted by Musa al-Gharbi[13].

Rather than acknowledging she has no meaningful claim to Cherokee / Native American heritage or identity, Warren has doubled down. She claims to have “won” the bet, and has demanded Trump donate $1 million to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. The president has refused, insisting he won the wager. Unfortunately, he is correct: although Warren did take the test it did not prove she is “an Indian.”

Genes, race and ethnicity are non-identical and the relationship between them is complicated. Warren is phenotypically white. She has no identifiable Native American ancestor, no clan affiliation, and no meaningful connection to Cherokee language, customs or culture. As a result, even if the DNA test had suggested she could meet the 1/16 blood quantum required by Cherokee for a federally recognized Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood(she was nowhere near this) — it would still not have established Warren is “an Indian.”

It was actually impossible for Warren to actually win Trump’s bet: Cherokee do not decide who is (or is not) one of them the basis of DNA; what matters are clan ancestry, tracing one’s genealogy to an ancestor on the “Dawes Rolls,” or being adopted into a clan by a Clan Mother. Elizabeth Warren fails to meet any of these criteria. As a result, she is simply not Cherokee — not even a little. DNA is irrelevant.

This point was powerfully driven home by the Cherokee Nation’s Secretary of State, who described Warren’s attempt as wrong-headed and insulting. He went on to say that Warren is “undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage” (neither Warren nor her team consulted with Cherokee leadership before conducting the test or releasing the results).

And so, rather than neutralizing Trump’s attacks, it is now has made it far easier to portray Warren as a phony: She appropriated Native American heritage for years in both private and professional settings.
Confronted with evidence that her claims were illegitimate (her DNA is comparable to the average white; she has no other empirical proof of heritage) — Warren nonetheless claimed vindication, emulating Trump’s “post-truth politics.”

Ultimately, Warren’s DNA reveal fell flat and underscored her problematic history of falsely claiming to be Native American by doubling down on her misappropriation of “the identity of one of the most victimized people in history, or at least in recent history, which is Native Americans.”[14]

Warren defended her decision to release the results in the manner and at the time she did, and according to the Boston Globe, expressed regret at misidentifying herself as a Native American but did not admit making an error[15].

Some Democrats have also criticized Warren’s timing on releasing the report — just weeks before the midterm elections on Nov. 6, when the party hopes to capitalize on a backlash against Trump to make inroads into the GOP’s majorities in Congress.

When asked whether, based on the results, she made a mistake identifying herself as Native American as a law professor, Warren expressed regret but stopped short of admitting error.

“There’s a distinction between citizenship and ancestry. I wish I had been more mindful of that distinction. The tribes and only the tribes determine citizenship,” said Warren in the Globe interview. “It’s their right as a matter of sovereignty, and they exercise that in the ways they choose to exercise it. I respect that distinction.”

Pressed again on whether she made a mistake decades ago in listing herself in directories of minorities in academia, Warren emphasized she was thinking about her Native American ancestry, not any sort of claims to tribal citizenship, when she made those decisions.

“The distinction is: I’m not a citizen, never have claimed to be, and I wish I had been more mindful of that 30 years ago,” Warren said, noting that she has cousins who are tribal citizens. “I wish I had been clearer about that — been more mindful, is the word.”

Whether she was attempting to score political points against Trump in anticipation of a 2020 presidential run or not, Warren has arguably weakened her position and, in the words of CNN’s Chris Cillizza[16], “might have actually made things worse.”

What Warren was trying to do with this video and DNA test then is show fellow Democrats that she was ready to fight back and had the firepower to rebut any attacks by Trump. A good idea — in theory! But, in practice, things are working out less well. Because Warren is not able to provide an answer on her Native American background that seems to totally and completely pass the smell test.
Prior to her big Monday rollout, we knew that she had told people she was part Native American because her mother and her mother’s family had told her that. Now, we have a geneticist saying “the facts suggest” that she has some Native American ancestry and the estimates of how much Indian blood Warren actually has range wildly — and could be as little as 1/1024th.

That’s not certainty. Not close. And the uncertainty remains something that can and will be exploited — by Trump publicly and by her likely Democratic opponents in more hushed conversations with key donors and party activists.

That fact means Warren’s strategy amounts to a swing and a miss.

This is born out in an October, 2018 poll: “24% say Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test exercise made them think less favorably of her. Just 16% say it made them view her more favorably.”[17]

References

  1. ^ Rebecca Berg and Eric Bradner, Elizabeth Warren releases DNA test with 'strong evidence' of Native American ancestry CNN, Oct. 15, 2018
  2. ^ Annie Linskey , Warren releases results of DNA testThe Boston Globe, Oct. 15, 2018
  3. ^ Carl Zimmer, White? Black? A Murky Distinction Grows Still MurkierThe New York Times, Dec. 24, 2014
  4. ^ ElizabethForMA, Elizabeth Warren's family story YouTube, Oct. 15, 2018
  5. ^ Annie Linskey , Warren releases results of DNA testThe Boston Globe, Oct. 15, 2018
  6. ^ Annie Linskey , Warren releases results of DNA testThe Boston Globe, Oct. 15, 2018
  7. ^ Annie Linskey , Warren releases results of DNA testThe Boston Globe, Oct. 15, 2018
  8. ^ Annie Linskey , Warren releases results of DNA testThe Boston Globe, Oct. 15, 2018
  9. ^ Carl Zimmer, White? Black? A Murky Distinction Grows Still MurkierThe New York Times, Dec. 24, 2014
  10. ^ Annie Linskey, Warren’s DNA test was a long-term strategy based on 2020 politicsBoston Globe, Oct. 18, 2018
  11. ^ William Jacobson, DNA Disaster: Elizabeth Warren proved she doesn’t have what it takes to take on TrumpLegal Insurrection, Oct. 18, 2018
  12. ^ Sarah Dewberry, Cherokee Nation issues statement on Sen. Elizabeth Warren's DNA test resultsKJRH, Oct. 15, 2018
  13. ^ Musa al-Gharbi, DNA is irrelevant — Elizabeth Warren is simply not Cherokee The Hill, Oct. 19, 2018
  14. ^ William Jacobson, Elizabeth Warren misappropriated “the identity of one of the most victimized people in history”Legal Insurrection, Oct. 15, 2018
  15. ^ Victoria McGrane, Elizabeth Warren defends decision to release DNA testBoston Globe, Oct. 17, 2018
  16. ^ Chris Cillizza, Elizabeth Warren might have actually made things worse with her DNA gambitCNN, Oct. 17, 2018
  17. ^ William Jacobson, Poll Confirms Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test backfired on her, big leagueLegal Insurrection, Oct. 24, 2018
Last Updated: October 30th, 2018