Earlier this week, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, publicly released results from a DNA analysis in the form of a video. This act, seemingly in response to prodding from President Trump questioning the Senator’s alleged Cherokee Heritage, has raised many an eyebrow.
According to The New York Times, if the DNA report proves accurate then Warren “has at least one Indian ancestor between six and 10 generations back.”
Maleah Armajo-Tuttle ‘20 is a student at The Jackson Hole Community School in Jackson, Wyoming. Tuttle has biological connections to several Native tribes, including the Lakota Sioux, Flathead, and Umatilla.
“Culturally, religiously, and linguistically, all of my ties are with the Lakota Sioux people and the Oglala people as well,” Armajo-Tuttle said.
Today, according to NPR, blood quantum (BQ) laws are used to set guidelines for tribal citizenship among many Native tribes. The specific BQ guidelines that may act as qualifiers for citizenship can vary greatly from tribe-to-tribe.
According to the official website for the Cherokee Nation, “Blood quantums begin at 4/4 and divide in half with each successive generation.”
Following these guidelines, blood quantum lessens with every generation removed from a “full-blood” ancestor. This means one step further away from belonging to a tribal people. Warren would not be able to enroll as a citizen in many Native American tribes today.
Fatimah Mohammad is an Iowa City resident and believes herself to be a little over one-fourth Cherokee.
“My family on my father’s side are [sic] Cherokee. My great-great-grandfather was a warrior who managed to avoid the roundup, but my great-great-grandmother died on the Trail of Tears,” said Mohammad.
Mohammad is also becoming increasingly unenthused by American politics, and believes that Senator Warren’s claims are an extension of an overbearing political culture.
“Even though she may have [Native blood], it was several generations [back]. I, like many Native Americans, am not too happy with the way she’s throwing it around in the public. Our cultural heritage should not be a matter of politics,” said Mohammad. “There’s been a lot of mistreatment of Native Americans but if you’re throwing out in a political arena as part of your political agenda that just makes people less inclined to care.”
There are many different schools of thought regarding the role of DNA in relation to Native identity.
“Blood quantum means absolutely nothing. It is about the cultural awareness that you gain through your life, through your family, through your tribe, through your people, through the reservation land itself,” said Armajo-Tuttle. “There is something in being raised Native American that can never be passed through just DNA.”
Demetrius Ramirez ‘20 is a student at Iowa City High who also has biological connections to the Oglala Lakota Sioux people. His grandfather was born on a reservation in 1945 and Ramirez’s own blood quantum is one-fourth Native American.
Though he is aware of his Native heritage, unlike Armajo-Tuttle, Ramirez does not believe it has played a large role in shaping his identity.
“I’ve never been discriminated against for my race because everyone generally assumes I’m white, but because of the discrimination my grandfather and father faced, my family has never done well economically,” said Ramirez. “We’ve always been lower class and I think that’s definitely affected my life. I think that’s a very consistent experience for Native Americans because they were never [historically] offered education on the reservations and they never had anywhere to go.”
Two years ago, Ramirez had the opportunity to visit the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the very same reservation where Armajo-Tuttle was raised.
“The whole place is very sad and run down and neglected due to lack of funding,” said Ramirez.
Armajo-Tuttle has a different view of Pine Ridge. While she recognizes its weaknesses, she has much more to say about its tenacity.
“The Pine Ridge reservation, that is my second home. There is such an interesting culture on reservations here in the United States because there is such a sense of strength and resilience that is in the very DNA of the people,” said Armajo-Tuttle. “For 500 years, they have done everything to kill us off, and I literally mean everything, and for 500 years we have survived. There is such an innate strength to the people there.”
While Armajo-Tuttle takes a very strong stance against Warren’s public claim to a connection with Native Americans based solely off of distant family connections, blood quantum and DNA have very little to do with her opposal. Her qualms have more to do with the fact that Warren was not raised culturally Native American.
“Elizabeth Warren? She’s essentially claiming that her pinky toe is Native American. Our culture our people, our history it is more than just blood quantum,” said Armajo-Tuttle. “When you are raised in the way I have been, it affects your world.”
Similarly, Ramirez does not believe that DNA and identity are one and the same.
“[If it is in a person’s DNA] they can say they have an ancestor, but I don’t think they could say that they’re Native American,” said Ramirez. “You can look at it two ways, either the tribe decides or you can go with general markers like ⅛, ⅓, or ¼, but then you get to the issue of when you cut it off.”
From Armajo-Tuttle’s standpoint, the problem is not that Warren has claimed the Native identity so much as the fact that she has claimed an identity she was not raised with and has few cultural connections to.
“People can still learn their culture later in life, that’s a thing that I’ve seen happen many times,” said Armajo-Tuttle. “I go to school here [in Jackson], and I have spent a very large portion of my life on reservations with my family, especially in South Dakota. Generally, I just feel like I’ve had a lot of experiences in two very different parts of the world and that has made for an interesting comparison in my life.”
Even within the junior’s very own family, she has witnessed this. Her great-grandmother was a product of one of the many boarding schools where Native children were sent in the late 19th Century. In order to be assimilated into the colonial culture. There, her Native language and customs were socially conditioned out of her.
“[Her daughter], my Grandma Leah, went and learned the culture for herself even though she was, unfortunately, not raised with it,” Armajo-Tuttle said.
Mohammad is also unsettled by what she sees as the exploitation of Native American identity by those that lack cultural ties to the Native people.
“If you’re using [Native identity] as an agenda? No. For me, I was raised in that culture. That culture has always been a part of me, a part of my lifestyle,” Mohommad.
Though she did not grow up on a reservation, Mohammad has, much like Armajo Tuttle’s grandmother, taken steps to connect with her Native Heritage.
“I’ve been a part of the Manataka Indian Council as part of the board membership in relations with social services and youth programs. In my role, I help coordinate some of the youth programs.”Mohammad said.
Amajo-Tuttle wants people to know that, while some factors may be out of a person’s control when it comes to race and ethnicity, historical and cultural proficiency is another issue.
“We have a very acute and constant [knowledge] that if the US government had it their way, we would not exist. That knowledge, that historical and cultural awareness, that is what it means to be Native American. Even if you don’t practice the ceremonies, know that it is a right and a privilege to even say that you do,” said Armajo Tuttle. “Elizabeth Warren has made absolutely no attempts to connect with that. So no, if you don’t make an effort to get to know the culture, you have absolutely no right to claim it.”
*Because Native Americans did not have a written language for a large portion of history, there is still a lot of disagreement about how to spell words in many tribal languages. This is the spelling that Tuttle uses for her tribal name.