The goal of this syllabus is to frame the recent claims to Cherokee ancestry by US Senator Elizabeth Warren as part of a longer history of cultural appropriation, erasure, and settler colonialism. Warren’s claims reveal the pervasive influence of biological essentialism--through the supposed certainty of DNA testing--in the globalized present. As is documented in this syllabus, the juncture of culture, genetics, and Indigenous sovereignty has become a crucial domain of discursive and political contestation. At stake is the ability of sovereign Indigenous nations to determine citizenship and belonging according to their own cultural beliefs and historical understandings of community. In compiling this syllabus, we underscore the work of Indigenous writers, scholars, and activists, and we have focused primarily on the historical position of the Cherokee Nation in these debates. We hope that this syllabus can serve as a practical guide, but also to alleviate some of the emotional and intellectual labor that we, as Indigenous peoples, are often forced to produce in such a moment as this. In the days after Warren released her DNA test results the demand from the media was such that scholar Kim Tallbear was forced to create a press release detailing the points she has made exhaustively since her writing on Native DNA began over a decade ago. Others of us fielded dozens of interviews with reporters, and were forced to spell out the basics of Indigenous identity and sovereignty over and over. It is our hope that this syllabus can be a tool for deeper understanding, but also a first stop for those who know little about Cherokee history, identity, and DNA. Thus, rather than having to explain one more time, we hope you can say: take a look at this syllabus and then we’ll talk.


In October 2018, US Senator Elizabeth Warren released the results of a DNA test in an effort to prove her claims to Native American ancestry. Far from resolving the question of her supposed Cherokee and Delaware heritage, her actions distracted from urgent issues facing Indigenous communities and undermined Indigenous sovereignty by equating “biology” with culture, “race” with citizenship. In response, Indigenous scholars, activists, and the Cherokee Nation itself, rebuked the dangerous connection between DNA testing and Indigeneity.

The syllabus project aims to contextualize the history of colonialism erasing and assimilating Indigenous populations through the regulation of blood--found in the contemporary iteration of DNA testing. It collects some of the responses from Indian Country in the wake of Warren’s misguided political gamble, and fills in historical gaps with important scholarship about Cherokee citizenship, blood quantum, DNA and genetic testing, and tribal sovereignty.

The following texts have been compiled by three citizens of the Cherokee Nation, Adrienne Keene (@nativeapprops), Rebecca Nagle (@rebeccanagle), and Joseph M. Pierce (@pepepierce).

Key Words

DNA and Genetic Testing

Indigenous Citizenship

Cherokee History


Cultural Appropriation


Tribal Sovereignty

Readings by Theme and Topic

DNA and Genetic Testing

Gupta, Prachi. “‘Our Vote Matters Very Little’: Kim TallBear on Elizabeth Warren's  Attempt to Claim Native
American Heritage”. Jezebel. October 16, 2018.

TallBear, Kim. 2013. Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 

Tsosie, Krystal. “Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Is Not Her Identity”. The Atlantic. October  17, 2018. 

Tsosie, Krystal and Matthew Anderson. “Two Native Americans geneticists interpret 
Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test”. The Conversation. October 22, 2018.

Early responses from Indian Country to Warren

Franke-Ruta, Garance. “Is Elizabeth Warren Native American or What?”. The Atlantic. May 20, 2012.

Nagle, Rebecca. “I am a Cherokee Woman. Elizabeth Warren is Not”. ThinkProgress. November 30, 2017.

Indian Country's response to Warren's DNA test

Blake, Aaron. “Why the Cherokee Nation’s Rebuke of Elizabeth Warren Matters”. The
Washington Post
. October 16, 2018.

Brewer, Graham. “Warren’s DNA Test Perpetuates Stereotypes, Native Communities
Say” WNYC The Takeaway. October 16, 2018.

Cherokee Nation. “Cherokee Nation responds to Senator Warren’s DNA test”. October 15, 2018.

Echo Hawk, Crystal. “Changing Elizabeth Warren's story to one about Native America”.
Indian Country Today. October 18, 2018.

Estes, Nick. “Native American Sovereignty Is Under Attack. Here’s How Elizabeth
Warren’s DNA Test Hurt Our Struggle.” The Intercept. October 19, 2018.

Hayes, Kelly and Jacqueline Keeler. “Elizabeth Warren connected DNA and Native
American heritage. Here’s why that's destructive.” NBC News. October 17, 2018.

Hilleary, Cecily. “Native Americans Speak Out on Elizabeth Warren DNA Controversy”.
Voice of America. October 16, 2018.

Martin, Nick. “Elizabeth Warren’s Deception”. Splinter. October 16, 2018.

Moya-Smith,Simone. “I am a Native American. I Have Some Questions for Elizabeth
Warren”. CNN. October 15, 2018.

Nagle, Rebecca. “Elizabeth Warren’s ‘part’ Cherokee claim is a joke, and a racist insult
to Natives like me”. USA Today. October 18, 2018.

 NoiseCat, Julian Brave. “Elizabeth Warren Is Not Native American”. Huffington Post.
October 16, 2018.

Reese, Debbie. “A Curated List of Indigenous Responses to Elizabeth Warren.”
American Indians in Children’s Literature. October 20, 2018.

Cherokee History (Especially regarding Diaspora, Allotment, Adoption, and Identity)

Brown, Kirby. 2018. Stoking the Fire: Nationhood in Cherokee Writing, 1907-1970.
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Carter, Kent. 1999. The Dawes Commission and the Allotment of the Five Civilized
, 1893-1914. Orem, Utah: 

Deboe, Angie. 1940 [1991]. And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized
. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Garroutte, Eva Marie. 2003. Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America.
Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jacobs, Margaret D. 2014. A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of
Indigenous Children in the Postwar World
. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Peterson, Dawn. 2017. Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum
. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Smithers, Gregory D. 2015. The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of
Migration, Resettlement, and Identity
. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Stremlau, Rose. 2011. Sustaining the Cherokee Family: Kinship and the Allotment of an
Indigenous Nation
. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Becoming Indian and Cultural Appropriation

Deloria, Philip J. 1998. Playing Indian. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Farzan, Antonia Noori. “A DNA Test said a man was 4% black. Now he wants to qualify as a minority
business owner.” Washington Post. September 25, 2018.

Keeler, Jacqueline. “Pocahontas isn’t a name that should offend you”. Yes! Magazine.
December 1, 2017.

Pierce, Joseph M. 2017. “Adopted: Trace, Blood, and Native Authenticity”. Critical
Ethnic Studies
. 3:2: 57-76. [.pdf]

 Pringle, Paul and Adam Elmahrek. “House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s family
benefited from U.S. program for minorities based on disputed ancestry”.
Los Angeles Times. October 14, 2018.

Scott, Brandon. “Cherokee Nation citizens like me are used to people claiming our
heritage. It’s exhausting”. Vox. October 17, 2018.

Smithers, Gregory. “Why Do So Many Americans Think They Have Cherokee Blood?”.
Slate. October 1, 2015.

Sturm, Circe. 2011. Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the
Twenty-First Century.
Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.

Wiles,Tay. “Anti-public lands and anti-Native groups converge in Montana”. High
Country News
. October 19, 2018.


Keene headshot.jpg

Adrienne Keene is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University. Her research interests include Indigenous students in higher education, Indigenous student activism, and Native representations and cultural appropriation. She is the author of Native Appropriations (, where she blogs about topics of Native representations. 

Nagle headshot.jpg


Rebecca Nagle is a writer, advocate and citizen of Cherokee Nation living in Tahlequah. Currently, Nagle does writing by night and language preservation and revitalization for her tribe by day. You can read her views on issues of Native representation and tribal sovereignty in the Washington Post, Teen Vogue, USA Today, The Huffington Post, and more.

Pierce Headshot.jpg

Joseph M. Pierce is Assistant Professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature at Stony Brook University. His research focuses Latin American literary and cultural studies, Indigenous studies, queer studies, and hemispheric approaches to citizenship and belonging. His book Argentine Intimacies: Queer Kinship in an Age of Splendor, 1890-1910 is forthcoming from SUNY Press. He is co-editor with Fernando A. Blanco and Mario Pecheny of Derechos Sexuales en el Sur: Políticas del amor y escrituras disidentes (2018, Editorial Cuarto Propio). He is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Statement in Support of Marc Lamont Hill

We are writing as editors and board members of Critical Ethnic Studies to express our adamant support for Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, a member of our journal's editorial board. For offering an ethical and considered position on Palestinian equality, Marc Lamont Hill is facing attempts to malign his scholarship and calls to dissolve his tenured position at Temple University. These attacks are wholly inappropriate. We call upon academic communities and faculty associations to uphold the freedoms of all scholars to make critiques of state violence, particularly scholars who are Black, Palestinian, Indigenous, queer and trans (never mutually exclusive groups). We stand with Marc Lamont Hill and affirm that scholars have important responsibilities to analyze and speak out against injustice.

Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, Co-Editors of Critical Ethnic Studies

Critical Ethnic Studies Editorial Board

My Grandmother's Home

in my 婆婆’s house,

things are never used for

their intended purpose.

her oven is filled with

plastic containers,

styrofoam takeout trays,

old yogurt cups.

she does not clear them out,

never turns on the oven,

does not cook there.

the space between the metal

racks are for


my 婆婆’s five children

were all children once.

some grew up

fast —

left in Hong Kong,

or stayed clutching her pant leg,

waiting for the jet bridge to lower


to new lands.

in california,

the kids were kids sometimes,

caretakers others.

after some years,

each one escaped the house with

the oven and its plastic


and yogurt containers that held


squash, bok choy,

whatever else that needed


they walked out of the house,

closed the door,

heard it slam behind them as they

drove away.

my 婆婆 still kept the containers.

waited night and day

for children that rarely called,

made 冬瓜 soup for grandchildren

that complained.

this was not supposed to happen.

those containers

with scribbled Chinese characters

on yellow stickers

placed haphazardly over English

printed words

were supposed to

save us,

shelter us,

give us a place to call


years later,

we watch 婆婆 shuffle around her


the one my mom bought for her.

the children installed a camera

to make sure 婆婆 is safe when

no one is with her.

i always thought that 婆婆 loved

her things:

her plastic containers, her orange

shag carpet,

her hair curlers that used to

belong to my dolls.

i think though, if given the choice,

she would gladly throw away

those things,

if it meant filling up her home with

children who were not there

out of obligation

and grandchildren who could

speak 台山話 back.

Christina Ong is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research interests span womxn of color in social movements, transnational feminism, and theories of race & ethnicity. She is currently working on her MA thesis that traces the development of Asian American identity through New York’s Basement Workshop, the first pan-Asian political organization on the East Coast active in the 1970’s.

Warrior Women by Riley Brooks and Meixi

I am a warrior
I am Indigenous
I am gay
I am trans
I am the land under your
feet keeping us together
I am the waves
pushing pushing pushing
I am the wind swimming
through your sea of long lost
I am the raging fire that
cleans and controls
I am a person
but mostly a queen

We are women
I am not your property
I am not the smells
swirling shifting sifting
through the house
I am not a mask of makeup
or a pearly pink dress
I am not the flight attendant
I am the pilot
My body is not yours
My body is beauty and bliss
The blood that I shed
swoosh swoosh
Like the moon our darkness is light
the moon cries the shine of
watery eyes
we are not missing
we are still here.

I cry for the voices of my sisters
They whisper in my ears
The songs that I hear
Like a bullet in the breeze
We come from years of resistance
Do you not remember?
We come from the 7 generations
We come from the 4 directions
Do you not remember?
We come from the land
We come from the water
We are the language coursing
Through your veins

Aw bo yi ja
I know I know I know

Lose the lightness of your tongue
It’s system like walls dividing and
Writing the “right” thing in our minds
Collapsing our veins into alcohol filled trains
Buzzing and whirling
Contaminating our very existence
Our future ancestors are connected through
lands and seas.
Do you not see me?
Do you not hear me?
My scars help me heal
What the appeal?
My heroines will not bow down.


Riley Brooks (14) Kiowa