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.
DNA and Genetic Testing
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
Tribes, 1893-1914. Orem, Utah: Ancestry.com.
Deboe, Angie. 1940 . And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized
Tribes. 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
Expansion. 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.
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 (nativeappropriations.com), where she blogs about topics of Native representations.
ᎪᎯᏂ ᏧᏙᎢᏓ. ᏔᎴᏆ ᎦᏁᎳ ᏃᏊ. Joplin ᎤᏛᏒ. ᏣᎳᎩ ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ ᎠᏂᏫᏒᏍᎩ ᏚᎸᏫᏍᏓᏁᎰ. ᏣᎳᎩ ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ ᎠᏕᎶᏆᏍᏗ. ᏧᏓᎴᏅᏓ ᏗᎪᏪᎵ ᏗᎦᎴᏴᏔᏅ ᏚᎸᏫᏍᏓᏁᎰ ᏍᏊ.
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.
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.