Identity: Beyond the Double Helix

For the past week, the commentariat and Twitterati have had a boatload of fun at Senator Elizabeth Warren’s expense. I’m referring of course to her announcement that DNA tests prove her claim to Native American ancestry.

A lot of this fun, as the Washington Post points out, is grounded in scientific ignorance.

First, a disclaimer: I hold no brief for Senator Warren, although, in the interest of full disclosure, we did attend the same law school, albeit not at the same time. This isn’t a defense of the senator, much less her policy positions. You are free to make of them and her what you will. The same is true regarding the issue of whether Warren, as her detractors claim, availed herself of her claimed Indian ancestry, although the evidence for that, at least as regards her academic career, is thin.

What you are not free to do is expect to be taken seriously when you talk about the issues raised by this story if you don’t have a rudimentary understanding of the science and are unacquainted with the fraught debate about who gets to identify as a Native American.

Oh sure, you’re “free” to pop off on Twitter and offer “hot takes” to other members of your team, but what you have to say will be all noise and no signal.

I

Let’s start with the science. The Post put it charitably when it said that “reporters and politicians are not very good at understanding genetics.” After Warren released the results of her test, her critics in both the mainstream and conservative media dusted off their VHS copies of “Schoolhouse Rock” and “corrected” the math.

The problem is that “ancestors do not contribute genetic material equally over time . . . as you go back in time, the number of your ancestors keeps increasing but not nearly as fast as the number of genealogical ancestors.”

Making matters even more complicated is that it’s possible for two siblings to take the same DNA test and come up with slightly different results.

The test Warren took indicated she had one Native American ancestor as recently as six generations ago or “or possibly a dozen or more ancestors back to the 10th generation.” What’s more, it also found that the senator “had 10 times more Native American ancestry than the reference set [of people] from Utah, and 12 times more than the set from Britain. The report also said that the long segment on Chromosome 10 indicated that the DNA came from a relatively recent ancestor.”

This, and not the “Schoolhouse Rock” arithmetic, is the scientific answer to the question “Does Elizabeth Warren, as her family has maintained, have Native American ancestors?” She does and to a greater extent than 1/1024th meme would have you believe.

II

That still leaves the question “Is senator Warren a Native American?” The answer is “of course not.” As Warren’s Indian critics point out, being a Cherokee, Osage, Lakota or Ojibwe is about a lot more than DNA.

Indulge me while I share my own experience: A DNA test I took as part of larger genealogical study showed that I am around thirteen percent Native American. (The results were aided by the find of the remains of a Taino woman who lived in what is now the Bahamas five hundred years before Columbus.)

Do I consider myself a Native American or Taino? No. No more than my approximately 12 percent West African genetic component causes me to think of myself as African-American or Afro-Latino. That’s because DNA is not identity.

To understand why this is the case, watch the opening minute or so of PBS “The Story of the Jews: In the Beginning” written and hosted by historian Simon Schama. The opening montage shows six very-different looking people whom Schama tells us are all Jews.

Schama then asks “what, if anything, do we have in common?” It’s certainly not appearance, including skin color. And it’s not religious practices. “What ties us together,” Schama tells viewers, “is a story — a story kept in our heads and our hearts . . .” My “story” is not one about Taino ancestors or even the Middle Passage that my West African ancestors survived.

It’s a story about being a pretty typical Puerto Rican. It’s about lechon, arroz con habichuelas guisadas, sugar cane, coffee, and cattle; it’s about the Jibaros and the inexhaustible supply of aphorisms, known as refranes, that they bequeathed to every Puerto Rican mother. And the story includes the Décima, and the “cuatro,” which may look like a guitar but like the Cuban laúd, is actually a lute of sorts. (Speaking of things Cuban, part of the story is near-constant attempt to distinguish Cuban and Puerto Rican culture from each other, a classic example of what Freud dubbed “the narcissism of small differences.”)

III

Something analogous is at work with Warren’s Native American critics. As Kim Tallbear of the University of Alberta and the author of “Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science,” has said, “the science would say that you can, with a great degree of probability, show Native American ancestry,” but “that’s not the same as showing definitively that someone has the right to claim to be Native American as an identity, because it’s not ancestry alone that constitutes what it is to be a tribal member or even a Native American more broadly, at least from the point of view of Native Americans.”

By “ancestry” Tallbear means the stuff DNA tests can measure. It could hardly be otherwise because there’s no way to tell if a person is, say, a Dakota like Tallbear or a Potawatomi like Archbishop Charles Chaput using DNA alone. What’s more, prior to the establishment of reservations, membership in a given tribe was fluid. People, including non-Native Americans, were adopted, captured, intermarried, etc. into the tribe.

Thus, membership was determined by a combination of culture, customs, history, and politics, by which I mean tribal governance. For instance, to be an enrolled member of the Osage Nation, you must be able to prove lineal descent from someone who was on the 1906 tribal roll. To be an actual Cherokee, you must prove lineal descent from someone who appeared on the 1893 Dawes Roll.

Put differently, your family had to be Native American when being a Native American was hard. Really hard. None of this stuff about being descended from a “Cherokee princess;” there was no such thing. Instead, being an Osage means that there was a real chance that your grandmother or great-grandmother was murdered for her headrights, as happened to the great grandmother of my oldest friend.

As with Schama’s “The Story of the Jews,” we’re talking about a shared story of “suffering and resilience, endurance and creativity.”

No amount of spitting into a tube or scraping your cheek with a swab can provide you with that.

IV

The same week that the Warren story was dominating the news, I read about one way that white supremacists demonstrate their Aryan credentials: chugging milk. As the New York Times told readers, the goal is “to draw attention to a genetic trait known to be more common in white people than others — the ability to digest lactose as adults.”

Whereas in much of the world (two-thirds of humanity) the ability to digest lactose ceases after the age of about five, in northern Europe, approximately eighty percent of adults can digest lactose. This is thought to be the result of “the arrival of the first cattle herders in Europe some 5,000 years ago, [when] a chance mutation that left it turned on provided enough of a nutritional leg up that nearly all of those who survived eventually carried it.”

Ergo, chugging milk “proves” that you are an Aryan of long-standing. Except that it doesn’t. I’m hardly an Aryan and I can chug milk with the best of them, as can decidedly non-Aryan herdsmen in East Africa.

At the risk of being misunderstood both the milk-chuggers and the people who sign up at AncestryDNA and 23andMe in search of the Indian princess in their family tree are looking for much the same thing: a story, preferably one that distinguishes them from the lion’s share of the people around them. They want this so much that the firms that sell DNA kits have people whose principal job is to deal with customers who are angry that their tests showed no Native American ancestry.

Unfortunately, you can’t find the story you seek at the bottom of an empty milk carton or in the results of a DNA test.

V

I left something out of my story earlier: faith. Along with culture, food, and history, my identity is inextricably intertwined with the Christian faith bequeathed to me by people like my mother and my paternal grandfather. For them, being both a Christian and a Boricua went together like red beans and rice or tostones and roast pork. It’s not that they thought that every Boricua was a Christian — far from it — but that their identity was seamless.

Their gift to me is that when I’m asked who my people are I can answer that on multiple levels. For me, the question has never been “Who do I belong to?” but, instead “Am I living up to my obligations to those who have a claim on me?”

And, for the last time, no DNA test can answer either of these questions for anyone.

 

For Brian and Holly.


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