'Our Vote Matters Very Little': Kim TallBear on Elizabeth Warren's Attempt to Claim Native American Heritage

Dr. Kim TallBear, an Associate Professor on the Faculty of Native Studies at University of Alberta and member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe, argues that genetic testing—itself a scientifically unreliable method—reinforces white notions of identity by reducing cultural identity to dubious genetic markers that ignore the vast network of social ties, family relations, tribal rules, and other histories that form Native American identity.

tallbear_native coverJEZEBEL: Before we get to Warren, can you tell us why a person cannot prove Native American ancestry through DNA testing? 

KIM TALLBEAR: I think the better way to ask it is whether one can prove Native American identity through DNA testing. Although there are both social and scientific problems to this question, and the science would say that you can, with a great degree of probability, show Native American ancestry. 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.


Part of what’s troubling about this whole conversation is that it’s really a bunch of non-indigenous people debating whether or not [Warren is] Native American when none of them clearly know anything about our definitions of what it is to be Native American or Cherokee within that, and we want to privilege our definitions. Part of what white supremacy has done in the United States is allowed white people to define everybody else’s racial category. It’s allowed white people to define what it is to be a member of a tribe and what it is to be indigenous. It’s one of the privileges of whiteness, to be able to define and monitor and control everybody else’s identity and that’s in part what’s going on here.


Full interview at Jezebel.

Published in: Jezebel
By: Prachi Gupta