Today we found out Elizabeth Warren MIGHT actually have an Indigenous ancestor. Information was revealed that her DNA test showed that she (probably) had an Indigenous ancestor. But what does that really mean? Does it suddenly grant her a pass to call herself “Indian”?
The problem with using genealogy and genetic ancestry testing to find your mysterious Indigenous ancestry that was always part of your family lore is that such new discoveries whitewash the lived experiences of actual Indigenous people. Sure it’s fun to find out you have an ancestral “Indian grandma” who lived back in the 1700s – and it’s great to find out that granddad wasn’t pulling your leg (entirely) when he told you that his great grandma was an Indian princess (of sorts). It seems like harmless fun, and it is in many ways because it helps bring flavor to an otherwise boring existence as a regular white person living in a modern, complicated world.
Ancestry genealogy and genetic ancestry testing is often described as “recreational genetics,” but rather than viewing it as a recreation, or a hobby, many consumers don’t take these things lightly and the problems start when people use the (often tenuous) data to reshape their personal identities. Even worse is when they alter their whole existence and change how they report their race or ethnicity on governmental forms, college or job applications, and medical questionnaires, or in the most extreme cases use their “discovered” Indigenous identity to impose themselves into the discussion of indigeneity while using their white privilege to amplify their newfound “Indigenous voice” above Indigenous people.
By using data – genealogical or genetic DNA – white people have found they have a tool that they can use to assert, imagine, exaggerate, or even completely invent a claim to Indigenous identity for tactical purposes to enhance their own personal voices with the cultural/racial capital of selective indigeneity. By finding that one (or perhaps two) Indigenous ancestors is seen as a way forward to expressing oneself in a whole new identity even though that identity has been effectively erased until it was dredged up from the past using modern-day genealogical and ancestry DNA tools.
For example, if you go back 14 generations (approximately 350 years), each person has a maximum of 16,384 direct ancestors. It is entirely likely that somewhere along the line someone exists in that small city of ancestors who might have been Indigenous. That’s cool. But the consideration that needs to be examined is what happened in the subsequent generations since this Indigenous ancestor? Did your family remain close to their indigenous community? Did they preserve the language; did they maintain the kinship ties to their Indigenous relatives? If the answer is no, and your ancestors assimilated into the great melting pot of European-dominated society, then what right do you really have to claim loudly that you are indeed an indigenous person deserving of a place at the table?