Mixed Public Response to Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Results

By Sunny Jane Morton

elizabeth warrens dna

On October 15, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and other news outlets reported that a DNA test taken by US Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) showed evidence of some Native American ancestry. The results come in response to a challenge from President Donald Trump in July to prove her long-standing claim of Native American ancestry by taking a DNA test. He has derisively referred to her as “Pocahontas” and accused her of using the claim of Native American heritage to advance her career.

Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Test

Warren didn’t take her DNA test from one of the major genetic genealogy testing companies. Instead, she went to Stanford University’s Bustamante Lab. The lab’s Principal Investigator, Carlos Bustamante, PhD., wrote up her results, which you can read online.

The report’s executive summary states, “We find strong evidence that a DNA sample of primarily European descent also contains Native American ancestry from an ancestor in the sample’s pedigree 6-10 generations ago. We find little or no evidence of African ancestry in this sample.” More details follow in the report, which finds her to be primarily of European ancestry: “The analysis….identified 5 genetic segments as Native American in origin at high confidence, defined at the 99% posterior probability value…. The total and average segment size suggest (via the method of moments) an unadmixed Native American ancestor in the pedigree at approximately 8 generations before the sample, although the actual number could be somewhat lower or higher.”

Genetic genealogy expert Roberta Estes has already published the first part of a two-part series looking more closely at Warren’s ethnicity results. She calls Warren’s choice of testing with a lab instead of a genetic genealogy company the “equivalent of skipping the family practice doctor and going to the Mayo Clinic.” She points out Bustamante’s familiarity specifically with Native American DNA, and both explains and lauds his analysis.

Ethnicity results and ethnic heritage

Apart from scientific validity and the inevitable partisan side-taking, social and cultural factors are affecting public acceptance of Warren’s claims. The Cherokee Nation’s Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin, Jr., released the following statement on October 15:

“’A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship. Current DNA tests do not even distinguish whether a person’s ancestors were indigenous to North or South America. Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation. Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.’”

A day after announcing Warren’s test results, The Boston Globe published a follow-up statement admitting the issue is “complicated:” “While some geneticists said Monday that the DNA test Warren released provides credible scientific evidence of her Native American ancestry, others cautioned that indigenous identity and tribal membership are not determined by genetics but by longstanding cultural, familial, and historical ties to a Native American tribe.”

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