Elizabeth Warren and Indigeneity: An Australian Perspective

Dr. Katherine Ellinghaus is a Hansen Lecturer in the department of history at the University of Melbourne and Barry Judd is a professor of Indigenous Social Research at Charles Darwin University, based on the Alice Springs campus. Ellinghaus is also the author of Blood Will Tell: Native Americans and Assimilation Policy (Nebraska, 2017). 

First, our apologies for being yet more non-Native American people weighing in on this issue. If you want a Native perspective, go no further than the brilliant Kim Tallbear’s twitter statement last week or Rebecca Nagle’s take as a Cherokee woman from nearly a year ago, or the Cherokee Nation’s statement about Warren’s DNA test. We, a white Australian historian with Irish and German ancestry (Katherine) and a Professor of Indigenous Social Research descended from the Pitjantjatjara people of north-west South Australia, British immigrants and Afghan cameleers (Barry), aim here to bring an Australian perspective to the debates over Warren.

There is a long history in the United States of individuals such as Elizabeth Warren, who primarily identify as non-native, but whose family oral history includes reference to a Native American ancestor. And there may be good reason for that. People engage in cross-cultural relationships all the time. It is part of human nature and it is part of the violent and intimate history of all settler-colonial nations including Australia, where we live and work. Entanglements between settlers and natives is a fact of the settler-colonial past in both the United States and Australia with many consequences for contemporary race relations. In Australia, for example, the uncanniness that surrounds Indigenous identity continues to play out in both national politics and everyday interactions between individuals who claim an Aboriginal identity and those who do not.

Part of the problem lies in situations like that of Warren, where ancestors from the distant past are used to claim an Indigenous identity in the present. This claim relies on the idea that a distant ancestor in a family tree can somehow bequeath Indigenous identity via some kind of biological transfer of identity through blood or DNA. The fallacious idea that ‘blood’ (a bodily fluid), or DNA (genetic material) somehow carry ‘race’ remains highly influential and continues to shape popular discourse about identity in settler-colonial societies today. This idea can be traced back to the seventeenth century when blood came to the fore as a way of explaining the differences between the variegated bodies that Europeans were encountering in the early modern world of empire and colonialism. It happens in the United States and in Australia too.

In Blood Will Tell Katherine argued that the 1887 General Allotment Act, which divided communally-owned reservations into individual allotments, was a crucial moment in US history when a blood-based understanding of Native American identity was cemented into the American psyche. The 1887 Act provided that allotments of land were only to be given to members of tribes, but at this time many nations did not have complete lists of their members. So the enormous and complicated task of dividing up reservation land and allotting it to individuals was put in the hands of swiftly increasing numbers of Office of Indian Affairs employees. These public servants were given no firm instructions on how to decide who was or was not a tribal member. So, it seems they drew on popular biological understandings of blood quantum. They made crude mathematical estimates according to what they knew of an individual’s family—for example, a child of a non-Indian parent and an Indian parent was “half” Indian and a child with one non-Indian grandparent and three Indian grandparents was “one quarter.” It sounded like science but it was not. Government officials often recorded blood incorrectly, deciding it on a glance and with a quick analysis of an individual’s skin tone and facial features. Applicants who sought state recognition of their native identity for a particular beneficial purpose also used the language of blood quantum. In all of cases reference to blood quantum often had very little to do with Indigenous ideas about kinship and community. This is just one chapter in the long history of how blood came to pervade U.S. law, policy and tribal constitutions across the twentieth century, as Paul Spruhan’s important work shows us.

The important point is that these fractions were not real. In Australia there have been different but strikingly similar ‘scientific’ understandings of race imposed on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The first legislative definition of an Australian native was set out in the colony of Victoria’s Aborigines Protection Act in 1869. The Act defined native-ness as: ‘Every aboriginal native of Australia and every aboriginal half-caste or child of a half-caste, such half-caste or child habitually associating and living with aboriginals’. By the middle of the twentieth century the settler-state had come to impose far more complex definitions of native-ness on Aboriginal peoples. They were assisted by the work of physical anthropologists like Norman B. Tindale who devised and published a racial taxonomy (some might call it a breeding chart) for Aborigines that helped government officials determine whether an individuals was a ‘full-blood’, ‘half-caste’, ‘quarter-caste’, ‘quadroon’ or ‘octoroon’ and so forth. Such is the influence of these ideas that, still today, Aboriginality continues to be considered primarily in terms of blood quantum by non-Indigenous Australians. A fair skinned person, Barry is constantly asked ‘which part Aboriginal are you anyway?’ and at a recent formal dinner the politically progressive members of the white settler-colonial establishment sitting beside him started small talk by asking if he was a ‘quarter-caste’ or ‘octoroon’?’ For the sake of a pleasant evening, he pretended not to hear.

Likewise, in the United States the idea—that race is a measurable, biological thing that can be described in fractions—still pervades popular understandings of race, culture and ethnicity. And they are, Native American people tell us (and as we can see so clearly in the middle of Warren’s DNA debacle), hurtful, damaging, disrespectful and disempowering. Nick Martin has written about how “distressful it is to have constantly faced the same set of questions very f***ing time they tell someone outside their tribal community that they belong to a nation of Natives: How much? How much? How much?”

As authors writing from Australia we are primarily interested in the potential impact the issue of DNA testing as a mechanism to validate claims to indigeneity may have in Australia that arise from the Elizabeth Warren case and the reactions to her stance that are now emerging. As outsiders to both the American political system and the history of native-settler relations in the United States, we find aspects of the debate unfolding around Elizabeth Warren difficult to understand. The difference in native-settler relations that have emerged in the Australia experience and those that exist in the United States lies in the historical distance that separates the first British Empire from the second. Ours is an understanding of settler-colonialism and settler-state determinations of racial identity that is framed by the nineteenth-century ideas of British imperialists like Charles Dilke and Cecil Rhodes; and of the resistance and struggle of native populations in response to them. Australian understandings of race and indigeneity are embedded in a global context that encompasses places as disparate as Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, India, Pakistan, New Zealand, Canada and many other former British colonies in-between. Framed by the former Empire our understanding of race and indigeneity finds a common language with both settlers and natives whose relationships continued to be shaped by forms of colonialism particular to the British.  One of the positive legacies of Empire perhaps is the common language that enables the descendants of peoples first colonized by the British in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to share stories of invasion, survival, resistance and cultural renaissance. Last week on road trip that took Barry through outback South Australia, he met a man from Kimberley, South Africa. As they shared stories of their grandmothers’ experience of racism and of legislation that restricted the lives of non-white peoples, they spoke a common language of ‘knowing’. Understanding the experience and issues of Native peoples in the United States is another matter and this is arguably particularly the case in attempting to frame analysis of issues like Elizabeth Warren’s decision to claim a native identity through DNA testing.

The excellent and insightful commentary of Kim Tallbear rightly points out the serious limitations inherent in the ‘science’ of DNA testing when it comes to charting ancestry linked to contemporary native peoples in North America. DNA testing as a route to confirming Aboriginal identity in Australia is perhaps even contentious given an almost complete absence of genetic materials available to reference ancestral origins. When Barry took a DNA test supplied by a retail lab in Canada, the test results ‘confirmed’ that he had no Aboriginal ancestry, a result that is clearly incorrect. Yet aspects of the debate unfolding in the United States are jarring to our own sensitivities about race and indigeneity. Other aspects of the debate appear incomprehensible and full of paradox.  The right of native peoples to self-determine their own destinies starts with the fundamental right to determine their own collective identities and group membership.  Such rights are enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples including Article 9 that states: “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right to belong to an indigenous community or nation, in accordance with the traditions and customs of the community or nation concerned.” In the Warren case, Tallbear has focused attention on the shaky ‘science’ of DNA tests as a determinate of Native American ancestry. Tallbear and other Native American scholars and activists further rightly assert that even if we accept cases where ancestry can credibly established, this alone, is not sufficient for an individual like Warren to claim an identity as a Native American. Native American-ness is they point out intimately connected to relationships and grounded in lived experience. Valid claims to Native American identity therefore requires not only ancestry but also knowledge of and participation in cultural practices and the networks of relationships that form tribal groupings. Furthermore, claims to a native identity crucially also require that individuals and collectives whose credentials and status as Native Americans is well established and secure beyond doubt; be able to exercise their power and authority to accept or reject such claims in accordance with their own processes for determining such matters and their own definitions of what native-ness and belonging to native community requires. Such ideas are in keeping with the concept of the right to indigenous rights to self-determination and are not inconsistent with western political theories of social contract liberalism popularized by Hobbes, refined by Kant and reworked for contemporary multi-racial states by Rawls. Such rights are set out in Article 4 of the U.N. Declaration which states “Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.”

In the case of Elizabeth Warren, the mechanisms of tribal government should be sole arbiter of her claim to be a Native American. Tallbear and others are critical of Warren’s decision to take the test because it suggests that determinations of native identity can be settled by DNA tests and genetic technologies that exist beyond the influence of Native American peoples. The DNA test seeks to dumb down what is a highly complex social and political question into a straightforward problem for science to solve. The significant consequences that arise from the Warren case is that once again Native American peoples and their right to autonomy and self-government in matters relating to internal and local affairs have been disregarded, ignored and their knowledge and wisdom to determine their own group membership disrespected. As the Australian scholar Patrick Wolfe said colonialism is not an event it is a process and the Warren case confirms this to be so in the contemporary United States.

We make these observations as outsiders to an America whose race relations continues to jar our own sensitivities and learning about settler-Indigenous relationships. Barry remembers the first conference and meeting of the influential Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) he attended at the University of Minnesota in 2009. In the very first paper session he attended a young male scholar stood up and introduced himself as a member of the Cherokee Nation. He then proceeded to validate his membership by reference to blood quantum. His reference to blood quantum sat uneasily with Barry, who had just completed a PhD that argued that Aboriginal identity in Australia was (and is) primarily constructed as the outcome of relationships through which knowledge and practices considered Aboriginal flow. Barry had argued that blood quantum was a false determinate of Aboriginality as had been used as a tool of oppression by the settler-colonial state in Australia. In Australia, if Barry dared introduce himself in an academic forum according to my tribal affiliation qualified by reference to blood quantum he would be howled down and perhaps asked to leave the gathering altogether. Clearly, then key differences exist in the way race and indigenous identity are read in the United States and Australia. While we are aware of these differences, we are also keenly aware that what happens in American politics often has more or less direct consequences for what then happens in Australia. In Australian higher education students seeking entry to universities sometimes claim an Aboriginal identity based only on the recent ‘discovery’ of an ancestor multiple generations removed from themselves.  Once admitted to a degree program, their status as Aboriginal people is more or less assured. It is a developing trend that is worrying to us and many colleagues of our generation and older. What will happen when many of Australia’s leading spokespeople, advocates and experts on matters Aboriginal do not have valid claims to an Aboriginal identity themselves? We foresee a possible future whereby many of these new claimants to an Aboriginal identity in Australia will rest their claims on the results gained from DNA tests and mount the same arguments Elizabeth Warren has used in her claim to be Native American.

We end by making reference to the work of Métis scholar Chris Andersen who asserts that ancestry alone is not enough. What makes one’s claims to an identity valid are the relationships with communities of people whose cultural practices, traditions and histories uphold the identity being claimed. If the claimant has no such relationships the validity of their instant transformation from a settler-colonial identity to an Indigenous one must at the very least be called into critical question.

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