DNA Tests, Indigenous Identity, and "Playing Indian"

Absent real connections to Native communities, spiritual hucksters and “wannabe Indians” not only do harm to the communities whose cultures they appropriate, but they also divert attention away from other serious issues affecting Native communities.

By Lisa Barnett|January 10, 2019

In October 2018, the senior United States Senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, publicly released the results of a DNA test taken to prove Native American ancestry in her family lineage, a move prompted by numerous attacks from President Trump who frequently mocks her with the nickname "Pocahontas." However, her attempt to counter the President’s assaults quickly drew sharp criticism from Native peoples, including the Cherokee Nation (of which Warren claimed tribal ancestry) and other “advocates of racial equality and justice, who say her attempt to document ethnicity with a DNA test gave validity to the idea that race is determined by blood—a bedrock principle for white supremacists and others who believe in racial hierarchies.” The above-linked New York Times article quotes Kim TallBear, a prominent scholar from the University of Alberta and critic of DNA testing for indigenous ancestry, who argues that such tests “privilege the voices of (mostly white) genome scientists and implicitly cede to them the power to define Indigenous identity.” In a public statement on Warren’s DNA test, TallBear states that such testing privileges whiteness and relies on “settler-colonial definitions” of Indigenous American identity. 

Since announcing that she is organizing an exploratory committee for the 2020 presidential race, Warren has had to address some of the criticism about the DNA test. Warren’s response: “I am not a person of color. I am not a citizen of a tribe. Tribal citizenship is very different from ancestry. Tribes—and only tribes—determine tribal citizenship, and I respect that difference.” In attempting to address criticisms leveled upon her from Native communities, however, Warren actually draws on a form of biological essentialism that ties race with citizenship and equates biology with culture. In doing so, she participates in the ongoing project of settler-colonialism in which people deemed "white" lay claim to the possessions of Native peoples—land, resources, blood, and identities. 

The racialization of Native American identity through DNA testing also reveals the continuing Euro-American historical fascination with cultural appropriation, which, in this case, is helpfully elucidated by what Native American historian Philip J. Deloria terms “playing Indian.” In his book by this title, Deloria traces a historical trajectory where “Americans have returned to the Indian, reinterpreting the intuitive dilemmas surrounding Indianness to meet the circumstances of their times” (7). Thus, where on one level we might understand Senator Warren’s DNA test as a tactic to counter bullying, on another level we can see her “playing Indian,” exercising, in Deloria’s words, “the ability to wield power against Indians—social, military, economic, and political—while simultaneously drawing power from them” (191). Commenting on the work of the late French historian Michel Foucault in the Routledge Handbook of Identity Studies, Anthony Elliott writes, “The production of identity discourses, texts, or scripts are deeply interwoven with the operation of power in society.” DNA test results, like Senator Warren’s, become a form of discursive appropriation of Indigenous identity without the strong cultural or kinship ties to the community. This disconnection with Native cultures highlights the continued attempts of Euro-Americans to colonize Indigenous peoples and redefine them according to Americanized standards of being in the world.

The long and troubling history of U.S. colonialism among Native populations testifies to the unequal power dynamics in the relationship between Native Americans and the nation, and it reminds us of the central role religion has often played as Native American peoples have attempted to navigate their encounters with national politics and federal law. Emboldened by a series of papal bulls and decrees in the fifteenth century, European explorers used these papal documents to justify an incredibly brutal system of colonization in the Americas. Over the next several centuries, these beliefs gave rise to the “Doctrine of Discovery” employed by Catholics and Protestants from Spain, Portugal, England, France, and Holland to assert that “Christian nations had a divine right, based on the Bible, to claim absolute title to and ultimate authority over any newly ‘discovered’ non-Christian inhabitants and their lands.” The American legal system codified the Christian Doctrine of Discovery in the 1823 Supreme Court decision Johnson v. M'Intosh, which “held that a discovering sovereign has the exclusive right to extinguish Indians' interests in their lands, either by purchase or just war” and Native peoples only retained a right of “occupancy.” This legalized the dispossession of Native lands and the removal of Native peoples from their ancestral homelands on Christian grounds.

The entangled and yet mutually beneficial relationship between church and state has also factored significantly in shaping the policy of Indian affairs. Christian missionary efforts often worked in tandem with federal Indian policy so that “Christianization” became the necessary means to “civilization” for Native peoples. Encouraged by the formalization of Grant’s “peace policy” (1868), church leaders from various denominations were allowed to have extensive official participation in Indian policy. As Clifford Trafzer, editor of American Indians/American Presidents: A History, notes, “In reality the [peace] policy rested on the belief that Americans had the right to dispossess Native peoples of their lands, take away freedoms, and send them to reservations, where missionaries would teach them how to farm, read and write, wear Euro-American clothing, and embrace Christianity. If Indians refused to move to reservations, they would be forced off their homelands by soldiers.” This unofficial alliance continued long after the formal abandonment of the “peace policy,” along with a variety of Christian church-state activities intended to suppress Native American religious expressions.

In 1883, the Office of Indian Affairs established the Court of Indian Offenses to eliminate various cultural and religious practices of Indians. As Tisa Wenger documents in her book We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom, the implementation of a “Religious Crimes Code” specifically “prohibited the Sun Dance and the giveaway, and authorized government agents to use force and imprisonment to stop any Indian religious practices that they believed to be immoral, subversive of government authority, or an impediment to the adoption of white civilization” (39). Federal efforts to eliminate the Ghost Dance, a new Indian religion of the late-nineteenth century, resulted in the 1890 massacre of Lakota practitioners at Wounded Knee. Government officials discouraged other spiritual traditions, like the Sweat Lodge ceremonies and dances, and Peyotism became a religious practice targeted for eradication by the dominant culture. 

Ironically, some of the very same religious practices once deemed “heathenish” in the eyes of Christian reformers who worked to eradicate their use in Native cultures, have now been culturally appropriated by non-Native spiritual seekers who also commercially exploit Native rituals and sacred ceremonies (e.g., the documentary White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men, 1996). Known as “American Indian Spiritualism,” this profitable enterprise emerges in publications about “Indian wisdom,” and in marketing Native American spiritual ceremonies as tourist destinations. For a fee, “white shamans” offer experiences in a sweat lodge or on a vision quest, not to mention the market that has been created by merchants selling CBD oil and hemp oil products. As Janet McCloud, a longtime fishing rights activist and elder of the Nisqually Nation, puts it, 

“First they came to take our land and water, then our fish and game. Then they wanted our mineral resources and, to get them, they tried to take our governments. Now they want our religions as well. All of a sudden, we have a lot of unscrupulous idiots running around saying they’re medicine people. And they’ll sell you a sweat lodge ceremony for 50 bucks. It’s not only wrong, it’sobscene. Indians don’t sell their spirituality to anybody, for any price. This is just another in a very long series of thefts from Indian people and, in some ways, this is the worst one yet."

Absent real connections to Native communities, spiritual hucksters and “wannabe Indians” not only do harm to the communities whose cultures they appropriate, but they also divert attention away from other serious issues affecting Native communities. Instead of “playing Indian,” perhaps Warren and others might use this opportunity to meet with Native peoples and work with them on issues of tribal sovereignty, economic justice, environmental racism, human health and wholeness, and issues of violence against Native peoples (especially women) that are still prevalent in Indian Country today. 

Image: Elizabeth Warren speaks at a town hall meeting in Eastham, MA, August 11, 2018 (Flickr

Lisa Barnett is Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity at Phillips Theological Seminary (Tulsa, OK). Her research focuses on the intersection of race and religion around the 1918 incorporation of the Native American Church and the right to use peyote as part of their religious practice. Lisa is also an ordained minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).