Elizabeth Warren, Native American

By Razib Khan | April 29, 2012 9:42 am


Elizabeth Warren, Native American

It has come to my attention that Elizabeth Warren, who is running for a Senate seat in Massachusetts, claims Native American ancestry. This did not surprise me. Warren is from Oklahoma, where nearly 10% of the population claims some Native American ancestry. The problem, as it is, is that apparently Harvard claimed Warren as a minority faculty member during its periodical head counts. Warren “was told through family lore that her maternal parents were from the Cherokee and Delaware tribes.” This is a moderate problem: family lore often is inaccurate. And it also exhibits biases. Nevertheless, I do think we need to be careful about being too skeptical in this case, because of Warren’s roots in Oklahoma. A friend was told that his maternal grandmother was of part Oklahoma Choctaw background, and he had always dismissed this as romantic distortions made to fit 21st century preconceptions and preferences. But when he got his results back from 23andMe there was a notable “Asian” component, and the Native American relative finder came back positive. He asked me to look at his results more deeply, and it was pretty obvious that yes, he was part Native American, in actually the proportions that you would have expected.

But this doesn’t always work out. It seems the majority of white Americans who suspect Native American ancestry find none from what I can tell. Recently I received a copy of DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America. Here’s a section on Cherokee genetic results:

“Will’s Navajo and “Roger’s” Hopie chromosomes contrast dramatically with the final portrait in this room from my one and only CHerokee volunteer, “Lucas Jackson.” I was astonished when I first saw his chromosome portrait, and so was he. “Isn’t that something!” he said with quiet amazement. There is only one small segment of orange ["Asian" ancestry in 23andMe's ancestry painting] among an otherwise uniform sea of blue. I would have dismissed this as an error were it not for somethign Mike MacPherson said when I visited him in San Francisco [scientist at 23andMe]. He had evidently had a similar experience with the company’s Cherokee customers, and had often found very little sign of orange [ie., non-European] in their chromosome portraits. We did not discuss the “Cherokee paradox,” as MacPherson called it, any more than that, but it did make me think that perhaps “Lucas Jackson’s portrait was no so unusual for a Cherokee.

If Elizabeth Warren wants to validate genuine Native American ancestry, she can surely afford a personal genomics service to dig through her genome. There needn’t be textual documentation.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal Genomics
MORE ABOUT: Elizabeth Warren
  • Gary B

    Hmm. The Cherokee were originally a Southeastern tribe. As a tribe they voluntarily adopted European cultural models to a great extent early on (but were eventually forcible evicted to Oklahoma anyway). Perhaps they were more comfortable with those European thought patterns than other tribes, being genetically closer already – is it possible that they have some connection to the apparent earliest migrations from Europe during the Ice Age, 20,000 to 30,000 years ago? If so that might explain the paradox. It would be interesting to see the DNA matches of ancient Cherokees. They might show the same pattern, in which case that would provide an interesting new perspective on migration to this continent.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #1, the cherokee famously mixed a lot with european settlers. e.g., john ross.

    is it possible that they have some connection to the apparent earliest migrations from Europe during the Ice Age, 20,000 to 30,000 years ago?

    no. there is no strong evidence for migrations from europe.

  • Isabel

    “Warren “was told through family lore that her maternal parents were from the Cherokee and Delaware tribes.” ”

    I assume this refers to her maternal grandparents. Still it’s not very long ago- why would family lore have covered up the truth of the actual identity of her grandparents?? I suppose the “full-bloodedness” of the grandparent might be exaggerated.

    It would be interesting to test her mitochondrial DNA which should be 100% NA if her claim is true correct?

    Also, in some cases family lore may be correct, but after 4-5 or more generations the genetic contributions of some ancestors may have fallen out of the picture completely, and some will be over-represented (as see already in your daughter’s genetic profile).

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #3, re: time. if *both* her maternal grandparents had native ancestry i would hazard that the chance of loss of native ancestry is going to be lower by her generation. no need for mtDNA, autosomal tests should suffice.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    IIRC, the Cherokee officially designate their tribal membership as including everyone who had a single ancestor as an enrolled member of the tribe in 1904.

    Given in early U.S. history, the Cherokee were already well known for being admixed (with many prominent half-breeds) it would not be surprising if by 1904 the average Cherokee was half West Eurasian already. And of course since then, the numbers had nowhere to go but down, discounting random genetic drift among those who continued marrying with the tribe.

    It will be interesting to see what happens if more tribes utilize 23andme, as the reticence of USA Native American tribes to allow DNA studies we know far more about the genography of Canada or Mexico than the populations in between. My prediction that the average Mexican may have more native DNA than the average American claiming to be Native American may turn out to be solved more quickly than we would expect afterall.

    Honestly, I don’t think this is a big deal for the Cherokee in particular though. What set them apart from the other tribes was their willingness to embrace the portions of Western culture which worked well. I could easily see a communal identity embraced which de-emphasizes the “ingeniousness” and instead plays up the “we took the best from the New World and the Old.”

  • masa

    Ok, it “comes to your attention,” but could you dig a little if you’re going to write and publish a piece. You do correctly assert that, “apparently Harvard claimed Warren as a minority faculty member during its periodical head counts,” but your focus on Ms. Warren’s claims of Native heritage gives one the impression she is claiming minority status. She’s in the middle of an election and I perceive this as a smear campaign (not your article, but the recent original articles.) It is important to clarify that she didn’t assert her Native ancestry to garner easy entry at Harvard Law school. This is the portrait being painted. Just go read the comments of the actual news reports which are the source of this “to do.”

  • DK

    The important thing for voters to know: did Elizabeth Warren benefit from affirmative action based on her family’s lore? If yes, we are looking at a dishonest and unscrupulous person who is extremely likely to become dishonest and unscrupulous politician.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #6, i’m really just interested in the genetics. sorry. politics is kind of complicated, and you never know how people are going to take things.

    we are looking at a dishonest and unscrupulous person who is extremely likely to become dishonest and unscrupulous politician.

    dishonest and unscrupulous politician hey? :-) that made me laugh. in any case, as a matter of substance, does it really matter? a large number of politicians (e.g., al gore, george w. bush) benefit from nepotism too. that gets made an issue, but it doesn’t seem to have much traction.

  • Melissa

    I noticed a small amount of Asian in my 23andme profile and thought it came from my father’s side, where there is rumored NA ancestry. But when my father was profiled, it was 0% Asian. I’m pretty sure the Asian in mine probably came from Russian ancestors on my mother’s side.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #9, send me your genotype at contactgnxp -at- gnxp – dot- com and i can confirm that for you. hgdp has native and siberian samples.

  • http://ironrailsironweights.wordpress.com Peter

    Warren is not merely white, but white.

    But seriously, whatever Native American ancestry she may have, it’s so minimal as to have left no physical trace whatsoever.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #11, get your calipers out! :-)

  • Dm

    In multiple choice ancestry surveys, great many people choose “Native American” simply because “White American” isn’t included. (Other choices may be in a form of “….. European” but many Americans recoil at the suggestion that they belong to some variety of the lowly Europeans. Some choose “Other” ancestry, writing in things like White, WASP, Caucasian, Caucasion, but many pick “Native American” just because it says “…. American”)

    OTOH, many tribes are intensely uncomfortable with DNA genealogy because it implies their Asian origin, contrary to their origin myths which clearly state they have been local forever. So a DNA match won’t give one any standing with the tribes anyway. Ditto in Hawaii, if a white person discovers native Hawaiian heritage in a DNA test, he or she still remains a ha’ole, because continuous cultural affiliation is just as required for Hawaiian identity as the ancestry.

  • DK

    I don’t have an an access to the database that has it but here ( http://attackmachine.com/blog/2012/04/29/elizabeth-warren-native-american/ ) it is claimed that in her two pre-Harvard positions at Texas and Pennsylvania she is identified as a minority faculty. Can anyone confirm?

  • Dwight E. Howell

    My family lore suggests the Cherokee heavily mixed with the Howell and Bivens families. In Lawrence County TN their are plenty of people of Cherokee descent but I wouldn’t care to wager about how much native American DNA they have.

  • iberian

    Why so many white Americans claim a “indian” grandmother, and show so few genes from her? – Well, maybe because they are speaking about the same grandmother… :-)

  • Naughtius Maximus

    What do you think of Sykes new book?

  • Nick

    #7: I know it’s a cliche, but: don’t hate the player, hate the game.
    #11: I wouldn’t have guessed anything by looking at her, but now that I’m thinking about it: her nose and cheeks really remind of my wife and her relatives, who have 20-30% Native American ancestry. No physical trace? Maybe, maybe not, I don’t know.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot Steve Sailer

    NFL quarterback Sam Bradford, from Oklahoma, says he is only 1/16th Cherokee, but he looks more than that. So, it’s kind of random.

  • NE43

    So you think Carrie Underwood looks part Native American? Warren looks no less so than CU. It’s a tempest in a teapot. Gotcha campaigning.

  • Darkseid

    http://news.yahoo.com/former-native-american-senator-reacts-elizabeth-warren-minority-033013111.html
    looks like she might have to back that up. i’d guess she’ll just never mention it again;)

  • Charles Nydorf

    Craniometry would be helpful in defining what it means to “look Indian.” Elizabeth Warren, to my eyes, does resemble many Cherokee people.

  • ackbark

    Elizabeth Warren Cherokee Heritage Backed Up by 1894 Document,

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/01/elizabeth-warren-native-american-heritage_n_1467398.html?ref=elections-2012

    “Christopher Child of the New England Historic and Genealogy Society said Monday he found an 1894 document in which Warren’s great-great-great grandmother is listed as Cherokee, which would make the Harvard Law School professor 1/32nd American Indian.”

  • Ken James

    #23 – That 1894 document is the marriage certificate of the son of the ggg-grandmother. If the son says his mother was Cherokee, does that make it so? The ggg-grandmother never lived in Oklahoma. She was born in North Carolina in 1794 and died in Tennessee after 1860. If there is a connection it’s from that area, not Oklahoma. It’s still plausible, but much more difficult to prove. At least one genealogist shows the parents of the ggg-grandmother and they were not Cherokee. Maybe the family lore goes even beyond that.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    If the son says his mother was Cherokee, does that make it so?

    this is 1894, not 2012. if someone is claiming american indian heritage then it is not because he wants a plum position as an ethnic studies professor. don’t be stupid. the most likely reason someone would claim native ancestry in 1894 is that they are have black ancestry.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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