By Joseph M. Yracheta
Critique to date:
There have been a lot of articles written about Elizabeth Warren’s use of direct-to-market DNA testing to prove her Native ancestry and what it means, both politically and socially, in the USA. This action was complicated and layered by the involvement of Carlos Bustamante, a Latino genomicist who has been a vocal advocate for Amerindigenous research. Many of the strongest objections have come from American Indian academics and genome scientists. These highly credentialed Natives have come under attack, from laypeople and media alike, for being out of touch with grassroots Native community members.
These criticisms, similar to the mascot issue, center on representation. Often, Native people who object to an offensive trend or policy face a media backlash by a specially selected sample of Natives who take no offense, or similarly from a sample of people who have questionable claims to Native ancestry.
This silencing or re-casting of valid Native objection by the larger, more powerful and callous majority culture points to a fundamental problem in America’s understanding of itself and of American socioeconomics. Moreover, in failing to respect its Indigenous people, it demonstrates that America is out of sync with its own ethos of being just, equitable and the most morally advanced civilization in history.
Elizabeth Warren’s Awkward Response
The reasons Warren chose to take this particular tack against Donald Trump range from a murky “minority-allied” intention at best to an awkwardly fielded political tactic at worst. Answering Trump’s racist mocking of a Warren familial claim that is so distant with a technology that has yet to be refined puzzles most political pundits. Some have claimed Warren was trying to score cheap political points with people of color for her 2020 presidential bid, but most have seen her as a bad tactician tricked into the bully’s game. Her most successful response to Trump’s taunting would have been to point out the use of racist, immature, and inaccurate stereotypes of Pocahontas, a girl who was the victim of settler-colonial rape, and who serves as a metaphoric precursor to US-Indigenous relationships. Further, Warren could have gone on to highlight the past treaty abrogations and current federal unmet obligations to the Indigenous of the USA. She could have highlighted the hodgepodge of policies that expects Native communities to pull themselves up by their boot straps while undermining the soil beneath their feet as fast as a Florida sinkhole.
Warren could have defended her family narrative without a DNA test and focused on Trump’s family narrative, which is rife with hypocrisy and questionable business practices. Trump’s family story could have been compared to his policies against Muslims and Mexican migrants, and the outsourcing of jobs, to highlight his hypocrisy. Warren could have pivoted by saying that regardless of the accuracy of her family stories, she has initiated and voted for dozens of programs that actually help minority and working populations, where the Trump administration has done little to none of those things.
Most importantly, Warren could have pointed out that, in addition to all of the other ‘un-American’ things the President has done, he has, in a manner of speaking, insulted his entire white southern base. Since many white southerners believe themselves to have Native ancestors, making fun of the nation’s First Americans is the most un-American thing he could do.
Sovereignty is Only Part of the Story
Regardless of Warren’s path around Trump’s tactics, much of the argument over the path she did take had to do with US tribal sovereignty and self-determination over tribal memberships. The gist of the argument is that biological identity, regardless of percentage, matters little when familial ties, cultural definitions of kinship, and citizenship in an Indigeous nation are involved. Most of the world understands what a plural nation looks like. The USA calls many ethnic groups “American.” Middle Eastern nations that have long been at the crossroads of Europe, Africa, and Asia are made up of the genetics from all three geographic regions. They are bound by religion and culture, so their “belonging” is rarely if ever questioned. In contrast, American Indian identity is subject to the individual nation’s rules and cultural definitions, and thus cannot be broken down to simple biological ancestry. Since tribes in Canada and the USA have a recognized sovereignty, this is to be supported and respected.
Admittedly, some part of genomic ancestry enters into Amerindigenous identity, but that has more to do with settler-colonial invasion and usurpation of First Peoples’ land and authority over what they consider their homeland. This unresolved injustice and the desire to resist Euro-American assimilation is the core of Amerindigenous identity.
It is because of this political reality that Warren and people like her have insulted the hundreds of Native communities with sovereignty. However, also because of this dynamic, they have insulted the thousands more that have gone unrecognized or unenrolled, or who have had their tribal citizenship terminated by the federal government. The irony of sovereignty and genomic definitions of Native identity isn’t lost on us, but should highlight more of why Warren’s actions are insulting. Meaning, autonomous groups are only as autonomous as settler-colonials allow them to be.
Perhaps most surprisingly, this political divide between settler-colonials and the Indigenous covers more than American Indians. Warren’s actions have also insulted Hawaiian Americans who have never had their indigeneity formally recognized; Hawaiians who live in poverty and suffer indignities of the tourism industry on their own land. Extending the insult further, Warren has made uncomfortable 200 million Latinos of high Indigenous ancestry, such as the majority of Mexicans, who have no recognized status here in the USA or their home countries. These Indigenous descendants, from whom the reference data for Warren’s test were derived, thereby become a casualty of science and of the settler-colonial power to recognize indigeneity. One has to acknowledge the irony of these Latinx Indigenous being recognized by genomic technology on one hand and made powerless by Euro-Colonial governments on the other.
While Warren and others satisfy a fetishized self-curiosity, and where they trendily (and temporarily) bathe in the stereotyped novelty of their newfound “noble savageness,” there are millions of marginalized people who have stayed true to their families, cultures, and languages under threat of mortal danger from majority culture. This is the larger context of history, historic trauma, disenfranchisement and designed poverty that many Amerindigenous people suffer today; a context that Warren and Bustamante ignore and that journalists refuse to address. Is it at all surprising that so many people find Warren’s actions insulting? Undoubtedly, Warren and Bustamante’s redefining of indigeneity (and of who has the authority to fund research, thus redefining claims to identity) is a slap in the face to those waiting centuries for recognition and independence.
The Genomic Reference Problem
This slap in the face is compounded by how Amerindigenous reference samples and data are collected from Central and South American groups. The Indigenous there have even less power than American Indians and Alaska Natives in Anglo-American countries. They are often at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy in their home countries, and have little to no say over the scientific approval processes. Coupled with the lateral racism of Mestizos in their home countries is the lack of education about potential resource forfeiture by the Indigenous to the Genome-BioMedical industry.
In addition to this very troubling ethical conundrum, Northern Natives have questioned the appropriateness of using Central American and South American genomes as a reference for their yet unsampled communities. Much has been made of this by the US and Canadian Native academics who have written about the Warren debacle. They have used this fact to discredit the findings of Elizabeth Warren and direct-to-market DNA companies in general. The side-effect is that they not only insult their southern Indigenous cousins but also cast a somewhat uninformed pall over the science and statistics of genetic ancestry testing.
Often these internal fights over identity result in a pathetic “oppression Olympics” regarding who has been done over the most by Euro-Americans. They unnecessarily pit Indigenous people against each other and their own interests. They distract from the real issue: majority culture’s continued taking from the Indigenous. The misunderstanding around genetic ancestry tests and markers of Amerindigeneity has become such a distraction that it is effectively a non-sequitur.
For such tests, there are markers along the strands of human DNA that inform ancestry by separating groups in time and geography. These markers take many forms, and it’s unnecessary to describe them all here. Suffice it to say, there are a sufficient number of types to make their validation rigorous enough for identification. Indeed, this is how the 13 CODIS markers work for paternity testing and criminal forensic identification. Regardless of the scientific explanation, they are carefully tested so that they only recognize one geographic group and not others. You might remember when Larry David, an American Jew, reported that a DNA test ‘proved’ that he had 37% Native ancestry. He actually didn’t. The reference that the testing company used was sequenced before scientists had sorted and separated the few markers that Ashkenazi Jews and Native Americans had in common. These markers were demonstrated to have a shared evolutionary history, but they didn’t confer a recent ancestral relationship between the Ashekenazi and Amerindigenous peoples.
Similarly, genomic reference data from the Americas has been screened for evolutionary and ancestral relationships. These tests are called Identity by State and Identity by Descent. So, while the criticism that there isn’t enough data from Canada and the USA to make the ancestral markers gleaned from South and Central American references accurate for North American Natives is somewhat true, it isn’t entirely true. There are a few technicalities to be aware of. First, the South and Central American tribes used as the Amerindigenous reference are separated by thousands of miles and are subject to individual group differences over time. They are accurate for that reason alone. However, the commonalities across that difference are thought to be robust for these reasons. Meaning, the markers chosen had to connect millions of people spread out over millions of miles and thousands of years. Secondly, these reference markers are corroborated by ancient Amerindigenous genomes that are 1,000 to 10,000 years old, and by modern samples from indigenously descended customers that serve as in-house references for companies like 23 & Me. Third, there are complications of European, South Asian and African admixture in different Amerindigenous populations that some Native academics use to define their modern populations instead of relying on geographically local ancestral markers. Lastly, there have been samples and data collected in the USA and Canada, but because tribes in the US and Canada have sovereignty, the public sharing and access to that data is tightly controlled, and often only summary data is made available through scientific manuscripts.
However, data being promiscuous and expert genomicists being both rare and ubiquitous, these data get seen. Because these genomicists need good quality control standards (vetted samples in large numbers) to refine their statistical algorithms, they can use these data without violating tribal agreements. In fact, to do good health disparity science, other researchers willingly provide such data to ensure accurate algorithms to analyze their genetic health association studies. This is why Carlos Bustamante was asked to get involved in the Warren debacle. Bustamante used such an improved algorithm to analyze Elizabeth Warren’s data. Thus, Bustamante was able to do a better and more updated analysis than the company to which Warren submitted her sample.
These technical aspects are not understood by Northern Native academics and journalists and therefore are unjustly criticized. However, if Northern Natives truly want to protect self-determination and want redress to historical injustice, it seems that the critics among them should be less offended that their Southern Native cousins were used as reference populations, and more offended by the how and why.
This narrative is all too familiar for our populations. It is one of resource extraction and lack of control over our own resources, followed by a lack of benefit from those resources. Nowhere in the Americas is there a Native American medical school, business school, law school, pharmaceutical company or genome analysis center. There are no institutions where Amerindigenous can learn what their resources are, how to extract them, how to legally protect them, how to develop them and how to ensure group benefit from them. What this highlights is that where other world populations participate jurisdictionally in the promise of genomic technologies, no Amerindigenous group enjoys the same luxury. The sovereignty of Northern Natives protects them to some degree, but no such protections exist in Latin America. There, Amerindigenous genomes are harvested like found pebbles on a riverbank for future unlocking of the figure within, thus having no value other than in sculptor’s hands (the genomic analyst). What Native critics from Anglo-America should worry about is that such practices put all Amerindigenous genomic sovereignty, and the right to genomic discretion, in great peril.
Recapitulation of Historic Trauma?
What’s good about the Warren debacle is that, for many, it raises Native issues to national and global consciousness. As the Americas and their riches are desired by many world nations, it’s unsurprising that most media outlets refuse to talk about the ongoing de-indigenization and predation of our Native homelands. As highlighted by the Dakota Access pipeline fight with the Standing Rock Sioux, the Elliot Abrams hearing spotlighting political and military manipulation of Latin governments, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s objection to the Trump border wall based on our Native indigeneity, or Venezuela’s 20 year refusal to bow to US pressures, our resources, our bodies and our politics are under constant assault by settler-colonial policy and action.
In 1600, Bolivia’s Potosi mountain provided all the silver and over 90% of the wealth for a failing Europe. The Potosi mine claimed 16,000 Native American lives, and its remnants claim them still. Similarly, the gold rush in South Dakota’s Black Hills and California’s mountains claimed the lives of thousands of American Indians. With genomic and Omics technology being analogous in power to the splitting of the atom, genomic data have the potential to generate great wealth. Indeed, one only has to look at the money being invested by public and private funders in Omics technologies to see how it might recapitulate theft from the Indigenous. However, just like those gold and silver mines and hundreds of other Amerindigenous products (corn, rubber, quinine, taxol and chocolate), none of us will benefit from a product that originated with our own bodies.
How Sovereignty and Non-Sovereignty Groups Align
Much of the argument from Northern Native academics is that Indigenous identity ought not to be defined by settler-colonial governments, nor should it be racialized to something as base as genetic analysis. Given that many other world nations have been produced from conflict throughout human history, this argument stands to reason. However, in many places in Latin America, such mixing of genetics and culture has happened little or has yet to happen at all. Since North and South Americans share ancestral history, how do they protect their genetic resources? Where do these groups align? They align in their opposition to settler-colonial governments and the unresolved injustices perpetuated by those governments. They align in their desire to carry on in their culture and lifeways. They align in their assertion of primacy in their own land. They align in the belief that these things have been their birthright for over 20,000 years. They align in the ongoing historic trauma of poverty, assimilation and erasure. They align in asserting their right to be separate but equal, and to live as any other people recognized by the United Nations, regardless of their GDP or military might. Most importantly, they align in the right to define who is and who isn’t Native.
Patrick Wolfe once said, “Where the US racial ideology has sought to intensify the boundary between white and Black, the same ideology has sought to blur the line between Native and settler.” Wolfe reveals the desperate and constant need for Indigenous erasure in settler-colonial denial of the human sacrifices they performed to bless their nation. Now, with genetic ancestry analysis, settler-colonial culture continues its effort to adorn itself in the legacy and flayed skin of the Indigenous.
Elizabeth Warren’s debacle is therefore an extension of the Terra Nullius (empty land) myth, wherein this untouched Eden was given to Europeans by God. Warren’s awkward claim and retort to President Trump has become a parallel myth: Physio-Communis (common human heritage) where anyone can be Native in this land regardless of sociocultural investment and suffering.
This article recognizes that American Indian and Alaska Native indigeneity is constructed differently, and sometimes in more complex ways, than in Latin America, but what ancestry testing and genomic technology demonstrates is that there is still a large and dangerous inequality in Latin America. Indeed, as we have recently seen with criticisms over the success of actress Yalitza Aparicio, racial politics between the Indigenous and their Mestizo cousins is incredibly unequal. This inequality makes Amerindigenous DNA collection, use, and approval processes there ethically suspect.
This is why we shouldn’t look at tribal identity in the USA in isolation. This material and the narratives that can be derived from it are mostly outside Native control. Together, Indigenous people of the Americas must realize our genomic sovereignty and discretion are tied together across international boundaries. We must aid genomicists in avoiding a recapitulation of social eugenics. We must ensure bi-directionalism of genomic technology rather than a new commercialism where those who fund genomic inquiry also define genomic outcomes for their own benefit.
Inappropriate claims of Indigenous identity are part of a much larger history and are tied to who, how, why and when research approval is given in Indigenous communities. More importantly, it’s tied to our united efforts to bring self-determination to all our communities amongst settler-colonials. We must dedicate ourselves to educating each other in order to form alliances of information and policy.
A Mexican Crossing Lines – March 4, 2019 “Interview with Joseph Yracheta”
Joseph M. Yracheta, MS Pharmaceutics
Purepecha and Raramuri (Mexican Natives: Tarascan and Tarahumara)
Joseph makes his home in South Dakota, where his wife and kids are enrolled Lakota members. He graduated from Loyola University in Chicago with a B.S. in Psychology and minor in Biology. He has been a biomedical technician for 16 years in fields spanning neuroendocrinology, drug abuse, cardiovascular endocrinology, kidney transplant and immunology. Joeseph has been a high school science teacher in Lakota (Sioux) communities for three years. He has spent the last four years studying pharmaceutics, genomics, public health and the bioethics of research in Native communities.
His interests lie in closing the health disparity gap for Native Americans and all Indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere. Joseph hopes to do that in a culturally appropriate and ethical manner via science or social reform. One of his interests is in helping to educate and empower Native groups to make genomics a tool that they use at their own discretion and for their own benefit.