At most shows “strong evidence” of an ancestor dating back 6-10 generations, but is not conclusive, and more important, being Native American is not just about DNA markers.
Elizabeth Warren is not Native American. Her ancestry has been traced by Cherokee genealogists back to the early 1800s, as far back as there are records, and there are no Native American ancestors.
The one potential Native American ancestor was Warren’s great great great grandmother, Sarah O.C. Smith, but an initial 2012 report about that was debunked and The Boston Globe was forced to issue a retraction.
Trump and others have been demanding Warren take a DNA test. I wrote previously that this was not dispositive, No, Elizabeth Warren cannot prove she’s Native American merely by taking a DNA test. There is more to being Native American than DNA, both legally and from a tribal point of view:
This demand for a DNA test has been made by one of Warren’s 2018 Senate race challengers as well as others. Joan Venocchi at The Boston Globe also made the argument, Taking a DNA test could solve at least one of Elizabeth Warren’s problems.
This claim that all Warren need do is show any Native American DNA, no matter how small, reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of Warren’s claim to be Native American for employment purposes. Under clear EEOC and Harvard standards, Native American ancestry would not be sufficient to claim Native American status for employment purposes, which is what Warren did.
I addressed this issue in 2012, At debate Elizabeth Warren needs to disclose if she made false federal filings:…
If Warren can show she truly is a descendant of the original peoples of North America via a DNA test, that’s the start, not the end. She will not have proven she was justified in claiming Native American status for employment (and career advancement) purposes. She still would have to prove the second part of the test, that she maintained cultural identification through tribal affiliation or community recognition.
Regardless of DNA, Warren cannot show cultural identification. Until her recent speech, Warren never associated with Native Americans.
Demanding Warren take a DNA test is politically understandable. A negative result would completely eliminate her claim to be Native American.
But a positive DNA result would not retroactively justify Warren misusing Native American identification to try to advance her career.
I’ve also argued that the focus on a DNA test was a mistake, because Warren likely either had taken or would take a DNA test that would show some miniscule markers from original North American peoples, and she would then declare she was right.
And so it has come to pass. The Boston Globe, Warren’s go-to outlet, reports on a DNA test Warren took. It does not show she is Native American. It shows “strong evidence” of a single ancestor going back 6-10 generations. It’s a very thin analysis, and does not support the headlines being generated that Warren is Native American.
(added) Yet the Globe ran a headline in the print edition (unlike the online edition) suggesting the results proved Warren’s ancestry. Warren has tweeted that print edition headline:
From The Globe online edition, Warren releases results of DNA test:
Senator Elizabeth Warren has released a DNA test that provides “strong evidence’’ she had a Native American in her family tree dating back 6 to 10 generations, an unprecedented move by one of the top possible contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president….
Warren, whose claims to Native American blood have been mocked by President Trump and other Republicans, provided the test results to the Globe on Sunday in an effort to defuse questions about her ancestry that have persisted for years. She planned an elaborate rollout Monday of the results as she aimed for widespread attention.
The analysis of Warren’s DNA was done by Carlos D. Bustamante, a Stanford University professor and expert in the field who won a 2010 MacArthur fellowship, also known as a genius grant, for his work on tracking population migration via DNA analysis.
He concluded that “the vast majority” of Warren’s ancestry is European, but he added that “the results strongly support the existence of an unadmixed Native American ancestor.”
Bustamante calculated that Warren’s pure Native American ancestor appears in her family tree “in the range of 6-10 generations ago.” That timing fits Warren’s family lore, passed down during her Oklahoma upbringing, that her great-great-great-grandmother, O.C. Sarah Smith, was at least partially Native American.
That last sentence, about O.C. Sarah Smith, is particularly galling. The claim in 2012 that Smith was Native American came from someone else, not Warren. And it was retracted by The Boston Globe, yet it is repeated in this article.
The Globe acknowledges how weak the DNA findings are:
The inherent imprecision of the six-page DNA analysis could provide fodder for Warren’s critics. If her great-great-great-grandmother was Native American, that puts her at 1/32nd American Indian. But the report includes the possibility that she’s just 1/512th Native American if the ancestor is 10 generations back….
Warren provided a sample of her DNA to a private lab in Georgia in August, according to one of the senator’s aides. The data from that test was sent to Bustamante and his team for analysis. Warren received the report last week.
Warren didn’t use a commercial service, but Bustamante is on the scientific advisory board for Ancestry, which provides commercial DNA tests. He’s also consulted on a project for 23andMe, another major DNA testing company.
Warren said she was committed to releasing the report regardless of the results. However, Warren’s aides would not say whether she or any of her three siblings had previously done a commercial DNA test that would have provided them with some assurance about Bustamante’s analysis.
There were five parts of Warren’s DNA that signaled she had a Native American ancestor, according to the report. The largest piece of Native American DNA was found on her 10th chromosome, according to the report. Each human has 23 pairs of chromosomes.
“It really stood out,” said Bustamante in an interview. “We found five segments, and that long segment was pretty significant. It tells us about one ancestor, and we can’t rule out more ancestors.”
He added: “We are confident it is not an error.”
Detecting DNA for Native Americans is particularly tricky because there is an absence of Native American DNA available for comparison. This is in part because Native American leaders have asked tribal members not to participate in genetic databases.
“The tribes have felt they have been exploited,” explained Lawrence Brody, a senior investigator with the Medical Genomics and Metabolic Genetics Branch at the National Institutes of Health. “The amount of genetic data that is available from Native Americans is sparse.”
To make up for the dearth of Native American DNA, Bustamante used samples from Mexico, Peru, and Colombia to stand in for Native American. That’s because scientists believe that the groups Americans refer to as Native American came to this land via the Bering Straight about 12,000 years ago and settled in what’s now America but also migrated further south. His report explained that the use of reference populations whose genetic material has been fully sequenced was designed “for maximal accuracy.”
Bustamante said he can tease out the markers that these South Americans would have in common with Native Americans on the North American continent.
Bustamante also compared Warren’s DNA to white populations in Utah and Great Britain to determine if the amounts of Native American markers in Warren’s sample were significant or just background noise.
Warren has 12 times more Native American blood than a white person from Great Britain and 10 times more than a white person from Utah, the report found.
(added) After the story was published and widely shared on social media, The Globe issued a correction to its math:
Correction: Due to a math error, a story about Elizabeth Warren misstated the ancestry percentage of a potential 10th generation relative. It should be 1/1,024.
(added) The Globe then issued a second correction:
Correction: Due to a math error, a story about Elizabeth Warren misstated the ancestry percentage of a potential 6th to 10th generation relative. The generational range based on the ancestor that the report identified suggests she’s between 1/64th and 1/1,024th Native American.
On average, the scientists found, people who identified as African-American had genes that were only 73.2 percent African. European genes accounted for 24 percent of their DNA, while .8 percent came from Native Americans.
Latinos, on the other hand, had genes that were on average 65.1 percent European, 18 percent Native American, and 6.2 percent African. The researchers found that European-Americans had genomes that were on average 98.6 percent European, .19 percent African, and .18 Native American.
Here is the actual report results.
(added) It does not appear that Warren is making the original data available, only the interpretation of that data by the person she selected to review it. This is important, given the non-definitive conclusions even of Warren’s expert. It is possible that another expert reviewing the data could come to a different conclusion. And as the Globe notes, “Warren’s aides would not say whether she or any of her three siblings had previously done a commercial DNA test that would have provided them with some assurance about Bustamante’s analysis.”
Despite the weakness and speculative nature of the findings, media headlines are achieving Warren’s intended purpose of acting as if this is conclusive.
Where does this DNA test result leave us:
1. Warren still cannot point to any specific ancestor who was Native American.
2. Warren never lived as a Native American or associated with Native Americans.
3. Warren never claimed to be Native American until her late 30s.
4. Warren only used alleged Native American status for employment purposes, and stopped claiming that status when she got tenure at Harvard Law School.
5. There remains zero evidence Warren was a descendent of the Cherokee or Delaware tribes.
6. The DNA test does not prove Warren is Native American, at most there is “strong evidence” of a single ancestor dating back 6-10 generations, based on analysis that compares Warren’s DNA to numerous groups, including non-Native American groups.
7. The media headlines overstate the findings.
8. Warren almost certainly is running for president, and rolled out these findings in a highly controlled and slick production for that purpose.
NOTE [FS, 8/26/2019]: The Warren campaign scrubbed this video, but you can view it here:
[This post has been updated numerous times.]
The Cherokee Nation has issued a statement rejecting Warren’s attempt to use DNA evidence to prove she’s Native American:
“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,” Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin, Jr. said. “Sovereign tribal national 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 trial 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.”
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