Sympathy for Elizabeth Warren

Okay, I admit it: I feel sorry for Elizabeth Warren. You’ve heard of her, of course. U.S. Senator from Massachusetts who’s claims of American Indian ancestry didn’t pan out, then doubled- down with a DNA test that showed a lower percentage of genetic markers attributed to American Indians than the average American. Dubbed Fauxcohantas, she has been made fun of by her political opponents, and admonished by no less than the Cherokee Nation itself. It’s all quite embarrassing, and it’s tempting to sit back and enjoy the schadenfreude of it all. Simply put, she’s probably as much of an American Indian as I am.

There hangs the tale, for, like her, there’s been rumors of possible American Indian ancestry in my family. I, and my family, have been asked more than once if we’re Cherokee. While American Indian ancestry is a rumor for my side of the family, my wife’s has one with a specific reputed American Indian ancestor. That’s much like Ms. Warren, who seems to have been told of two American Indian ancestors in her family tree. That she was told this is confirmed by other members of her family, who remember hearing the story as well. Instead of inventing the story, Ms. Warren likely repeated — and believed — what she had been told.

The big question is what happens when you fail to find proof. So far, I’ve yet to find hard genealogical proof of American Indian ancestry in my family tree. Most of the rumors surround an ancestor who outlived several wives, and if one was indeed an American Indian, chances favor that we didn’t descend from her. With my wife, a check of her ancestor has so far not yielded proof that she was an American Indian. Maybe she was; maybe we both have some American Indian ancestry. But so far I’ve found no hard proof of this. None. Nada. Zilch.

That didn’t keep me, before I looked, from at times mentioning that my wife’s side had an American Indian ancestor, and that there were rumors that mine did. That was said in good faith, just as I suspect that Ms. Warren did as well. But when you look at your ancestry and find that such isn’t confirmed, or refuted outright, then you’re faced with the hard fact that perhaps what we were told was mistaken.

At that point, it’s best to just face it and be done with it. I always looked at it that if I had American Indian ancestry, then fine, if not, well, that’s fine, too. Who our ancestors were doesn’t define who we are. Each of us stands or falls on our own reputation, not that of our ancestors, and whatever culture they had doesn’t define the one we live in today. Yet I can see where someone can get wrapped up in their ancestry, particularly if it shaped their view about themselves. That is way more common than we might think, and Robert Heinlein wrote a pithy comment about that. But if how we define ourselves is based on our ancestors, finding they weren’t who or what we thought they were can be hard to swallow. Yet it’s something anyone who wants to dig into their genealogy has to face.

Has Elizabeth Warren? Only she can answer that. The word on December 6, 2018, was that her advisers want her to apologize for her DNA test. That in itself is a poor choice of words –- how can a person apologize for a DNA test? Closer to the truth is likely suggesting she apologize for how she handled the results. Supposedly she still stands by her comments, even though what’s thought of as American Indian genetic markers are less than those found in the average American. Politically, that’s hilarious. Personally, that’s sad. My guess is that for her to do a mea culpa would be to acknowledge what she’d been told about her family, and what she believed, may not necessarily be so. That’s not always an easy thing to do.

Would I get one of those DNA tests to see? Doubt it. Not because of what it may reveal, but because of the question of what these companies do with your personal data. You can’t get more personal than your DNA. There’s also the issue of test accuracy In a test conducted by Inside Edition, identical triplets got different results from each other, and from each company where they sent a sample. That’s doesn’t inspire confidence.

Let’s suppose that I did and it came back with a greater than average percentage of American Indian genetic markers. The rumor about my side of the family claims a Cherokee ancestor (if you’re an American Indian, don’t snicker: the ancestor in the rumor lived long enough near Cherokee to make it somewhat plausible). Would that mean that the old rumors are correct, and I had a Cherokee ancestor? Not necessarily. American Indian genetic markers doesn’t show which American Indian tribe it came from. What it comes down to is that if you don’t have hard accepted documentation that an ancestor was a Cherokee, then you can’t really claim that they were.

That might sound a crummy, especially when I think of an actual full blooded Cherokee from North Carolina who’s family may not have been officially recorded as Cherokee. But the fact is, without a official record of Cherokee ancestry, there’s no proof an ancestor was a member of the Cherokee Nation. Maybe they were, but without official documentation, there’s no proof of that, which was the point I think the Cherokee Nation was making to Ms. Warren.

At best, Ms. Warren should have eaten her dish of crow when announcing the results. She could have said she acted in good faith, based on family stories, but that they didn’t hold up to genealogically or by genetic test. She could have made a statement that what she believed to be true wasn’t. She still could, but it would be harder now, and less than ideal politically. At worst, she can continue to cling to what’s been disproved and shown to be increasingly unlikely.

Whatever she chooses to do is her business. If she chooses to claim unproven ancestry, she’s going to be called Fauxcohantus by her opposition, much to the delight of conservatives.

If she does, this is one who won’t enjoy the spectacle, because it’s becoming increasing sad. She might not accept the DNA test results, or even her own genealogy, yet there they are. And I really do feel sorry for her. I suspect, for her, the ancestry she thought she had might have shaped how she defines herself. If she can’t accept the truth, redefine herself in terms of who she is, and move on, then that’s very sad, indeed.