DNA and Identity

I’ve had identity on my mind lately, apropos of the news last week that Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, took a DNA test that confirmed her Native American ancestry. As the test showed, she probably had a single Native American ancestor six to ten generations ago, corroborating the stories about her family’s history that she’d heard growing up. This makes her some percentage Native American—a small one, but probably more than most white Americans of predominantly European ancestry, according to the science writer Carl Zimmer. And while the test supports some amount of indigenous ancestry, there’s no way to tell if her ancestor was Cherokee, as she believes according to family lore, because tribe-specific DNA tests don’t exist. Moreover, she has been justifiably criticized for affirming a link with a heritage to which she has no cultural connection. For Native Americans, in particular, the question of tribal membership is politically and historically fraught, with real consequences for sovereignty and distribution of resources. Different tribes have different citizenship requirements, which often, but not exclusively, take into account one’s ancestry. The Cherokee Nation reacted to Warren’s DNA results by calling them “inappropriate” and “useless to determine tribal citizenship.” And Kim Tallbear, a professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta and the author of a book on Native Americans and the uses of DNA, said Warren’s stunt is another example of “Non-Indigenous Americans…making claims to all things Indigenous.”


Warren isn’t asserting Native American identity right now, although she has in the past. At some point in the 1980s, she self-identified as a “minority” in a directory of American law professors, which prompted the University of Pennsylvania, and later Harvard Law School, to classify her as Native American. It was an ill-advised move for which she should take responsibility and gravely apologize.

While DNA is material within our genes that determines what we look like and shapes many of our characteristics, identity is a social category based in family relationships, history, politics, and experience. But the two are often conflated, as illustrated by the popularity of genetic testing sites such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com, which invites visitors to “[t]ake a DNA test and uncover your origins.” It may be a fun game to find out which geographic populations your DNA most closely matches, but without additional context and lived experiences, they’re no more meaningful to our personal stories than random places on a map.

We have long been fascinated by the idea that our bodies can offer some truth about who we really are, that within our blood and bones reside clues about ourselves that are only accessible through careful scientific measurement. Identity, in this construction, is something to be uncovered. It’s especially precarious when this knowledge is related to race or ethnicity, and our genes are then perceived as a way to definitively locate this information within the body. But our DNA, our blood types and our physiologic markers are merely data that are assigned meaning through social context. My genes may have given me dark hair, brown eyes and a taste for bitter foods, but the importance ascribed to these traits and how they shape my life are social phenomena. Even markers for diseases such as Huntington’s or Parkinson’s may tell us our risk of developing a particular malady, but they are infinitely less useful in predicting our experience of illness, which is shaped by social relations. Our bodies may offer us all kinds of information about our health, and DNA can tell us who our ancestors might have been. But it doesn’t tell us anything about what it means to identify as a member of a community, a process shaped by history, family, and the experiences one accumulates during one’s lifetime.