This week, eight Democratic hopefuls for the presidential candidate nomination went to National Congress of American Indians. Many Tahlequah residents have at some point attended the NCAI because it is the largest prestigious gathering of tribal leaders nationwide.
Donald Trump has vowed to have fun at the expense of Elizabeth Warren in New Hampshire, reviving the "Pocahontas" taunt. Remember when Warren took a DNA test and her profile came back with about a percentage point of Native American ancestry? Everything about that exchange bothered me: Pocahontas wasn’t Cherokee, thus the childish bully taunt exposes Trump’s ignorance about continental history. When used as a slur, it bodes poorly for Native Americans to escape the seemingly boundless generosity of the president’s racial monoculturalism. One can be of Native American ancestry without any tribal affiliation. Cherokee Nation doesn’t ascribe to blood quantum restrictions for citizenship.
A DNA test doesn't rule out ancestry, but it isn’t expressed genetically. Warren’s test only proves she has Native American ancestry; it doesn’t prove that she is only 1 percent Native American. A member of the American Genetics Association explained to me that, in meiosis, chromosomes cross over randomly rather than imparting a direct one-to-one correlation expressing all ancestors’ genetics proportionally. Tribes go extinct when they set mathematical blood quantum restrictions for citizenship. This isn’t literally "the amount of Indian blood in your body." All blood carries DNA from some of our ancestors. Not all ancestors are "represented" in a given person’s DNA. Blood quantum is a legal fiction that alienates descendants of assimilated citizens – a cultural retention strategy.
Various indigenous nations have differing affiliation requirements. Cherokees require an ancestor on the Dawes Rolls, which isn’t a perfect snapshot of who was Indian in the Cherokee Nation between 1893 and 1907. Old Settlers, absentees, bigamists, tri-racial persons, intermarrieds and others were excluded from the Dawes Rolls.
Cherokees could be excited about the 19-point plan Sen. Warren rolled out this week with co-author U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of Laguna Pueblo. They want to end violence against Indian women. Cherokee Nation received a VAWA grant in the past, and created the most progressive tribal laws in the U.S. to address offender mental health rage assessment screening, victim safety-oriented bail restrictions, and job protection for crime victims missing work to testify in court.
As an attorney involved in cases of this nature, I’ve often wished all parents had parenting classes. I’ve wished for more and better domestic violence screening. I’ve wanted early restorative intervention. These are programs Cherokee Nation could expand under the “Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act.” Warren and Haaland will be asking Congress to fund safe drinking water and rural electricity. If passed, tribes could be free from overarching federal cannabis policies, exercising self-determinism over its regulation in Indian Country.
Warren won the endorsement of one of only two Native American women serving in Congress when she teamed up with Haaland to solve shortfalls in funding for Indian Country. Haaland said, “Warren has always made it a priority to ensure the legislation she writes and speaks on is good for Native communities,” and “Indian Country needs strong allies like Elizabeth Warren whose unwavering commitment to Native American communities and Native American women and children are needed in this political era.”
Warren is edging up in the polls behind Biden and Sanders. Her apologies for stating her Native American ancestry are well-taken; she is showing up with a plan. Every time I hear Trump’s "Pocahontas" charge, I’ll relish, “Solutions for Indian Country.”
Kathy Tibbits is a Cherokee citizen, attorney and artist living at Lake Tenkiller.