After news that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) released DNA results showing that she had a distant Native American ancestor — something President Trump had dared her to do — White House counselor Kellyanne Conway dismissed the DNA test, calling it “junk science.”
“I haven’t looked at the test,” Conway told reporters Monday morning. “I know that everybody likes to pick their junk science or sound science depending on the conclusion, it seems some days.”
But is it junk science?
Jennifer Raff, an assistant professor in the anthropology department at the University of Kansas, said the geneticist who analyzed Warren’s DNA is a prominent scholar in the field, and the method he used and the way he used it was appropriate. Raff, who has read the report, said the geneticist looked at Warren’s chromosomes and was able to trace segments of them back to a Native American ancestor about six to 10 generations ago.
“The approach he took was solid,” she said, “and I would trust these results. However, they only speak to ancestry, not tribal affiliation or identity as a Native American.”
Experts said the geneticist, Carlos D. Bustamante, analyzed Warren’s genome, looking at genetic markers inherited from her ancestors, and was able to determine which groups her DNA came from. The process, known as chromosome mapping, is the same one used in commercial DNA tests, but Raff, with the University of Kansas, said Bustamante’s approach scrutinized the information more closely.
Warren released her DNA test results to the Boston Globe, which reported that the test shows “strong evidence’’ that she had a Native American ancestor.
According to the Boston Globe, Bustamante discovered that Warren’s ancestors were largely European but 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.
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.”
How to interpret the results, experts said, is a separate matter.
“The real question is not whether she has a Native American ancestor — the question is what does this mean?” Raff, with the University of Kansas, said about Warren’s DNA test results.
“It’s important to know that DNA ancestry and heritage are not the same thing as tribal affiliation or cultural identity,” she said, adding: “I also think it’s important that Senator Warren is not making the claim that she belongs to a tribe or identifies as a Native American; she’s just talking about her family’s history. I think she’s talking about this appropriately, but as a geneticist I want to stress this point: No DNA test can tell you whether or not you’re Native American.”
Native American identity is based not on genetics but on culture and history. Kim TallBear, Canada research chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience and Environment at the University of Alberta, called Warren’s claims “yet another strike” against “tribal sovereignty.”
“She and much of the U.S. American public privilege the voices of (mostly white) genome scientists and implicitly cede to them the power to define Indigenous identity,” TallBear said about the senator in a statement.
“Tribal governments establish regulations that do not use genetic ancestry tests, but other forms of biological and political relationships to define our citizenries. Indigenous definitions of who we are continue to be background noise in Democrat vs. Republic party warring,” TallBear said. “Warren’s attention continues to be focused on settler state electoral politics and not good relationships with Indigenous communities.”
In July, Trump took aim at Warren’s claims that she is of Native American ancestry, telling his supporters at a campaign rally that he would give $1 million to the senator’s chosen charity as soon as she took a DNA test and it showed she was right. Trump said he would give Warren, who is rumored to be a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, a test kit during the debate.
“I’m going to get one of those little kits and in the middle of the debate, when she proclaims that she’s of Indian heritage because her mother said she has high cheekbones — that’s her only evidence, that her mother said she has high cheekbones,” Trump told the crowd in Montana. “And we will very gently take that kit, slowly toss it, hoping it doesn’t hit her and injure her arm, even though it only weighs probably 2 ounces, and we will say, ‘I will give you a million dollars to your favorite charity, paid for by Trump, if you take the test and it shows you’re an Indian.’
"And we’ll see what she does. I have a feeling she will say no, but we will hold it for the debates.”
Warren wrote Monday morning on social media that she had not forgotten Trump’s promise.
Trump, however, denied that he ever said it.
When asked Monday whether he had heard that Warren released her DNA test results, Trump said, “Who cares?”
“I didn’t say that,” the president said when asked about his million-dollar promise. “You’d better read it again.”