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Delaware Lenape chief: Elizabeth Warren exploring her Native American roots isn't all bad
Jessica Bies, Delaware News Journal Published 3:41 p.m. ET Oct. 18, 2018 | Updated 4:04 p.m. ET Oct. 18, 2018
https://www.delawareonline.com/story/ne … 682264002/
Responding to years of derision by President Donald Trump, Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a report on a DNA analysis that provides strong evidence she does have Native American heritage. She also released a campaign-style video about the DNA test.
While some tribal leaders have condemned Sen. Elizabeth Warren for publicizing DNA results confirming her Native American heritage, the principal chief of Delaware's Lenape Indian Tribe said paying tribute to your ancestors isn't a bad thing.
â€œSomeone who is proud of having that native ancestor â€” no matter what percentage or what degree it is â€” in my view, is a person I honor," Chief Dennis Coker said, describing some of his own tribe members' reluctance to do the same because they've traditionally been discriminated against.
â€œI do honor those that shed the idea that itâ€™s something to not be proud of," Coker said. "I honor people who are seeking their roots."
Coker's views put him at odds with the Cherokee Nation, who this week slammed Warren's DNA test as "inappropriate and wrong." Coker wasn't surprised by their stance, he said.
They've questioned the legitimacy of the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware, too, which is recognized by the state but not the federal government.
â€œThe Cherokee view themselves as the Indian identity police," Coker said. "Theyâ€™re the first ones to call out anybody that they donâ€™t think is legitimate, whether they're legitimate or not.
"Unfortunately for Elizabeth Warren, she claimed a Cherokee connection, and she ruffled some feathers out there."
Why did Warren take the test?
Warren has long claimed Native American ancestry, citing family stories as proof and listing herself as Native American in law school directories.
The test sought to clarify the issue and rebut President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly referred to Warren as "Pocahontas."
The Massachusetts Democrat and potential 2020 presidential contender challenged Trump to make good on his pledge to donate $1 million to charity if she provided proof of Native American heritage, a moment that was caught on video.
Trump falsely denied ever making the offer and later said he would donate the money only if he can personally administer the genetic test.
What exactly did the test results say?
Sen. Elizabeth Warren's past claims of Native American heritage have caused her headaches and ridicule.
The results provide some evidence that a Native American is in Warren's bloodline, though the ancestor probably lived six to 10 generations ago, according to the analysis.
An ancestor six generations removed would make Warren 1/64th Native American while an ancestor as much as 10 generations removed would render the Massachusetts Democrat only 1/1,024th Native American, according to Blaine Bettinger, a genealogist and author who specializes in DNA evidence.
What qualifies as Native American?
The nation's 573 federally recognized tribes do not have a single standard for determining membership. Tribes such as the Cherokee Nation use lineal descent, meaning a person is Cherokee if an ancestor is listed on an original tribal roll regardless of their amount of Indian blood. Descendants of enslaved black people the Cherokee once owned are also members of the tribe.
Citizenship in the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware requires at least one-quarter of an individualâ€™s bloodline to be 100 percent Cheswold-area Lenape, Coker said.
What do Native Americans say?
In the largest study of its kind conducted so far, researchers at 23andMe and Harvard University published the results of a genetic analysis of ancestry among the American people. (Photo: Francois Duckett, AP)
Warren was born in Oklahoma, which is home to 39 tribes and where more than 7 percent of the population identifies as Native American, one of the highest proportions in the nation.
Some of the Lenape or Delaware Indian Tribe resettled there when they were pushed out of the Delaware River Basin by Europeans, though Coker's tribe remained on their ancestral lands in Cheswold.
Warren's not a member of any tribe, and many Native Americans take exception to anyone who claims to be part Indian without being enrolled in a tribe, especially for political purposes.
Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said DNA tests are useless to determine tribal citizenship and don't distinguish whether a person's ancestors were indigenous to North or South America.
"Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong," he said Monday. "Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage."
Opinion on Warren was not monolithic, however.
The chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians issued a statement Tuesday saying that the senator had not tried to "appropriate" Indian culture.
The tribe described her as an "ally" who had sponsored legislation to prevent Indian suicides, to identify missing and murdered Native American women and to help tribes reacquire lost lands.
Coker thinks celebrating genetic diversity is good and that some of the controversy over Warren may be overblown.
"I've never heard Elizabeth Warren say she is an enrolled member of any tribe," Coker said. "I've never heard Elizabeth Warren say she intended to apply for enrollment in any tribe."
â€œI run into people every day that say, 'I have a grandmother who was Indian,'" Coker said. "And nine times out of 10 that grandmother that was Indian was a Cherokee princess. So itâ€™s not unusual, and I donâ€™t think it will ever be unusual for people to acknowledge that they may have some kind of connection to some tribe somewhere."
"In this age of ancestry.com, people are discovering that they do have these connections, and they may be very minute like apparently, Elizabeth Warrenâ€™s blood quantum is. I don't have a problem with that."
Coker wasn't unilaterally in favor of Warren despite that. If the senator got academic scholarships for being Native American as rumored, he would disapprove. That money should be reserved for people with an official tribal affiliation, he said.
â€œIf she did apply for that money, I do fault her for that, because she certainly should know better," Coker said. "But I don't know that's a fact."
Associated Press writers Sean Murphy and Bob Salsberg contributed to this story.