The First DNA Test as Political Stunt

“Who cares,” the president said about Senator Elizabeth Warren’s results.

Elizabeth Warren talking into a microphone
Brian Snyder / Reuters

Has there ever been such an elaborate rollout for the results of a DNA test?

On Monday morning, Elizabeth Warren—Massachusetts senator, likely presidential candidate—unveiled a web page with five videos featuring interviews of family, friends, students, former colleagues, and the Stanford geneticist Carlos Bustamante. Republicans have for years accused Warren, a Democrat, of faking American Indian ancestry to advance her career. (There is no evidence she professionally benefited from it.) On the matter of her DNA, Bustamante tells her in the video, “the facts suggest that you absolutely have a Native American ancestor in your pedigree.”

So here we are: A national politician has taken a DNA test to prove her heritage. To which President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly mocked Warren as “Pocahontas,” responded on Monday, “Who cares?”

It was Trump himself who purported to care. At a July rally, he said he’d toss Warren a DNA kit, even suggesting he would donate a million dollars to charity if she took it. (Trump today: “I didn’t say that. Nope, you better read it again.”) In 2016, Scott Brown, a Republican who lost his Massachusetts Senate seat to Warren, told reporters she should take a DNA test to prove her American Indian heritage.

Amid all these previous appeals to the supposed objectivity of DNA, experts repeatedly pointed out that genetics are not a final arbiter of American Indian identity. Tribal enrollment is based on tracing family directly to members of a tribe. Bustamante’s analysis found that Warren had enough DNA markers common in indigenous Americans that she likely had an ancestor six to 10 generations back, but DNA alone cannot identify those ancestors. Commercial tests like AncestryDNA that offer similarly vague results have been a recent source of frustration for tribal-enrollment offices.

“Members of the public have been showing up to tribal-enrollment offices and showing them ancestry DNA tests. And they’re like, ‘I don’t know what this is. Who are you trying to link?’” Kim TallBear, a professor at the University of Alberta, told me earlier this year. If you can’t find a living relative in a tribe, she added, what connection is there really? TallBear has commented before on the problems of using a DNA test to prove Warren is Cherokee.

With that in mind, Warren’s video tries to strike a careful balance. “I’m not enrolled in a tribe, and only tribes determine tribal membership. I understand and respect that distinction,” she says. She does not explicitly call herself American Indian or Native American, instead framing Trump’s attacks as hurtful because they made her mother out to be a liar.

Warren did not take a commercially available DNA test, but the analysis was done in a similar manner. A private lab in Georgia tested her sample, according to The Boston Globe, and Bustamante, a geneticist who has consulted for DNA-testing companies such as 23andMe, AncestryDNA, and Helix, analyzed the raw data. He compared more than 600,000 markers in her DNA with a database of people who live around the world.

Geneticists, however, have historically had a fraught relationship with American Indian tribes, and few members in North America have given samples for these databases. Instead, Bustamante compared Warren’s DNA with that of indigenous peoples in Mexico, Colombia, and Peru. Critics of Warren have already seized on this to question the validity of her DNA test—ironically, mirroring some of the skepticism of those who have been criticizing Republicans’ insistence that Warren get a DNA test all along.

Appeals to DNA’s authority have gone as far as they are politically convenient. When a gaggle of reporters asked Kellyanne Conway about Warren’s DNA test on Monday, she seemed to acknowledge as much: “I know that everybody likes to pick their junk science or sound science depending on the conclusion.”

The videos that Warren unveiled along with her DNA test also feature interviews with students and former colleagues attesting to her abilities as a teacher. Her web page links to a trove of employment documents showing ethnicity was not a factor in her professional rise. The point of all this is to counter the underlying charge that she benefited professionally from identifying as American Indian. By coincidence, the Los Angeles Times published a story Sunday that the family of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, benefited from a program for minorities despite disputed ancestry.

In his attacks, Trump has managed two unprecedented political feats, getting Elizabeth Warren to take a DNA test and Barack Obama to release his birth certificate. Does the proof actually matter? Who does care?