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Determining Who Is A Cherokee Is More Than DNA, Hoskin Says


Let's hear some facts underlying the ugly political claims about Senator Elizabeth Warren's ancestry. President Trump refers to the Massachusetts senator as Pocahontas, mocking her for citing family ties to Cherokees. He offered a million dollars if Warren took a DNA test - a payment the president is refusing now that she has. Warren says the test shows Native ancestry, but her announcement brought criticism from the Cherokee Nation. And that prompted a celebratory statement from the president this morning, who took the opportunity to call Warren Pocahontas again. So what did the Cherokees themselves really think? Earlier, we reached Chuck Hoskin Jr., secretary of state of the Cherokee Nation, who called in from Vinita, Okla.

I just want to note for people who maybe don't follow this every day, remind people, that the Cherokee Nation is a sovereign nation. It's been around since before the United States. And you have people who live within, of course, the United States. How do you determine today who is and isn't Cherokee?

CHUCK HOSKIN: Well, first of all, we - DNA is completely irrelevant to the process, but our process is essentially that a person living today would need to trace back to a turn-of-the-20th-century census of Cherokees living in what was to become northeast Oklahoma that's known as the Dawes Rolls - D-A-W-E-S. That roll exists. A person can trace back to it. If you trace back to that and document that proof through things like birth certificates, death records, then you can establish yourself as a Cherokee citizen. And we now have 365,000 citizens in the country, most of whom live in our territory in northeast Oklahoma and the surrounding area. But we have citizens all over the country. We're the largest tribe in the country. We have a very rigorous process, and it's about documentation and tracing back...

INSKEEP: Documentation.

HOSKIN: ...To that Dawes Rolls - yes.

INSKEEP: Genealogy in a sense.


INSKEEP: Back to people who were legally part of the Cherokee Nation at one time. Why is DNA irrelevant to that?

HOSKIN: Well, DNA, at best, will tell you if there are markers in your genetic code that trace you to native peoples in North America and South America. It's not going to tie you to a particular group of native peoples from a particular tribe. Keep in mind, as you noted, Indian tribes in this country are sovereign nations. We existed before the United States was in existence. And so as a sovereign nation, we can determine our own citizenship rules and laws. Of course, those are tied in part to federal treaties. But this is a legal status, a political status, not a genetic status. And that is very important for folks in this country to understand and it's one of the reasons we're concerned about it.

INSKEEP: But let's talk about what Elizabeth Warren said. She specifically said I'm not enrolled in a tribe. She says I have Native ancestry, and she's one of a lot of people who will say, well, a family story says I have some Indian blood and people who apparently can take a DNA test. Does it bother you when someone like Elizabeth Warren says I'm not a member of a tribe, but I have Indian ancestry?

HOSKIN: It does. I mean, first of all, it - I don't begrudge anybody for having family stories or being curious about their DNA. But you have to take Senator Warren's statements in the larger context. I mean, she has told stories about being a Cherokee, hearing those stories growing up and then she is in a back and forth with the president of the United States, of course, who's taken some personal shots at her for her family story. And then we're now at the point where she's taken a DNA test, and this, I think, muddies the waters for a lot of Americans on a subject that they don't know a great deal about. So that's what the concern is, is that we are a sovereign nation, we have a very specific means by which you are a Cherokee citizen. That's true of all Indian nations. And for a senator in this context of this ongoing back-and-forth political fight to talk about DNA, it really undermines tribal interest, frankly, because we're a sovereign nation.

INSKEEP: But - well, there's a couple of questions that are raised by that - one of them general, one of them specific. And the general question is just about the really large number of people that many of us have encountered in everyday life who say they have some Native ancestry. Are they taking advantage of you in some way by not being members of the Cherokee Nation or whatever nation but saying that they have this background?

HOSKIN: Well, often it is about appropriating our identity and our culture. You know, we fought long and hard for this status. It's a legal status that was nearly extinguished by the government of the United States. It's a legal status that we use to fight for the rights of Native children, to protect our lands. And when someone comes in and boasts that they took a DNA test so they're Indian, we think that erodes what it means to be a Native American in this country, even if they don't claim a specific tribal nation citizenship.

INSKEEP: Then there's the specific question of Elizabeth Warren. You mentioned that she has been criticized by President Trump, who's referred to her as to Pocahontas, who challenged her to take some kind of DNA test. Should she not be able to respond to that at all?

HOSKIN: I don't think she should go down to the level of that kind of name-calling and that kind of attack. What we want from leaders of this country is people to advocate and fight for Indian country, to understand our issues. She's in a great position to have a positive impact on the Indian country. That's where her focus should be. The president of the United States should not be calling her Pocahontas. He should be looking at what the needs of Indian country are because the needs are there. We need folks in Washington to listen to that and to stand up for us.

INSKEEP: OK. So what's wrong with the president of the United States calling her Pocahontas then?

HOSKIN: Well, we think that it's - Pocahontas, first of all, was a real person that had a real identity with a real tribe. And if you listen to the tone, it's a very derisive tone. I think it's a political back and forth that has little to do with the interest of Native Americans in this country. It has more to do with a political spat. So I don't think he does what he ought to do as the president to take the opportunity to talk about Indian country instead of just attacking a senator.

INSKEEP: Well, Mr. Hoskin, thanks very much, really appreciate it.

HOSKIN: Thank you very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: Chuck Hoskin is the secretary of state of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.