The day before Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., released the results of her DNA test last fall, the Los Angeles Times revealed another prominent politician was embroiled in a controversy over false claims of Cherokee heritage. William Wages, the brother-in-law of House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., received $7.6 million in no-bid federal contracts by claiming to be Cherokee. But, as the Times reported, Wages has no documented Cherokee ancestry and, other than an uncorroborated tale of a Cherokee great-great-grandma, is white.
Normally racial identity theft – take the example of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who claimed she was “transracial” and therefore a black woman – is not socially acceptable. But Native identity seems an odd exception to this societal rule and is exploited by “pretendians,” or people pretending or claiming to be Native. Pretendians perpetuate the myth that Native identity is determined by the individual, not the tribe or community, directly undermining tribal sovereignty and Native self-determination. To protect the rights of Indigenous people, pretendians like Wages and Warren must be challenged, and the retelling of their false narratives must be stopped.
Sen. Warren’s presidential bid and the Wages scandal have sparked a national debate over using DNA testing and family lore to publicly claim Native identity or heritage without documentation or relationship to a tribe. Warren’s defenders argue she did nothing wrong by repeating her family’s story. Some leaders in Indian Country, too, have argued that the growing number of white people claiming distant, undocumented Cherokee ancestors should be counted as allies, not enemies.
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