This is an important topic and the job of genealogists who work with DNA test results is to step up to help educate those who don't study this fascinating science.
I can't speak to why Sen. Elizabeth Warren listed herself as Native American or a minority back in the 1980s. Those are questions for her to answer. But, based on this, it's very clear that her family lore had long recognized the Cherokee ancestor they believed to be in the family.
She was challenged to take the test by DJT, and she did so in August. Why did she release the results now? Probably because it took this long for the people hired to study her results – which were kept anonymous to the researchers – needed that much time to complete the work. This situation required a whole different process than simply sending a kit in to a commercial testing company.
Dr. Bustamante (who is an expert in the field of human DNA) reported that he did find a significant amount of her DNA that could be identified to Native ancestry. In this case, "significant" doesn't have to be a lot. The segment was small, but it was large enough on which to base his conclusion.
In my own research, my early DNA results showed a tiny percentage – about the same amount as the Senator's NA – of European Jewish. That was a surprise to me. I don't believe my father or his siblings even knew this. The revelation led me to start looking for answers. I was fortunate enough to have a research cousin who had kept letters written to his dad by one of his dad's aunts. (Also my dad's aunt.)
In one of those letters, written in 1953, Emma Hackett Eilber tells a nephew about the family's German Jewish heritage. Turns out, one of my 16 great-great-grandparents was Jewish. I trust this information, because Emma KNEW these people personally. They were her grandparents. Now my quest is to find evidence that might support this.
So, does this mean I should start taking Hebrew lessons? Well, no, not really. I wasn't raised Jewish. BUT, knowing it's part of my heritage makes me very interested in learning more. I'm thrilled to have even a tiny bit of diversity in my family tree.
But these types of discoveries are what makes the DNA testing so interesting. And it's important to keep in mind that you still need traditional genealogical research to verify this information and put it into proper perspective.
In my opinion, knowing this does not mean the Senator will claim to be Cherokee. But, she and her family clearly embrace their Cherokee heritage. I see nothing wrong with this; knowing these things about our heritage is what drives us to do this research in the first place.
Plus, to be recognized as a member of one of the Five Tribes, a person must show they have a much-closer Native American ancestor than where that falls in Sen. Warren's lineage. I'm not sure exactly, but I think it has to be one-fourth to one-eighth, which would mean a grandparent or great-grandparent.
Now, here's an interesting twist: The chances, actually, are very low that I would inherit known Jewish DNA and the Senator would inherit known NA DNA from ancestors that many generations back.
For example, I have tested both of my sisters. Neither of them showed any of the Jewish DNA that I had inherited. That's because we all inherit different pieces from our parents, who inherited different pieces of DNA from THEIR parents and so on.
Most white American families have a story about Native ancestors. There's a reason for this, and it's called the Dawes Act, which is a topic for another post. There was federal legislation passed around the end of the 1800s that – if you could prove blood-relationship to one of the Five Civilized Tribes, the government would give you land. So, everyone and his brother applied for this program. Some were proven legitimate, others were proven false.
Knowing this, I believe the majority of those family stories are just that. Stories. That was a rumor in my family, too, that one of my great-grandmothers was Native American. There is nothing in my DNA results, or those of my sisters, to indicate that's even remotely true. Because she is only three generations back from us, if she were full Native American, one of us would have inherited that DNA.
Can DNA prove or disprove? Well, again, it depends on how many generations back and if you or a family member inherited that particular segment of DNA. If it's there, then it's true.
On the other hand, if it's not there, it could still be true.
We've come a long, long, long way in just a few short years in understanding DNA and how we can use it for family history. It's not a perfect science, but in time, it will only become stronger.
In the meantime, here is a great Twitter thread that shows how the writer of an opinion piece for a national newspaper made assumptions that promotes really bad information about what DNA does and doesn't do.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me. I love to share my knowledge on this topic, and I would be happy to help!