Emily Larsen, DCNF
President Donald Trump, the Republican National Committee (RNC) and commentators said that Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren may have less Native American DNA than the average white American.
So Elizabeth Warren is *possibly* 1/1024 (0.09%) Native American.
Scientists say the average European-American is 0.18% Native American. (https://t.co/XU0l1JQO1L)
That’d make Warren even less Native American than the average European-American.
— Michael Ahrens (@michael_ahrens) October 15, 2018
“That’d make Warren even less Native American than the average European-American,” RNC spokesman Michael Ahrens said in a tweet Monday.
Pocahontas (the bad version), sometimes referred to as Elizabeth Warren, is getting slammed. She took a bogus DNA test and it showed that she may be 1/1024, far less than the average American. Now Cherokee Nation denies her, “DNA test is useless.” Even they don’t want her. Phony!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2018
“She took a bogus DNA test and it showed that she may be 1/1024, far less than the average American,” Trump tweeted Tuesday.
“And then they find out that she’s 1/1024th Native American … Which they say is less Native American than the average American,” Eric Trump, executive vice president of the Trump Organization, said on Fox News’ “Outnumbered” Friday.
The Daily Caller News Foundation decided to fact-check these claims.
Does Warren’s DNA test show that she has less Native American DNA that the typical white American?
The claims leave an extremely misleading impression. A large-scale study found that most European Americans don’t have DNA that shows Native American ancestry, while test results from Warren’s geneticist found that she has 10.5 times more than average in a sample of white people from Utah.
To support their claim, some have compared Warren’s estimated Native American ancestry to a study that reports average Native American DNA in European Americans. That comparison is based on a misunderstanding about genetics. The two figures are not comparable.
Warren, a former law professor at Harvard University who has been criticized for identifying as a Native American, released the results of a DNA test Monday that found “strong evidence” of at least one Native American ancestor six to 10 generations ago.
The Boston Globe said in a story about Warren’s DNA test Monday that the ancestor identified in the report means that she is between 1/64th and 1/1024th Native American. Percentage-wise, that would be between 1.56 percent and 0.10 percent.
The RNC, media outlets and commentators compared the 1/1024 (0.010 percent) figure to a 2014 study of genetics data from 23andMe customers that found that Americans who reported European ancestry had, on average, about 0.18 percent Native American DNA.
The comparison leaves the inaccurate impression that any white American has a good chance of having more Native American DNA than Warren.
Pundits Incorrectly Compare Genealogy To Genetics
The 1/64 to 1/1024 fractions represent genealogical Native American heritage, but they do not reveal what percentage of Warren’s DNA has Native American markers.
“It’s important to distinguish between genealogical ancestors and genetic ancestors,” Jennifer Raff, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kansas, told TheDCNF in an email.
Genealogical ancestors are related based on lines of family descent, while genetic ancestors have shared DNA with their descendants.
When people reference Native American ancestry in terms of fractions, they are referring to genealogical ancestry. This resembles the federal government’s controversial “blood quantum” standard that some tribes use to determine membership based on pedigree.
In Warren’s case, with one ancestor six to 10 generations back, she would be 1/64th to 1/1024th Native American in a genealogical or blood quantum sense, but not in terms of her DNA. Many focused on the lower 1/1024 figure and erroneously said that the lower bound of Warren’s Native American DNA was 0.10 percent.
But the percentage of DNA that family members share with their ancestors varies. “Not all of the DNA from your genealogical ancestors gets inherited equally, due to chance,” Raff said.
A person could share none of a 10th-generation ancestor’s autosomal DNA, or could share much more than 0.10 percent of it – even 1.5 percent or 1.7 percent, as Graham Coop, a professor in the College of Biological Sciences at the University of California- Davis, showed in a simulation. For a sixth-generation ancestor, that could be zero percent to 5.6 percent, Coop’s simulation showed.
Warren’s test results did not reveal what percentage of her DNA is of Native American origin.
Warren’s DNA Test Showed Stronger Native American Ancestry Than Average
Carlos Bustamante, a professor at Stanford University who specializes in population genetics, analyzed Warren’s DNA using samples from Mexico, Peru and Columbia to determine whether she has Native American ancestry. Native American groups within the U.S. have declined to provide DNA samples for studies, but the samples that Bustamante used show Native American origins because they descended from people who migrated from Asia to the Americas after the Ice Age.
Bustamante found that the vast majority of Warren’s DNA showed European ancestry, but five segments were Native American in origin. One particularly long segment of DNA indicated a Native American ancestor six to 10 generations ago.
In order to determine whether the amount of Native American DNA in Warren is unusually high relative to other people with European ancestry, Bustamante compared Warren’s DNA to DNA samples of people with European ancestry from Utah. Some of the people in the sample had Native American ancestry.
The total length of the Native American segments in Warren’s DNA was 10.5 times longer than the average length of Native American DNA in the Utah samples.
Experts cautioned, however, that the genetic makeup of European Americans is different in other geographic regions.
“There is variation in Native ancestry by white groups,” Razib Khan, director of scientific content at genetic ancestry company Insitome, told TheDCNF in an email. “Parts of the South would show WAY more average Native than you get from Utah Mormons. Warren would not be as exceptional in upcountry Mississippi, let alone Oklahoma.”
Still, the comparison against the Utah sample indicates that Warren has a significant amount of DNA of Native American origin for a European American. Khan said that while European Americans in other regions of the country might show more Native American DNA than the individuals in the Utah sample on average, it is probably not 10 times as much.
“No matter what classifier you use Warren should have 10x more Native ancestry than the typical white American with very little Native ancestry (levels which may be part of the background noise),” Kahn said.
“The evidence of Native American ancestry in her profile is greater than what you’d expect at random from someone of typical Northern European ancestry,” David Mittelman, a geneticist and entrepreneur who studied at Baylor college of medicine, told TheDCNF.
Study Found That Most European Americans Have No Native American DNA
The 2014 study of 23andMe customer data analyzed the proportion of Native American and African ancestry in the DNA of self-reported Latinos, African Americans and European Americans. On average, European Americans had 0.18 percent DNA of Native American origin, it found.
Citing that average can leave a misleading impression. “It looks like everybody came out with Native American ancestry, which is inaccurate,” Blaine Bettinger, a professional genealogist specializing in DNA evidence, told TheDCNF.
The study found that the majority of European Americans in its sample did not carry Native American ancestry. It found that 2.7 percent of European Americans had at least 1 percent DNA of Native American origin.
“If you randomly select a bunch of individuals, most of them are going to come back with no detectable Native American ancestry or Native American DNA,” Bettinger said. “The problem is, you only need one person that has a good amount, and all of a sudden the average for all of them is jacked up.”
Warren, then, has more DNA that shows Native American ancestry than what’s expected in a typical white American.
“The 23andMe study implies that most white Americans have 0 segments from Native Americans. So she definitely has more than most,” Daniel Falush, a research fellow in the Department of Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Bath, explained in an email.
Furthermore, attempts to compare Warren’s DNA test to the figures in the 23andMe study are not scientifically sound.
“One can’t compare 23 and Me’s 2014 report results to Bustamante’s report, because each used a very different method of analysis,” Raff said.
A direct comparison would require an analysis of Warren’s DNA using the methods in the 23andMe study. Those methods are proprietary and not public.
Native American Heritage Is Arguably Different Than Genetic Markers
While Warren’s DNA report shows that she has at least one Native American ancestor, it ultimately does not determine whether she is a Native American in a societal sense.
“There’s no ‘threshold’ of any genetic markers that makes one Native or non-Native; DNA is irrelevant to this issue,” Raff said. “Instead, what makes you Native American is connection, culture, and other social factors that are determined by communities themselves.”
The Cherokee Nation criticized Warren’s use of a DNA test to prove her Native American ancestry.
“Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens,” Cheokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement Monday. “Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”
Aherns also emphasized that Warren should not be considered Native American. “Whether it’s 1/64th Native American, 1/1024th Native American, or a relative who may have been Native American 6-10 generations ago, the bottom line is that Elizabeth Warren has, at most, a minuscule amount of Native American heritage. It’s obvious Warren had absolutely no right to claim minority status while she was climbing the professional ladder to the Ivy League,” he told TheDCNF.
The White House and Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment.
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