Former Hillary Clinton campaign official Zerlina Maxwell lambasted the Cherokee Nation’s statement about Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) and argued the tribe has a past of excluding black Native Americans.
Warren has claimed to be a Cherokee in the past and this week released DNA test results showing she likely had a Native ancestor somewhere between six and 10 generations ago. She presented this as vindication of her past claims, but the tenuous connection between the results and actual Cherokee identity raised hackles, most notably from the Cherokee Nation itself, which issued a blistering statement calling the DNA test "useless."
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MSNBC Host Craig Melvin asked Maxwell on Thursday about Warren's decision to release the DNA test results and the ensuing backlash.
Maxwell, who said she's also part Cherokee, defended Warren by ripping into the Cherokee Nation’s "ridiculous" statement, arguing the tribe hasn't been inclusive enough.
"In terms of the Cherokee Nation statement, I found that to be ridiculous. I am also part Cherokee but I have not taken a DNA test. I am not trying to join a tribe or claim membership in a tribe and neither did Elizabeth Warren," Maxwell said. "So, to be clear, I think that while the rollout of the DNA test … may not have been the best method, I also think that the Cherokee Nation response was problematic because it actually ignores the fact that DNA testing historically has been used to exclude black Natives from tribal affiliation."
Warren is white and her genetic history is almost entirely European.
According to a report from Slate, a small number of Cherokee families owned black slaves and this has led to an outsized percentage of African Americans believing they are partly descended from Cherokee ancestors. DNA testing has shown many of these African Americans have no trace of Native American ancestry. However, as Kenneth Cooper wrote in the Washington Post, freed slaves of Cherokees are legally entitled to citizenship, which has met with resistance from the tribes.
Maxwell agreed the rollout of Warren's DNA test wasn’t "smooth."
"It wasn’t fully a smooth rollout of the DNA testing and the video, and it put to bed a lot of the controversy," Maxwell said. She went on to mischaracterize Trump as having said he would donate $1 million to the charity of Warren’s choice if she was any part Native American. (Trump told Warren he would pay the money if a DNA test "shows you're an Indian.")
Nevertheless, Maxwell said Warren’s move "sort of puts [Trump] on the defensive in some ways."
Warren’s campaign-style video and rollout of the DNA results initially received a positive media reaction, but things quickly turned south. Not only did the initial report miscalculate the range of Native American pedigree Warren might have, but Native groups such as the Cherokee Nation forcefully criticized her for misunderstanding Native identity. Melvin himself also joked he could be as Native American as Warren is because her ancestor is such a distant part of her family tree.