Elizabeth Warren, Settler Colonialism, and the Limits of Democratic Citizenship

by Adam Dahl, author of Empire of the People; Settler Colonialism and the Foundations of Modern Democratic Thought

In my recently published book, Empire of the People, I trace the ideological development of American democratic thought in the context of settler colonialism, a distinct form of colonialism aimed at the appropriation of native land rather than the exploitation of native labor. Specifically, it traces how the ideological disavowal of indigenous dispossession laid the foundations of American democracy, and in doing so profoundly shaped key concepts in modern democratic thought such as consent, constituent power, citizenship, social equality, popular sovereignty, and federalism. Through engagement with a complex array of authors such as Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John O’Sullivan, Walt Whitman, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Francis Lieber, and William Apess, I argue that norms of modern democratic legitimacy acquired their conceptual coherence and foundational logics from the erasure of settler conquest. Not only was American democratic society founded upon settler colonialism, the boundaries of democratic peoplehood and the intelligibility of “the people” as a subject of rule in American democratic thought emerged through the elimination of indigenous peoples.

Although the book is largely a historical interpretation that ends around the Reconstruction period with Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas (1871), the recent controversy over Elizabeth Warren’s genetic test proving her Cherokee identity has led me to rethink the book’s relevance in our contemporary moment, what experts of federal Indian law often refer to as the era of self-determination. After months of harassment and the hurling of ethnic slurs from the bigot-in-chief – who often berates Warren by calling her “Pocahontas” – the Massachusetts Senator released the results of a DNA test on October 15 showing that she may have had one Native American ancestor anywhere from six to eight generations back. Indigenous peoples across North America have rightly called foul. Senator Warren’s use of DNA testing, among other things, essentializes tribal identification as a form of ethnicity and uses non-indigenous standards to define indigenous identity. The very idea of native DNA testing partakes in a long settler-colonial legacy of using genetic technologies to control and curtail indigenous citizenship.

Due to the time frame of the book, I was unable to consider the main thesis in light of more contemporary currents of democratic thought championing “cultural pluralism” and “multiculturalism” as a way of ensuring the inclusive bases of liberal democratic citizenship in the twentieth century. In David Hollinger’s vision of Postethnic America, for instance, a pluralist and multicultural democracy would foster shared citizenship in a civic nation while also affirming the right of citizens to identify with distinct racial and ethnic groups. Crucial to this vision of pluralist democratic citizenship is the ability of individuals to voluntarily self-identify with ethnic groups. Such a vision of voluntary membership combines the deep appreciation of racial and ethnic diversity with a shared sense of national identity.

Citizenship in indigenous communities, however, is determined through a complex mixture of tribal law and custom, ritual practice, kinship connections, ancestral relations, and responsibilities to the land. The liberal-multicultural ideal of citizenship as voluntary membership stands in inherent tension with this more complex understanding of indigenous citizenship. It is what allows Elizabeth Warren and millions of others filling out census forms to “self-identify” as Native American by checking a box or paying $100 for genetic screening. Proclamations of an era of indigenous self-determination notwithstanding, Warren’s announcement of her self-defined Cherokee heritage both draws from this cultural pluralist strand of thinking and in doing so reveals the settler colonial and dispossessive logics of liberal democratic citizenship in its multicultural vein.

Of course, this ideal of liberal citizenship where members of different ethnic groups voluntarily identify or dis-identify with this or that group is an understandable response to legacies of ascriptive hierarchy and civic exclusion in the United States in the form of immigration quotas, Chinese exclusion, residential segregation, forced sterilization, Japanese internment, Muslim bans, and prohibition of interracial marriage. Any democracy deserving of the name must prevent the ascription of racial and ethnic categories onto citizens without their consent so as to ensure the basic protections of equal rights and liberties.

But here one of the main points of Empire of the People might help us understand our present predicament. The politics of indigenous sovereignty and citizenship cannot be collapsed into the politics of ethnicity, race, and immigration precisely because indigeneity is a different political category than racial identity, ethnic affiliation, or migrant status. For this reason, critical indigenous theorists have warned against the “racialization” and “ethnicization” of indigenous peoples. When Indian nations are cast solely as internal, ethnic minority groups rather than as nations with a government-to-government relationship with the settler state, their ability to pursue their own sovereignty and self-determination diminishes. Where ethnic and racial groups often engage in civil rights struggles for inclusion in the constitutional architecture of liberal democracy, indigenous peoples seek to preserve their own political traditions through the protection of their status as sovereign, self-governing entities.

When we take the liberal democratic ideal of voluntary membership in identity-based groups and impute it onto indigenous peoples, there arises an inherent tension between modern democratic values and indigenous self-determination. Part of what self-determination means for indigenous peoples is not just the control of their own communal resources or the protection of cultural rights to language and land-use. Rather, it has always meant, and must continue to mean, that indigenous communities themselves must be in a position to determine their own communal self-identification, that is, their own standards of citizenship and membership.  But when we treat indigenous citizenship as membership in one among any other ethnic group – precisely as Elizabeth Warren has done – we erode the capacity of indigenous nations to define the boundaries of citizenship in their communities and thus to determine the identity of “the self” that rules in the name of self-determination. To the extent that Warren’s invocation of ethnic identity as a form of voluntary identification represents a crucial aspect of the meaning of citizenship in a multicultural cum settler society, it reveals the constitutive contradictions between contemporary liberal democratic ideals and indigenous sovereignty.

In 1953, Felix Cohen, a seminal expert on federal law, argued that the fate of American Indians indexes and indeed portends the fate of democracy in America: “It is a pity that so many Americans today think of the Indian as a romantic or comic figure in American history without contemporary significance. In fact, the Indian plays much the same role in our society that the Jews played in Germany. Like the miner’s canary, the Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians, even more than our treatment of other minorities, reflects the rise and fall in our democratic faith.” Cohen’s famous quip about “the miner’s canary” as a warning sign of the decline of “our democratic faith” suggests that the pursuit of indigenous rights and self-determination moves in tandem with modern liberal democracy.  As one diminishes, the other declines.

As I argue in my book, however, it is, at times, the democratic faith (and by implication the standards of liberal democratic citizenship) itself that undermines ongoing struggles for indigenous self-determination. The closing words of Empire of the People are perhaps relevant here: “Grappling with the foundational role of colonial dispossession in shaping modern democratic thought must lead to a reimagining of the democratic traditions and democratic identity. Unsettling democracy requires more than simply attaching more inclusionary frameworks of constitutional law to democratic institutions. It requires rethinking the theoretical and conceptual foundations of democratic practice in a way that critically confronts their ideological entwinement with the colonial legacies of native dispossession” (184).