Publication Date

March 11, 2019

Perspectives Section




It was like clockwork. Every semester, a few white students in Julie Reed’s classes on US history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, would boast that they had Native American heritage. “They all descend from full-blooded Cherokee great-grandmothers,” Reed quipped during the late-breaking session “Rapid Response History: Native American Identities, Racial Slurs, and Elizabeth Warren” at the AHA annual meeting in Chicago. “Or maybe it’s their great-great grandmothers? Or maybe it’s a great-great-great . . .”

Elizabeth Warren announced her candidacy for the 2020 US presidency at a February 2019 rally in Lawrence, MA.

Elizabeth Warren announced her candidacy for the 2020 US presidency at a February 2019 rally in Lawrence, MA. Elizabeth Warren/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Reed, who recently joined the history department at Penn State, would always probe her students further: Were they connected to the Eastern Band, the United Keetoowah Band, or the Cherokee Nation? She generally received blank stares. It was clear to her that the students didn’t know the differences between the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes, or even that they existed at all. And not one of these students, she noted, had ever reached out to a tribal community to help verify their ancestry.

The “I Have a Native Ancestor” American folktale—as the AHA19 panelists described it—can be traced back to the 19th century. But Reed and five other indigenous scholars had convened at AHA19 to discuss a more recent high-profile example of the trope: US Senator Elizabeth Warren and her repeated assertions that she is of Native American descent. Utilizing their collective expertise on issues of Native identity, kinship, and sovereignty, the scholars argued during the session that Warren’s ancestry claims are problematic.

Less than a week before the session, Warren had announced that she was forming an exploratory committee to run for president. (Warren has since confirmed her candidacy for the country’s highest office, and journalists recently uncovered a 1986 registration card for the State Bar of Texas on which Warren identified herself as “American Indian.”) “We are now explicitly debating the relevance of American Indian identity to the 2020 presidential election,” explained participant Malinda Maynor Lowery (Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. “While we organized this panel knowing that American Indians are always relevant to American politics, we did not necessarily anticipate this particular urgency,” she continued.

Controversy over the Massachusetts senator’s claims can be traced back to April 2012, when the Boston Herald revealed that Harvard Law School, when Warren was on the faculty decades earlier, had touted her as Native American. Journalists, however, could find no records of this heritage. While Warren denied that she had ever used minority status to her professional advantage, she insisted that her Indian links were real. According to Warren family lore, her parents had been forced to elope in Depression-era Oklahoma because of prejudice against her mother’s Cherokee and Delaware ancestry.

“We are now explicitly debating the relevance of American Indian identity to the 2020 presidential election.”

Six years later, in October 2018, just a few months before the annual meeting, Warren released DNA test results and a report analyzing those results by Carlos D. Bustamante, a professor in the biomedical data science department at Stanford University. In the report, Bustamante concluded that the results of Warren’s DNA analysis “strongly support the existence of an unadmixed Native American ancestor . . . likely in the range of 6–10 generations ago.” In conjunction with DNA test results, a group called ElizabethForMA released a short video, narrated by Warren and her family, called “Elizabeth Warren’s Family Story,” about her Native American heritage. At the end of the video, Warren says, “I am not enrolled in a tribe, and only tribes determine tribal citizenship. I understand and respect that distinction. But my family history is my family history.”

Doug Kiel, an assistant professor of history at Northwestern University and a citizen of the Oneida Nation, explained at the session why that final sentence of Warren’s statement betrays a deep misunderstanding of Native nationhood. “Even though histories of colonialism have made our processes of defining citizenship messy, complicated, painful, and even racist,” he said, “Native nations have a fundamental right to weigh in when one makes a claim to kinship.” The Cherokee Nation, for its part, does not recognize Warren as kin, just as it has never recognized DNA test results as a qualification for enrollment. Kiel argued that Warren’s actions, unwittingly or not, reinforce notions that tribes are merely racial genetic groups.

Jean O’Brien-Kehoe’s talk built upon Kiel’s. A professor of history at the University of Minnesota, O’Brien-Kehoe (White Earth Ojibwe) said, “Nearly all public discussions about Senator Warren’s claims use the language of ancestry, background, and blood, rather than citizenship, nationhood, and sovereignty, which subtly undermines recognition and the sovereign status of tribal nations.” Much of the general public, due to troubling gaps in civic education, O’Brien-Kehoe noted, is unaware that many American Indians are dual citizens of their own tribal nations and the United States. She argued that Warren’s language reinforced the notion that “Indians possess special rights that discriminate against other Americans, rather than sovereign status.”

“This is not the first time a scientific method has been deployed against the interests of indigenous nations’ criteria for belonging,” noted Lowery. “Now DNA testing holds sway, but during the first half of the 20th century, eugenics was the most common method.” She described how in the early 20th century, the US Office of Indian Affairs subjected members of the Lumbee community to invasive physical examinations to measure the “purity” of their “Indian blood.” The Lumbees were ultimately denied land allotments and federal acknowledgment because many lacked a sufficient level of “Indian” features. “When one believes that ancestry is the most authentic criteria for identity,” Lowery said, “one can imagine the logic that allows a single ancestor to stand in for community affiliation and reciprocal relationships.”

Reed, who is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, was willing to give Warren the benefit of the doubt when the senator’s claims first surfaced, in 2012. At first glance, Reed’s family story is similar to Warren’s. From an early age, Reed was conscious of family tensions concerning her father’s Cherokee heritage. But, Reed noted, “The difference between my story and Elizabeth Warren’s is that I found a document”—her father’s birth certificate, which listed the name of her Cherokee grandfather.

Since the late 18th century, Cherokee enrollment offices have used censuses, pension records, court filings, and a wealth of other archival materials to make determinations of belonging. Given the sheer number of records, it would be highly unlikely for a person with legitimate Cherokee ties to go unnoticed in the region where Warren grew up. “For a family in Oklahoma claiming white Cherokee connections to lack any trace of connection in the records produced in the last 200 years, or any viable community connections, speaks volumes to enrolled Cherokee people,” Reed stressed. She described historical cases of non-Native people using bribes and other fraudulent methods to stake their claims on land in Indian Territory.

“Native nations have a fundamental right to weigh in when one makes a claim to kinship.”

Reed also pointed out that in recent months, likely as a result of the backlash to the DNA test, Warren has dialed back claims of her specific Cherokee and Delaware connections. Instead, she has been projecting a more generalized “Native American” background. But Reed finds this a problem, too. “It glosses over the very real questions posed by Cherokee people for the last six years,” she explained. “There’s not an appreciation for many of the ways Cherokees are asked, on a daily basis, to both defend their own status and take the onslaught of individuals who make claims that both appear like our family stories and yet are remarkably absent of the pain and challenges the community has shared collectively over time,” she noted.

Warren’s political opponents, including Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump, have mocked the senator’s claims by calling her “Pocahontas.” This carries its own weighty context. Alyssa Mt. Pleasant (Tuscarora), an assistant professor in transnational studies at the University at Buffalo, whose research focuses on the gendered violence of settler colonialism, clarified the implications of using “Pocahontas” as a slur. “For Native people, especially Native women,” she explained, “the use of her name can be a dog whistle that calls to mind the myriad ways we are stereotyped, maligned, characterized as disposable, and silenced.” Mt. Pleasant says she is troubled that the 2020 campaign and its rhetoric “promises to extend and expand the circulation of misogynistic demands” on Native women.

Toward the end of the session, chair Deborah Miranda (Washington and Lee University, Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation) challenged the audience to give the group hard-hitting questions: “You will probably not have this kind of firepower in front of you again for a long time!” One audience member asked a particularly poignant question—like the panelists, he frequently heard students claim to possess Native ancestry and wanted to know why. He wondered, “Is it because people want to feel like they are more American? . . . Or is it because there is some perceived benefit that they can exploit?”

“Both,” the panel responded in chorus. In the South, for example, said Reed, the historical forced removal of Cherokees to westward lands has created a situation in which current inhabitants can choose “to remember or not remember” that actual Cherokee people once lived there. Some non-Natives attempt to lay claim to Native identities because they no longer have to answer to real indigenous communities.

Ultimately, the panel expressed hope that instead of continuing to double down on her ancestry claims, Warren would do more to engage with the full meaning of Indian sovereignty. O’Brien-Kehoe noted that non-indigenous people can also serve as allies by “moving off the ancestry and blood stuff” and educating themselves about the legacy of racism and settler colonialism. The group reiterated a 2016 quote by anthropologist Kim TallBear as summing up Indian country’s stance on the issue: “It’s not about what identity you claim,” TallBear said. “It’s about who claims you.”

Elizabeth Poorman is assistant to the chief librarian at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

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