I like Elizabeth Warren a lot. She’s probably my second-favorite elected official. It’s only thanks to her that we have the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the best agency in the U.S. federal government. She is gutsy, smart, and she cares about the economic well-being of ordinary people.
Which is why I am so frustrated that Warren has so badly mishandled this native ancestry issue.
Obviously Donald Trump does not care about Native people. (He put a picture of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office, for God’s sake.) But Warren did do something wrong here: She is not a Native American, but she identified herself as a “Native American” in the The Association of American Law Schools Directory of law professors between 1986 and 1995, and Harvard recorded her as Native American as late as 2004. At the University of Pennsylvania, she identified herself as a racial minority. She was described in the Fordham Law Review in 1997 as Harvard Law School’s first “woman of color.” Warren even contributed to a cookbook called Pow Wow Chow: A Collection of Recipes from Families of the Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek & Seminole, where she listed herself as “Cherokee.” (Inexplicably, so did Warren’s husband Bruce Mann, who has even less of a claim than Warren.)
These are things Warren should not have done, because she is not a Native American. It would have been easy to apologize. To say that, like many white Americans, she has a family story about being part Native American, and she got carried away with it. Instead, however, Warren has reaffirmed her claim to being part Native American, and said that her mother and father were forced to elope because her mother’s family were discriminated against for being part Native American. Now, Warren has released the results of a DNA test that she claims proves her claim to be part Native American, thereby justifying actions such as listing herself as a racial minority, allowing Harvard Law to claim her as its first woman of color, and calling herself Cherokee.
I just want to first make clear why I do think this is a significant issue, even if Republicans care about it only for completely opportunistic reasons. It is wrong to claim an oppressed identity if you do not actually have that identity. Warren has reinforced incorrect conceptions of what it means to be Native American, saying at one point that she “knew her grandfather was ‘part’ Cherokee because ‘he had high cheekbones like all of the Indians.'” Warren has focused much of her defense on proving that she did not get hired or promoted at Harvard because of her claim to Native ancestry, calling many prominent law professors as witnesses. But her claim still allowed Harvard to pat itself on the back for diversity that it did not actually have, touting her as a woman of color. This makes it more difficult for actual Native women to succeed: If Harvard believes it has a Native American law professor, when it doesn’t, then it will not feel pressured to create an opportunity for an actual Native American law professor, even if Warren was hired solely because of her contributions to bankruptcy law scholarship.
There’s also something a little disturbing about the way Warren has defended herself by insisting that she didn’t benefit from affirmative action. A Warren spokesperson asked about the claim replied that “at every law school where Elizabeth was recruited to teach, it has been made absolutely clear she was hired based on merit; on her accomplishments and ability.” Warren herself said: “I am a hard-working teacher, I have won teaching awards, I’ve written books that have won acclaim.” I don’t doubt this is true. But I don’t like this framing, because it adopts the conservative line on affirmative action: Some people are hired based on “merit” and other people are racial quota hires who do not have “merit.” Warren wants to prove that, unlike someone who was hired in part for their Native ancestry, she was hired solely on her Merit. To me, that insults anyone whose race factored into a hiring decision.
There are also serious problems with presenting a DNA test. First, if the test proved anything, it proved the opposite of what Warren said it proved, showing that her claimed ancestry is almost negligible at best. The test showed Warren to have between 1/64 and 1/1024 Native ancestry, with one ancestor six to 10 generations ago, meaning one person probably in the 18th century and possibly as far back as 1700. By this standard, a very, very large number of white Americans could list themselves as being “Cherokee” in the tribal cookbook.
More importantly, though, the use of the DNA test was itself both questionable and insulting to Native Americans. Here‘s the Secretary of State of the Cherokee Nation:
A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship. Current DNA tests do not even distinguish whether a person’s ancestors were indigenous to North or South America. Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation. 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, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.
I don’t understand why Warren would go to the trouble of taking the test and having a sleek professional video made if she hadn’t first consulted with the Cherokee Nation itself to see what she ought to do. That, to me, suggests a disregard for the interests and opinions of Native people. In fact, other Cherokee people have reacted very negatively to Warren’s approach in the past:
What is beyond maddening is that, as Native people, we are relegated to being invisible, while Warren is not. As a mixed Native woman, I have to relive the racist stereotypes Warren spits out to defend her alleged Native identity everyday. People constantly ask me, what part Cherokee are you? Who in your family was Cherokee? That’s so nice that you embrace your Native heritage. I am not part Cherokee. There is not one member of my family who was Cherokee. I am Cherokee. I am an enrolled citizen of Cherokee Nation and a member of my home and urban Indian communities. We are living, real, and whole people; not fractions of Indians who used to be real.
All of this is made even worse by the fact that Warren has not been much of a champion for Native issues during her time in politics, and did very little to support the Standing Rock Sioux in their protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Warren’s new video is all about her family, and how she worked hard to get where she is today (and Pulled Herself Up By Her Own Bootstraps), but she doesn’t actually highlight the voices of Native Americans themselves or talk about the issues they face. I would be a bit less frustrated by Warren’s claimed Native identity if she was a consistent champion of the causes of Native Americans. (Though I realize the comparison is extreme, even Rachel Dolezal was apparently a very competent NAACP leader.)
In addition to everything else, this just shows horrible political instincts on Warren’s part. A few weeks before a mid-term election, she has handed the Republicans a news cycle, by doubling down on an indefensible claim and needlessly drawing attention to Donald Trump’s rhetoric. She has offended Native Americans and hurt the Democratic Party, and done so completely of her own volition. Looking at 2020 prospects, I have long been worried about Warren’s political skill—after all, she nearly lost an election to a Republican in Massachusetts. But this shows that she will fall right into Trump’s traps, and produce counterproductive own-goals.
Warren has never handled this issue well. It’s still not clear quite what she’s saying: She is a Cherokee, then? She isn’t? But I honestly don’t think someone can run for president and expect to win the Democratic nomination if they are unable to own up to mistakes, and gratuitously offend and ignore Native Americans. I have liked Elizabeth Warren for a long time, but this is a massive political liability. She is wrong on this, she doesn’t seem to know she is wrong, she refuses to apologize, and she continues to make it worse. I don’t know why, instead of suggesting that this is a baseless smear, she can’t just say clearly and definitively that she shouldn’t have spent years publicly touting her Native ancestry. This stupid issue would dominate any contest with Donald Trump. It would never end. It would prevent us from ever actually discussing any serious issues. It would be like the goddamn email scandal all over again. And Warren has shown that she would handle it badly. At this point, I do not see how she can be a serious presidential contender.
I also recommend Briahna Joy Gray’s article about this issue in The Intercept, which goes into more depth about the ethical problems with Warren’s actions.
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