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Elizabeth Warren and the Politics of Being Indian

I listen to NPR nearly every morning just to have some background noise as I fry up an egg, toast a tortilla, and put an ice-cube in my tea so I can gulp it down before scrambling to find my keys and a clean pair of socks. Most days the most relevant news for my life is the weather report. But I listen anyway, lampooning the earnest voices, slowly shaking my head, and waiting until I turn on my computer to find the perspectives I actually care about.

This past Wednesday morning, however, I was greeted by a sound quite foreign. It was the word “Cherokee,” as in the Cherokee tribe, as in Indians being discussed on national radio. The whole phrase was “highly contested Cherokee heritage” and it was in reference to Elizabeth Warren, the democratic rival of that handsome devil, Republican Senator Scott Brown. The two are currently locked in a mud-slinging senate race in Massachusetts that has attracted massive media attention and been described at times as "intense," "Hot! Hot! Hot!" and, more solemnly, "a reflection of the troubled soul of our broken nation."

Both candidates have taken to accusing the other of ethical missteps, the most recent being that Warren's characterization as a "minority professor" in the directory at Harvard Law School was a wanton, self-serving lie. Warren claims she self-identified as a minority on account of her Cherokee heritage and with the intention of meeting others with similar backgrounds. Now Brown’s supporters are calling for Warren to release her personnel files and academic applications so they can wave them around and yell about how affirmative action is a total scam.

The scam seems to lie in the fact that the amount of Cherokee blood Warren has coursing through her veins has been quantified as a mere 1/32nd. This constitutes “cheating” in many people's minds because anyone who has only 1/32 Indian blood couldn’t possibly be a real Cherokee; they are obviously just a ruthless schemer using a flawed system to fuel their own twisted ambition. “CherokeeGate” has thus not only opened the old arguments against affirmative action, it has re-opened the even older debates about what makes a real Indian. As with most cases of Indians in the news, the loudest voices in this controversy have been patently misguided and often racist.

To begin with, anyone who still believes blood quantum is a true measure of identity is living in the 19th century. Blood quantum, the measure by which the government determines one’s degree of Indian ancestry, has got to be one of the most plainly hypocritical logics the American government has ever used to disenfranchise people. At the same time America was using the “one drop” rule to categorize as many people with African ancestry as slaves as possible, they were using a reverse “one drop” rule on Indians in order to categorize them as white in the hopes this would loosen ties to the communally held land settlers desperately wanted.

Yet, if Warren claimed 1/32nd Cherokee heritage and was dark-skinned, I bet the conversation would be a lot different. The problem is Warren just doesn't look Cherokee enough. Because of her physical appearance, many believe she has not had a genuine minority experience and does not deserve to claim minority status. To some degree, that is correct. As a light-skinned woman whom most people read as of Western-European descent, Warren has probably never experienced outright racism first-hand. Because she is granted white privilege based on her white appearance, however, does not necessarily mean she is just white—this applies not only to Elizabeth Warren but to all light-skinned people with non-European heritage. Though they must be held accountable for their conditional privilege and to the communities they purport to belong to, their decision to connect to their heritage is theirs alone. Nobody gets to decide that for them but their ancestors.

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Unfortunately, in defending herself and her choice to list herself as minority professor, Warren has relied on her own reductionist interpretations of Indianness. While she did give a sincere account about the family history she was told and raised on, she has also tried to confirm her Cherokee ancestry by pointing to the high cheekbones of her grandfather. I mean, a part of me gets it. For those of us who do not look Indian enough (which these days requires full-blown regalia or being dead) or those of us who are cut off from our tribal communities, there is a struggle to identify what exactly is Indian about us. That sometimes comes out in misguided generalizations that we know will be understood by the ignorant, Hollywood-fed American public. In many cases those ignorant, Hollywood-based images are some of the only ways we know ourselves what constitutes an authentic Indian.

For me, being Navajo is a political identity based on the fact that I have ancestors that inhabited this land with alternative systems of governance that were then completely destroyed by the settlement of Americans. For Warren, it seems, being Cherokee is not just about her grandfather's handsome bone structure but a sense of place (from her Oklahoma upbringing) and a family tradition carried down through orally-transmitted stories. Though this is only conjecture on my part and though I do wish Warren had a history of serving and being accountable to the Cherokee people she is so proud to be tied to, I have few problems with somebody who self-identifies as part Indian based on oral history and a connection to land.

There is no single Cherokee experience just as there is no single Indian or American experience. Yet, people who invoke their Indian heritage are disproportionally held to a higher burden of proof. You can tell anyone you are descendent from Swedish royalty without problem, but try being accepted as really Indian, without knowing some sacred rites or sporting dark, brooding looks and you're out of luck. People who are an estimated 1/33rd Irish, such as President Obama, are not viciously attacked when invoking their heritage. They are not asked to release documents to prove that their trip to Ireland was not an attempt to cheat a system that unfairly grants favors to white people.

It may be true that some people out there have checked the Native American box because they want an “exotic” background that some will see as sexy and some college official will see as good for “diversifying” campus. But I am willing to bet, in fact I am fairly certain, that the vast majority of people who claim to be Indian on their college application, either as students or professors, don't do so to pull a fast one on the system. They did so because they sincerely count themselves as proud members of their tribes. They did so because anything else would be a betrayal of where they came from and who they stand for. They did so because even if they don't look the part, they are the Indian that refused to disappear. If you think being an Indian is some golden ticket to success, you have five-hundred years of history to catch up on.

Unfortunately, I never hear about that history and all the other people who worked and struggled to check the Native American box on a college application on NPR. The lack of indigenous presence in the media makes possible the wanton racism that has been expressed around Warren's Indian identity. I guarantee that if a wider variety of stories about Indians were presented in the mainstream media, beyond the usual “Poor, Drunk Indians Continue to be Tragic” specials we see every five years, it would be a lot harder for people to get away with the casual racism that is leveled at Indians much too often.

In this case, it's as if conservatives have been storing up all the unoriginal stereotypes of Indians they can think of, just waiting for a chance to unleash them all in one gushing flow of digital racist vomit. On Twitter this was manifested through the trending hashtag #ElizabethWarrenIndianNames which included such zingers as Pocca-hot-mess (a clever variation on the tired Pocca-hot-ass) and Lia-watha. Meanwhile, Ann Coulter at her ever-insightful best wrote a piece called “Elizabeth Warren's Indian Name: Dances with Lies” which opens with, “Elizabeth Warren, who also goes by her Indian name, 'Lies on Race Box,' is in big heap-um trouble.”

If Elizabeth Warren hasn't been a victim of racialized verbal violence before in her life, she certainly is now. Welcome to the good life.