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Elizabeth Warren Finally Teaches a Lesson on Native Identity

UPDATE: The New England Historic Genealogical Society issued a clarification May 15, saying the group has “no proof that Elizabeth Warren’s great-great-great-grandmother O.C. Sarah Smith either is or is not of Cherokee descent” and that the society “has not expressed a position on whether Mrs. Warren has Native American ancestry, nor do we possess any primary sources to prove that she is.” The below story is updated to reflect that position.

When Senator Scott Brown (R-Mass.) suggested in late April that Elizabeth Warren, his likely Democratic opponent this November, had forged a Native American identity that helped her get ahead during her career in academia, many Indians couldn’t help but think of the cautionary tale of Ward Churchill.

The former professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder was once praised in Native circles for his work to extinguish racist notions about Indians in American society. With his long, straight hair and angular features, he was a major star in academia until the mid-2000s, when a drumbeat of questions over his research and his Native heritage resulted in both his college firing him and the tribe he had claimed to have been a citizen of, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, renouncing his claim. He was officially fired, the college said, for research misconduct, and he has since waged legal battles to have his position restored—all the while never being able to prove he is any part Indian.

Was Warren—despite her strong showing in the polls and her strong background as an esteemed law professor and advisor to the Obama administration—to be another Churchill, career upended, and forever marked and mocked as a fake Indian?

In the early days of the drama, the answer seemed to be no. Soon after the controversy began, genealogists found evidence that Warren does have Indian heritage, as she claims. Christopher Child of the New England Historic and Genealogy Society uncovered an 1894 document in which Warren’s great-great-great grandmother is listed as Cherokee. That would make Warren 1/32nd Indian, although Child has said more research is needed.

Upon further review, the New England Historic Genealogical Society issued a clarification May 15, saying the group has “no proof that Elizabeth Warren’s great-great-great-grandmother O.C. Sarah Smith either is or is not of Cherokee descent” and that the society “has not expressed a position on whether Mrs. Warren has Native American ancestry, nor do we possess any primary sources to prove that she is.”

Warren still has a lot to account for, and her campaign has not responded to requests for an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network.

While she was a professor, she had no genealogical record of the sort that Child has since uncovered, and she was not an enrolled member of any tribe, yet she listed herself as “minority” in the directories of the Association of American Law Schools from 1986 to 1995. She quickly rose in the academic ranks from the University of Texas to the University of Pennsylvania to Harvard Law School. “It is one thing to claim to have had an Indian somewhere in the family tree, but it is much different to then use that unexplored notion to check a box indicating concrete Native ancestry,” says Robert Warrior, director of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “I have met people with these kinds of claims this very week, who strongly believe them, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have more work to do to understand their heritage.”

Many American families claim Native ancestry, but have not done the research to back it up, which doesn’t mean they aren’t Native, of course, but for a person in Warren’s position, Indians in the world of academia say it would have been desirable and appropriate for her to learn more about her roots before checking any boxes. “It’s what we ask of our candidates,” says Warrior, a citizen of the Osage Nation, who notes that his program has published an official statement entitled Identity and Academic Integrity. “Too often, we realize, American Indian studies as a field of academic inquiry has failed to live up to its potential at least in part because of the presence of scholars who misrepresent themselves and their ties to the Native world,” the statement reads in part.

While Warren was never a professor of Native studies, Warrior says it is still important for all college programs to be clear and honest about what they are trying to achieve when promoting diversity. In the case of Warren, Harvard was definitely willing to promote her as Native – its spokesman was quoted in the Harvard Crimson in 1996 as calling her American Indian – but it didn’t really seem to think that was important. She wasn’t exploring tribal law in her legal teaching, and she wasn’t doing any research on or writing about Indian topics. What seems clear now is that she was simply being counted by the college as Native to appease critics who have long criticized Harvard Law School for its lack of diversity. “It seems self-serving,” Warrior says. “And it really did nothing to help Native American students, communities, or faculty, if that was the intention.”

Warren must have been thinking about such concerns in the mid-1990s when she decided to stop including herself as a minority in the directories. She told reporters on May 2 that she originally listed herself that way in order to connect with others like her, “people for whom ‘Native American’ is part of their heritage and part of their hearts. There aren’t a lot of people like me in law teaching. And so I just thought I might find some others. That’s evidently not a particularly good use for the directory because it never happened.” That’s why, she says, that she stopped calling herself a minority in the directories after having done so for almost a decade.

Republican detractors say this is proof she was exploiting a pseudo-Native identity to further her career until she reached the pinnacle, and when she no longer needed that “boost” she dropped it. Warren says that’s false. She was qualified for her position, and the Native aspect didn’t play a role in her hiring, she says, which has been backed up by the Harvard officials who hired her.

Still, there is two-fold problem with Harvard’s defense of Warren: First, there’s the student newspaper quote from the Harvard spokesman calling Warren Native in 1996—if this spokesman thought she was Native, where did he get the idea? And why was he promoting her as such? What was the goal?

Second, Harvard has been known to be insensitive on Native issues. Indian scholars have long complained that the institution has failed to hire a permanent scholar to fill the Harvard Law School’s Oneida chair, which has received substantial financial support from the Oneida Indian Nation of New York (which also funds ICTMN). The position was created in 2003, with the understanding that Harvard would hire a full-time, tenured faculty member dedicated to Indian law. Visiting professors – some of them non-Native – have instead filled the position. That practice, some claim, has denied the tribal law program the chance to grow under steady guidance.

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In light of the Warren case, Harvard officials may wish to review their policies on box-checking and what exactly they are trying to achieve by promoting a diverse staff, Warrior says: “The Elizabeth Warren story highlights the need for academic officials to think about and highlight these issues all over again—maybe in new and different ways. What was the institution seeking? What were they trying to achieve?”

If Harvard and other institutions use this situation as a reason to review their policies, then that could be a great end to this circus, Warrior says.

For now, the circus doesn’t look to be ending soon enough for Warren. The Washington Post has called her handling of the situation “convoluted.” Politico has asked whether this is “an image-defining moment that undercuts her profile as an authentic populist candidate.” And the local papers have kept pressing her for details.

Warren has helped keep the controversy in the news, sometimes with answers that didn’t seem well thought out. “I still have a picture on my mantle at home, and it’s a picture of my mother’s dad, a picture of my grandfather,” she told reporters on May 2. “My Aunt Bea has walked by that picture at least a 1,000 times, remarked that her father, my Papa, had high cheekbones, like all of the Indians do, because that’s how she saw it, and your mother got those same great cheekbones, and I didn’t. And she thought this was the bad deal she had gotten in life.”

Even though many Indian educators think Warren has more explaining to do, many also feel she is being unfairly attacked. Some are even defending her, especially since Republicans are working overtime to use this controversy to their advantage, although none seem too keen on understanding the important underlying issues. Instead, conservative writer Michelle Malkin has made fun of the situation using phrases like “Pinocchio-hontas,” “Chief Full-of-Lies,” “Running Joke” and “Sacaja-whiner.” The Brown campaign, too, has twisted the situation out of context, with its campaign manager, Jim Barnett, telling the Associated Press, "Professor Warren needs to come clean about her motivations for making these claims and explain the contradictions between her rhetoric and the record.” In reality, these slams turn out to be unsubstantiated, but the Brown campaign is playing politics, nuance be damned.

Donna Akers, a professor with the Department of History and Native American Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is skeptical of the conservative outrage. “I think this is simply a cynical ploy by right-wing propagandists trying to find a piece of mud that sticks against Warren,” she says. Akers believes Republican politicians sometimes use racial issues to divide voters and to play on their insecurities. In this case, she says that the Brown campaign is trying to make it seem like a white person may have lost out on a position due to Warren’s situation. “Smearing Warren by the suggestion that she benefited unfairly by claiming Native ancestry panders to the racism extant in many sectors of the right wing—especially the working class,” Akers says. “The Republican Party today solidly embraces a thinly veiled racist agenda that privileges white Americans at the expense of Native Americans and other peoples of color in the United States.”

The intriguing question to explore, Indian academics say, is whether any Native candidates lost out on a chance to teach at Harvard because Warren was laying claim to an identity she knew very little about. That is a question, of course, that Republicans are not asking. And neither is the mainstream press. “The mainstream media definitely has added to this controversy due to their well-known ignorance about tribal citizenship and other tribal issues,” says Julia Good Fox, a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University. Good Fox notes that the media has largely failed to explain tribal citizenry and blood quantum issues to give context to the situation because these aren’t easy stories to tell. It’s easier to label the case “convoluted,” blame Warren, and move on to the next political gotcha story.

“Unfortunately, for the most part, their coverage is just adding to the confusion and threatens to feed racism or anti-Indianism,” Good Fox says. To do better, she says the media should start by noting that tribal nations have a right to determine who their citizens are, rather than focusing on the misunderstood notion that tribal citizens can only be determined by U.S.-imposed mathematical fractions.

The candidate holds responsibility, too, for the confusion. “It says a lot about Warren if she is unable to give a focused and intelligent answer to the questions that arose about her during this past week,” says Good Fox, a Pawnee Nation citizen. “If they want, Warren and her team could take control of this controversy. Right now, it looks like they are unclear about tribal issues, including the difference between tribal citizenship and simple ancestry.

“This is playing into her opponents hands, including those who are anti-American Indian.”

“Apparently, she has no conception of Native identity as a function of community upbringing, not ‘blood,’ and that is a problem brought about by U.S. colonialism, one which has been adopted by many tribes under their own schema for calculating individual eligibility for citizenship,” adds Akers, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation. “It brings up the whole can of worms of Indian identity.”

To turn things around, Good Fox says Warren could initiate a meaningful dialogue with the Cherokee Nation. “There are plenty of politically savvy Cherokee individuals who could help her out with her Senate campaign,” she says. “Her good-faith efforts would help her campaign, and certainly would assist her if she is elected. And other politicians and candidates ought to take note of this controversy so they can learn lessons from it, too.”

Even if Warren hasn’t internalized any lessons on Native identity from all this, she may be helping others come to a better understanding of their identities, Warrior says. This case has proven, for instance, that it is possible in some instances to use genealogy to track down true Native ancestors, rather than just relying on family folklore.

And if Warren is elected to Congress, maybe this whole Indian can of worms will spur her to become a better advocate for Indian and tribal issues than she has been in the past.

“Knowledge about tribal issues is a congressional responsibility, and this could be one of the issues that sets Warren apart from her opponents,” Good Fox says. “I hope this controversy will nudge her into articulating a strong and clear platform about protecting tribal rights. She needs to step up to the plate and hit a homerun on this controversy real soon, or it's going to dog her all the way to the ballot box.”