Elizabeth Warren and the Politics of Being Indian

Lindsey Catherine Cornum

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.

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.

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susannecolella's picture
I had no idea other people felt like I did. My Father was/is American Indian, Chiricahua Apache and his life is a secret to his children, all we ever knew was that he as Indian, truly a sad story. I have tried for years to find out more information about him/me only to have the door slamed in my face. Does anyone know if the DNA blood test is a good idea?
phantom5501's picture
I'm a Yurok tribal member, and like many other tribes, one can't claim to be a member of the Yuroks unless they have more than 1/8 of Native blood, which has to be verifiable and no less than 1/16th of Yurok. I know that not all tribes are as strict, I've heard of some in Washington who have allowed honorary membership to people who have no ancestors of Native blood. I don't think this is wrong, but I do believe that one can't claim to be a minority unless they have more than a certain amount of blood. I leave the decision of how much to the individual tribes.
deviantprolix's picture
one thing here to point out the cherokee nation just elected a new leader with the same amount bloodline................(lc)
alycebitticks's picture
Thank you for explaining my life. Why I will continue to be proud of all of who I am, why I will not apologize and why I will learn everything I can about my heritage. Why I will share these values with my children and live them, the best I can, in my own life.
bertkaulaity's picture
it is not just the blood but the land how can a clan of, lets say kiowa, divide land among afew in the 1800s, divide the same land now in the 21 century, sounds like a bunch of hipocrits, if she is bringing the attention to the native american then let her have her say because alot of natives own 1/100000000000.0 of their own home land so get off of the so called high horse and let her be who she wants to be aho
sparrowtooth's picture
Ms. Warren has not any proof or record that she has a smidgeon of Cherokee or Delaware blood. That is a fact. Her direct great-great-great grandfather is verified as a Tennessee militiaman who forcibly removed Indian families from their land in the lead up to the Trail of Tears. So, claiming your peeps are originally from Turtle Island ..but are actually not is a grievous error. This needs to be better researched and/or proven...or she owes an the American public an apology for speaking on behalf of/or as a Cherokee woman-whether her motivation was earnest or suspect, or not.
annehamner's picture
So very well stated. Kudos! :-)
lmann's picture
In your article you state: “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.” This is not true. I know many Cherokee with blonde hair and blues who happened to be enrolled Members of their Tribe. The problem with Warren is that she lied, stole her seat and got caught. I am a stark raving liberal and was supporting her but in good conscience I cannot any longer. People are defending the indefensible. Being Indian Is about the blood. But It Is also- Cultural, spiritual, political and geographical. That; I believe ultimately makes one Native. She Has none of that. She is the one giving the right wing fodder. As A Member of Tribe from Massachusetts ‘The High Cheek Bone Club’; I am up close and personal with this issue. I’m a registered democrat but she will not get my vote. I’m not going to support somebody who thinks so lowly of us. And if you really listen her descriptions ; and or insight ( lack thereof) into indigenous people you will see what I mean. Its people like her who are pushing the discourse backwards concerning Native issues. Natives continue to virtually be the last safe vestige of characterization, bigotry and ignorance. And these issues are inextricably tied to her recent nonsense. Just to think that we’re so fictionalized and cartoonesque that she can give “ high cheek bone” explanation and voila you’re an Indian. Out of her own mouth in her recent interviews she makes it demonstrably evident she doesn’t have a clue what it means to an Indian. This is unhinged phoniness at its worse. Agian, being a Tribal member from the state of Massachusetts, I know she has never been involved in any sort of tribal issues, gatherings ect. within our state. She has never offered insight nor sought any from the recognized tribes of our state. Of course Brown is going to jump on this and I can’t blame him. Here’s a woman who has been claiming minority status as and Indian for over a decade without a shred of tangible proof. But then she stopped saying it? Now there’s a so called 1/32 connection which despite what’s in this article has not been confirmed. Buts lets say for the sake of argument she dug a ‘connection’. This was just done. This was a mad dash attempt to confirm what was not fact. All through her ‘minority status’ years she never spent any time seeking out info, visiting an Indian Center, a Tribe, reading a book on Native Americans or reaching out to the many Natives around her and so forth. This is why I find this so egregious. Yeah sure- every generic beck /hannity/rush sycophant is mocking her all over Massachusetts radio. But they’re not really making fun of her, they’re making sport of us due to Warrens ridiculous and absurd claims. This is what they do: they secrete ignorance, bigotry and xenophobia. So now when we try to raise issues she will be the so-called template to our Sovereignty. She is included in the folks who believe Natives linger somewhere within the ethereal fantasy of the American zeitgeist. Then act on it. I don’t say this because she wishes to search a Native connection. That would certainly be admirably. She’s never been one who was trying to join a nation , or was disenfranchised or seeking to be part of a native community. There are scores of Native Americans who have suffered that; she is not one of them. For a period of time though, she marked the “Indian box”- but then; depending on her locale chooses not to. She was labeled as a minority? Got minority status? Let me be clear. I know Indian’s come in all shades; including my own relatives. But it is a point and fact. People who are of Color have experienced a different life than those who are White. This is just a fact. Now usually the minority box is checked off by people who had experienced a disproportionate amount of impediment to freedom, Civil Rights, self-determination and Sovereignty. So do we still think its ok Ms. Warren is labeled minority? You mean to tell me she stopped checking the Box “Indian” “because she couldn’t find any people like her.” -Ok Sure, bring on the yellow rain. By the way, if she wanted to “be with people like her” as she coyly claims; she might have started with Harvard annual powwow sponsored by the Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP). Which by the way- I’ve never seen her. Or the Nipmuck or Wampanoag Tribal Gatherings… But nope- never seen her. To say she had a ‘Gray Owl’ moment would be immense charity. She should not be allowed to change the true discourse. Form the King Phillips War, Dawes Act, Boarding Schools and reservations interspersed with all the generational trauma cannot be minimized because she wants to have a political seat. But in contrast to that horror: Our beautiful culture and tradition that continues on., Our sacred stories and medicine. All which is here today because of many of our ancestors who fought, suffered and died to preserve it. Again, she’s someone who’s probably not even familiar with Massachusetts treaties: Executive order 126, Falmouth Treaty , Non Intercourse Act Violations of 1888, The Deer Island Interment Camp ( Boston): Where noncombatant Indian’s were frog marched at gun point and thousands starved and froze to death. Ms. Warren’ never found her way at a memorial or when in 1996 William Weld honored all the Native Veterans. Nope, never part of any of it. All the bigotry and ignorance that we’re working to end will not until we are honest about what’s right. To me this is beyond a political issue , left or right. This is a human being issue. We are in the year 2012 and I expect a little more from someone who wants to be an elected official. Sure most politicians don’t have clue about us. But then , most politicians are not using Indian status
laura's picture
There are just two problems with this article. 1-Ms. Warren apparently has no Cherokee ancestry at all according to genealogical scrutiny. 2-She has never attempted to look into her heritage herself, connect with other Natives when given the opportunity, or contribute her credentials toward helping Natives. How can she claim to identify as a Native American? If she really was 1/32 or even 1/64, and had some-any-connection to a tribe or community, I would support her. But let's be honest. Ms. Warren was plain wrong.
auroracollins's picture
I've traced the family ancestry to the Dawes rolls, and since I cant get copies of one link in the family tree, I still cant get accepted proof for tribal registry. But according to the Kansas historian that helped me I am l/8 cherokee. So I have more than Elizabeth Warren, but I wont fault her for wanting to align with her ancestors. I do think the minority position is a stretch, but in my case, I know who I am, thats what counts.