What's the Deal With Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee?

Suzan Shown Harjo

What’s up, you ask, with the “Native American” uproar in the Elizabeth Warren-Scott Brown race for U.S. senator from Massachusetts? The politics part is easily understood; the Indian part is a heavier lift, involving legalities of Native nations and tribal citizenship. You don’t have to be a lawyer—only a reader—to understand the issues.

The Brown camp says Warren said she was Native American to get a job teaching at Harvard Law School in the early 1990s, when the university needed to defend its diversity record. Warren says she didn’t know Harvard listed her that way, but she listed herself as Native American in 1986-1995 legal directories, “because I thought I might be invited to meetings where I might meet more people who had grown up like I had grown up.”

Born and raised in Oklahoma City, Warren cites her grandfather’s “high cheekbones” and a “family that has talked about…tribes, since I’ve been a little girl.” She claims Cherokee and Delaware; a genealogist in Boston says she’s 1/32 Cherokee. A tribal citizen must have at least one tribal citizen ancestor. Her ancestors are not on the Cherokee Nation citizenship rolls, which included the Delaware Tribe throughout Warren’s life, until 2009.

Of those who falsely claim to be tribal citizens, most claim Cherokee and varying percentages of Indian blood. Blood quantum was an imposed anthropological/federal construct, until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Martinez case in 1978 (after Warren became a lawyer) that only the Indian tribe could determine tribal citizenry. Cherokee Nation did not adopt the federal blood quantum standard.

Warren’s defenders and detractors have blamed, smeared and minimized Cherokees, Cherokee Nation and Native Americans generally, with sophomoric language usually heard only at sports events featuring “Indian” stereotypes. Those who point out that she is the same amount of Cherokee blood as the Cherokee Nation chief are off point and beside the point. Why? Let’s review. Tribal citizenry is political, not racial, and Cherokee Nation uses a family (descendant) standard, not a blood quantum requirement.

When people legitimately claim particular Native nations, they are saying they are tribal citizens of one and eligible for citizenship and/or culturally tied to another. When people claim particular tribes and aren’t tribal citizens, they are promoting a false impression of tribal citizenship (and tribal experience and sanctioning), even if they never use the word citizen. People are Native American because Native nations they say they are; not because of the magic wand of self-declaration.

Native Americans are not the same as, for example, Irish-Americans, Japanese-Americans or Kenyan-Americans. Our nationalities are in our Native nations, which are more like Ireland, Japan or Kenya, with a political nation-to-nation relationship with the U.S. We are equivalent to the relatives of the hyphenated Americans in their old countries—more like the Irish, Japanese or Kenyans—still in our countries, only surrounded by the U.S. on our original lands.

Upon hearing this, non-Native people usually have one or more of these reactions: 1) now I understand, 2) I still don’t get it, 3) that’s not true, or 4) let’s put a stop to that! All too often, Native rights are viewed as unconstitutional super rights, and litigation ensues. The Supreme Court has ruled that Indian rights are not superior rights and do not violate the constitutional rights of non-Indians; they simply are different.

The Supreme Court ruled in the 1974 Mancari case that the Indian-preference hiring among qualified candidates in the Bureau of Indian Affairs was not race-based, but political (federal-tribal and tribe-citizen relationships): "The preference, as applied, is granted to Indians not as a discrete racial group, but rather, as members of quasi-sovereign tribal entities whose lives and activities are governed by the BIA in a unique fashion."

In the landmark affirmative action Bakke decision in 1978, the high court rejected use of the Mancari ruling by non-tribal citizens, noting in a footnote: “In Mancari….we found that the preference was not racial at all, but ‘an employment criterion reasonably designed to further the cause of Indian self-government and to make the BIA more responsive….’”

At one time, being citizens of Native nations meant speaking heritage languages, exercising traditional religions and engaging in cultural ways of making a living, building a home, preparing a meal, wearing clothes. Today, few Native Americans can do all of those things. In fact, a tribal citizen need not do anything beyond simply being a tribal citizen. Native Peoples have citizenship criteria, as do all countries, but there is no citizenship test.

No one wants to test Warren or burden Harvard, but they should explain to law professors who are tribal citizens why her “Native American” claims and hire had nothing to do with them or their opportunities. Questions abound, but few are being asked or answered.

Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee), an award-winning columnist and a poet, writer, curator and policy advocate, who has helped Native Peoples to protect sacred places and recover more than one million acres of land, is president of The Morning Star Institute in Washington, DC.

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husbandofmoonlight's picture
We here at North American Intertribal Missions have not made it a point in the past to post comments on this venue; however we will make an exception here. The "term" "Indian" is offenseive to us for several reasons and when our fellow Native Americans participate in the Angolo/American arrogance in the use of this misnomer it compounds the issue. We have been active for over 25 yrs in providing ancillary services to Native American (NatAm) children who have been rendered to the custody of any entity outside of their tribal affiliations and have discovered many aspects of our "collective history" that proves our point. 1) Native Americans (i.e. ALL of the continental inhabitants prior to 1492---share a common ancestry and a very distinctive DNA sequence (s) that have been determined to have been "isolated" here on this continent for at least 15K years---long before the "Chinese" called themselves "Chinese"--long before any of the 'other great civilizations, long before the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims invented their "God" and then themselves----and began killing each other by the thousands over that "God"----- 2) All NatAms born after 1885 are by international legal standards "prisoners of war" of the USA and are only subject to their laws by "volunteering to be so"----and by virtue of force. 3) Until the USA arrives to the destination it is working very hard to accomplish---"extinction" we (I am of mixed blood extraction; Comanche,Kiowa,Mississippi Choctaw---and Scot {of Clan McGregor thank you}----both parents being mixed bloods *) are bound by their supperior strength and nothing else. 4) To be "brief" here we will make the suggestion that ANYONE who claims NatAm ancestors should submit a DNA specimen and submit those results for verification for those claims since "documentation" from available sources is exceptionally unreliable and untrustworthy in most cases; and indeed, should be subject to exceptionally close examination. The "BLOOD QUANTUM REQUIREMENTS ARE ILLEGAL APPLICATOINS FROM ILLEGAL LEGISLATION IN 19TH CENTURY US COURTS---thank you. This would avoid the current problems that so many members of so many tribes have presently---since "science" is indisputable. If Ms. Warren's DNA indeed proves to contain NatAm "markers" (very distinctive incidenatlly)she should be given whatever consideration that evidence provides and nothing else. When Native America learns to stop "calling themselves Indians" they may well be on the road to soverign nations status---as presently considered, they are for most citizens of the "world" a defeated people since they are willing in most cases to use the "misnomer Indian" to refer to themselves----a title that "Columbus" gave them, simply because he was "lost"----and thought he was in "India"---- * I am not a member of any "tribal rolls" simply because the "membership requirements" are an illegal assumption; and being a Veteran of the USMC (1972-78)while a "prisoner of War" I "earned" my rights to walk around in the whiteman's world----and will not settle for less than what my ancestors "treatied for"----a Sovereign Nation. One of my ancestors was a "signatory of the Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty, 1868----THAT treaty is very simple and easy to understand--read it. Thanks for all that you do----- Good Luck, Husband Of Moonlight
piic1's picture
She could be 100% Cherokee- 'legally documented' and a Tribal member. I would not vote for her progressive ideology. I have no further questions and affirm that she might indeed have Cherokee heritage. The divide goes beyond the race and class war.
wisgriz's picture
Did we forget about WARD CHURCHILL!!! He's not even Indian at all. This woman isn't Indian at all. Where's was your cry about Churchill's Identity, better yet what about the dismissal of protest's by Indian Scholar's who refuted Churchill by these same academic insitiution's. We as Indian's talk about assimilation and the effect's of it on us as a people. How much assimilated is MS. Harjo when it come's to her defending this fraud. Where was this women (Warren) when it came to important isue's concerning Indian Issue's. Is Harjo's liberal political view's the effect of assimilation? Wisgriz
fslafountaine's picture
Elizabeth Warren has my vote. Scott Brown is fully committed to following a Right Wing rigid agenda of the Republican Party, and he will never support Native American causes. Scott Brown's issue concerning Elizabeth Warren's Native American ancestry only show how desperate he is to keep his seat in the Senate. Native Americans tend to forget that newspapers and the media of the United States are owned and managed by Right Wing Republicans. I'm not surprised that the media has kept this matter alive for so many weeks.
thechief's picture
great article. although i bet if she were african american and claimed to be cherokee anybody bringing this up would be called racist or have the usual response that being native is a lifestyle rather than bloodline.
cmauthorised's picture
My great, great, great, great grandmother was Sally Sonicooie, a full blood Cherokee. When my great, great, great, great grandfather, Joel Mhoon, a descendant of English grandparents, moved to Cherokee Country and met Sally, he asked what he had to do to become a Cherokee and marry Sally. He was told that if he lived as a Cherokee, he was Cherokee. He married Sally and lived as a Cherokee and was accepted. Their son, Stark Mhoon, married Mathenia Mullen, a full blood. They were very suspicious of the white-man and his lists and avoided being listed on any lists other than the census. When they got wind of plans to re-locate the Cherokee, they packed up and moved to Missouri, thus avoiding the Trail of Tears. They hid their heritage in fear that they might be forced to relocate to Oklahoma. Then, in 1896, Stark’s son petitioned thru friends under the Dawes Act, stating their heritage, tried to enroll in the Cherokee nation. They were declined. I find it ironic that the Cherokee denied citizenship to Stark based on the white man’s list. So what does that mean for me? Although I am a descendent of Cherokee, I understand that I cannot claim to be a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, but I feel that I do have the right to be Cherokee-American. It is in my blood. Courtney Miller