Elizabeth Warren: Box-Checking for Fun and Profit

Steve Russell

Forrest Carter, Carlos Castaneda, Ward Churchill, Iron Eyes Cody, Jamake HIghwater, Nasdijj, Princess Pale Moon, Andrea and Justine Smith, Mary Thunder, Dhyani Ywahoo.

Some of these people have done good work; others have profited only themselves. Some have traded in valuable insights; others in execrable garbage. They have one thing in common.

The question recently has been whether Elizabeth Warren belongs on that list. I am personally unclear about the standards of admission, so I will be thinking out loud. I contributed to Elizabeth Warren’s campaign before and after her opponent nominated her for inclusion, so feel free to consider these remarks biased for that reason.

Nobody likes to be taken in, but I have not been. I contributed because I believe Elizabeth Warren holds promise to be the most effective representative of the 99% to serve in Congress in my generation. But if she has traded on a fake Indian identity, I certainly would think less of her.

I’m puzzled by the way the question has been addressed, and Ms. Warren is not helping with her imbecilic remarks about “high cheekbones.” As in the cases of Ward Churchill and Andrea Smith, the most common way of looking at the question is genealogy, the quest for a Cherokee in the woodpile, as it were.

Pray tell, in what sense is somebody Indian if they have to hire a genealogist to prove it?

I was born and raised in the Creek Nation, and some of our customs are remarkably similar. We share the history of removal to Indian Territory and the abrogation of our treaties to create the State of Oklahoma. We produced the most effective organizers against the Dawes Act abomination in the Cherokee Redbird Smith and the Creek Chitto Harjo. But I never, ever, thought I was the same as a Creek. Different language, different stories, different traditions of governing—let’s face it, different peoples.

How can you maintain a tribal identity without knowing at least some of what that identity means?

A genealogist in Boston claimed to have discovered that Elizabeth Warren’s g-g-g-grandmother is listed on a marriage application as Cherokee. This would not tell us blood quantum because, even in those times, one was either a Cherokee citizen or not.

Elizabeth Warren’s alleged Cherokee ancestor would have been a contemporary of John Ross, Cooweescowee, the Bird Clan Cherokee who led the tribal government though our most tragic confrontations with American greed. Ross was one-eighth Cherokee by blood, as I am. I draw the conclusion that if Warren’s ancestor were in fact Cherokee, we would still know nothing about her blood quantum.

A prominent Cherokee scholar, Dr. Richard Allen, points out that Warren’s ancestor was allegedly married to a white man in Tennessee at a time when such a marriage would have been prohibited by anti-miscegenation laws. Those laws only fell when struck down by the Supreme Court in 1967, a blow for equality every bit as significant as the legalization of gay marriage in our time. Like the prohibitions on gay marriage, anti-miscegenation laws were justified by a comical admixture of fake science and superstition, only comical to those not separated from persons they loved.

It’s only fair to admit the Cherokee Nation had such laws as well, but applying only to “Negroes.” However, white Cherokee citizens were limited to one wife. While that limitation sounds absurd, it was a rational attempt to avoid white intruders entering marriages of convenience with Cherokee women, which brings up another speculation about Ms. Warren’s story.

The marriage application supposedly naming the Cherokee ancestor was made in Oklahoma in 1894. Oklahoma statehood was in 1907, but 1894 would have been during the height of the white intruder problem in the Cherokee Nation. The question becomes whether the application was filed in Oklahoma Territory or Indian Territory and, if the latter, which nation? At this writing, it appears that the application came from Logan County, Oklahoma Territory, nowhere near the Cherokee Nation.

However this resolves, Dr. Allen has been unable to find Warren’s ancestor on any Cherokee Rolls, so it would appear that the ancestor was not a citizen.

If Elizabeth Warren listed herself in the Harvard faculty directory as Indian hoping to meet others of like descent, there’s no harm and no foul. Can you imagine how hard it must be to promote a stickball game on the Harvard Quad?

If she was making herself available to mentor Indian students, that would be commendable. I expect the Indian students would have said so by now.

There’s no question Harvard has used Elizabeth Warren to hoist the flag of diversity. Harvard is flying a false flag and it’s reprehensible.

The question, to me, is whether Elizabeth Warren was a box checker, seeking personal advantage on the backs of people who lived their lives with the down side of being Indian? The answer is on her employment application. If she’s guilty, it’s some evidence of a character flaw and a tragedy for the 99%.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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ikwewe's picture
Interesting sorting of ideas here. One of the insidious wrongs of affirmative action is lack of clarity in application. Did Harvard opportunistically exploit Warren's assertion without verification? In responsibly administered AA plans, proof of tribal membership, BIA certification or community recognition is needed to "count" the person as Native. There are many reasons not yet cited why Warren would check that box. How about to show there are actually highly qualified Native attorneys? To make herself available for Native related study or research? Were there advantages open to her if she were counted as Native that might not be available to her as a white woman? Remember, women also count for Affirmative action.
swrussel's picture
Thank you for your comment and thank you for giving me a chance to add some things cut for space reasons. In one sense, Elizabeth Warren IS IN FACT a diversity feather in Harvard's cap: very few women are tenured in her field, securities regs. This is how I came to pay attention to her career, besides the fact we are both Okies. I knew who she was before this fandango happened because I watched the market implode in 2008 and noticed that Elizabeth Warren was one of a few experts with a grasp on how our economy went down the tubes and how to prevent a repeat. So there's no question she's a great diversity catch in her field. This issue is whether she ever held herself out as a "twofer," because neither women nor Indians are common in her area of law. I have not yet seen any evidence she did. "Box checker" is a generic term Indians understand, but for faculty at a research university, there is no box to check, and you don't fill out the affirmative action form until after you are hired (I know by being in the process), so she would have to have written something herself claiming to be Indian, not just checked a box. As I said in my column, I very much hope she did not.
hontasfarmer's picture
One question, at what point is a person who has no official paperwork Indian enough to check that box? I do, but considering my name inherited from my father and grandfather, a checked box isn't the first clue.
sparrowtooth's picture
I can proudly claim to be 25% Dena'ina. I have a great deal of direct evidence and documentation to prove and support this. I compiled this information with some difficulty as I was legally adopted to a non-Native family. Ms. Warren appears to have 0% of Native blood. Ms. Warren does not have any records or documentation---zip. To box-check as you say without knowing/or being what you check is a fraud. Regardless of her Party or other deeds, she perpetrated a fraud. She did so by box-checking, her Cherokee cookbook recipe contributions, representing, (however tacitly), as a minority person of "color" in several academic settings...but Ms. Warren is NOT Cherokee or Delaware. Her roots are Northern European. She can't be of Indian heritage and have no trace of ancestry originally from Turtle Island. This could be proven with absolute clarity by conducting DNA testing. There’s no harm and no foul? I heartily disagree. To date; she has a picture of a relative with high-cheekbones and 5 published cookbook recipes. No harm no foul...? Frankly, Judge, her insensitivity to speak as a Cherokee women...but not to be one; is most foul!
doberwoman's picture
she could've mentioned it in her resume. It was weaved in somewhere because they described her as Harvard's first "woman of color".... Outrageous.
swrussel's picture
There's no easy answer to that question. I, too, resent the whole AKC registration feeling of the cards. But what are you gonna do? Here's my feeling. It's not about what you claim; it's about who claims you. "Race" is a pseudo-scientific fantasy, but Indian is not about race and never had been in the real world. It's about connection to a tribal community. The cards are one way of showing that (cards plural because there's the CDIB and then the tribal card). It's not the only way. When I was active in academia, I was concerned about the tendency to accept self-ID. It seemed and seems to me that if you are enrolled and somebody says you're not Indian, they should have to prove it. If you are not enrolled and you claim you are Indian, you should have to prove it. If you are a member of a community, it has leaders who can vouch for you. If you are not a member of a community, then all you have is proof of blood by standard genealogical methods. My personal opinion is that's absurd. If blood made you Indian, I could solve my problem understanding Cherokee verbs with a blood transfusion rather than having to ask for help. All culture is learned, not inherited. But that's just me. The reality is that academia tends to accept self-ID because they are thinking race, and when a question comes up they fall back on genealogy. That's why the Elizabeth Warren fiasco has come down the way it has.
cojee's picture
RE: Dr. Russell's words, "If blood made you Indian, I could solve my problem understanding Cherokee verbs with a blood transfusion rather than having to ask for help. All culture is learned, not inherited." TRUE on all counts! According to “Osceola’s Legacy,” Univ. Alabama Press, Osceola was 1/8 Creek. The rest of him was Irish, English, Scottish, and Black. No Native fought harder or is more venerated in Florida. My g-g-g grandfather was born in 1797 not so far from Tallassee, AL (where Osceola was born, 1804) and was left in a basket on the doorstep of the Moseley (variant spellings) family, missionaries to the Creeks. My mother’s Pike County, AL, family lives by Creek traditions, especially being matrilocal and matriarchal. On my father’s side (from Campbell County, KY), I’m 5th-gen Garfield County, Oklahoma-born and grew up in Florida being told that we have Native blood. One of my Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation co-workers is ¼ Creek from Pike County, AL, but he can’t prove it because his grandma had no birth certif. Here in St. Petersburg is an Iroquois college professor who relates that when he was a child, his uncle told him to close his eyes, look into his soul, and decide: Is he white, or is he Indian? Indian, of course. We have plenty of Dick Wilsons, who can prove blood. What do you want? More Wilsons? Or more of us who maybe can’t prove blood but have the People’s interests at heart, like Osceola? Stop with the blood quantum, that’s a White-man (esta-hadkee) thing. Tecumseh tried to unite the Eastern tribes, and they wouldn’t do it, and we lost the country. We are in perilous times like no others, with Mother Earth herself at stake. We MUST unite NOW!!!!
hontasfarmer's picture
"If you are a member of a community, it has leaders who can vouch for you. If you are not a member of a community, then all you have is proof of blood by standard genealogical methods." That is a very reasonable standard.The problem is always just which communities and which leaders each of us chooses to recognize, and what genealogical evidence is enough. Self ID without any evidence just isn't enough on that we can all agree, but not much else. Thanks for answering.
tuschkahouma's picture
this whole issue is so Willie Horton on the GOP's behalf. I work in Lawrence, Kansas at a blue collar factory job. Three of my co-workers have Native ancestry without enrollment. Two Cherokees and a Miami descendent. I know an enrolled Creek person whose ancestor married one of the White men involved in their Creek removal. This person related this story to me a decade ago. His parent was a blonde haired Creek descendant of 1/16 ancestry. My late mother was of 2/16ths Choctaw/Biloxi ancestry and knew of little of the ancestry until I did the research and spent a decade educating myself because the schools didn't. The Breitbart clowns didn't even realize the area around OKC was opened to sooners before 1900 due to the land runs. The country singer Carrie Underwood is an enrolled Creek descendant for goodness sakes. Having admired the late Powhattan -Renape professor Jack Forbes and his book For Approved Indians Only one has to acknowledge he wasn't enrolled either but the circumstances surrounding colonialism where responsible for the dispersal of Algonquian people from the Chesapeake area towards the west and Canada. In closing my wife and I were taking pictures of US 66 and pulled over at a KwikTrip in Catoosa, Oklahoma in October, 2009. A Toyota Sequoia with CNO tags pulls up next to us. A blonde women with freckles left this vehicle. This woman looked like a younger Elizabeth Warren. I've seen red haired freckled Cherokees and a blonde Cherokee man at the Haskell pow-wow last weekend with the old school broached haircut. Don;t let the GOP stereotypes work when they have no platform. I was bothered that US Rep Tom Cole didn't step up for Elizabeth Warren since many Chickasaw citizens have less blood quantum than she claims to have. Another example of White BQ issues being used to divide and conquer indigenous descendants.
husbandofmoonlight's picture
Having been an activist in many Native American projects---I am amazed as the disunity that the USGovernment has been able to spread in the Native American common communitites; but then. "If I" were in illegal possession of more than 60% of my geographic territory, and held onto that as a result of "disunity I created" in the "former owners" (who by the way had been fighting each other over most of the entire continent for at least 15K years)I would just LOVE to have "those members like yourslef" perform some of that disunity FOR ME--- Being a "lawyer and a judge---and a professor of law: you would certainly have to agree that "all" of us of Native American ancestry; born after 1883 who were heirs to treaties prior to that and ALL of those born after 1836---are all by the decisons of the Highest Court--Art 3 and Art 6 of the US Constituion--and by US as well as International Law------ were all born prisoners of war, and are still at war with the USA and should no longer accept the disunity---but ACT--quit accepting defeat-----take advantage of the situation and act in "unity". Now I must confess, that having served my "captors" as a US Marine (1972-78) although may seem "as capitulation" in international legal standards, I did in fact "earn" my "rights to walk around" and even studied Law in Texas, under the Hazelwood act---. In addition I have been active as a cofounder of a "private non profit" organization that provides ancillary services to Native American Children renderd to the custody of any entity outside of their tribal affilliation(s) and since the "Indean Gaming Act"----an unforutnate piece of illegal legistlation that simply was added to Title 25---another evern larger piece of illegal legislatoin and has helped immensely in creating the disunity they desire---and hey alos let us never foget---for that 99% that you mentioned---the tribes pay a collective 63% Tax on their revenues----no other "minority on the planet would tolerate that---except a disunified one.I persoanlly am NOT on the rolls of the three tribesI am 'heir" to; Comanche,Kiowa, Mississppi Choctaw since to be so is a violation of the treaties we inherited from our ancestors who were NEVER defeated: the USA brought treaties to "us"---they "capitulated"----we accepted it. To complain about the USA violating the treaties with Title 25---while "on the rolls" would be an act of hypocrisy the Americans would be envious of. By the way, I don't pay a 28% tax either---especially on money that would be "our own" instead of "my own"------------and still not enough compensation for the total that has been taken. There are solutions---but you have not made even one suggestion of one here. Such as DNA evidence since Native American DNA even though extremely "varied" is very distinct----- Whenever I read repsones by "professionals" such as "yourself"---especially "legal guys" (lol)---I am compelled to answer with "questions"--------are YOU part of the 99%---or like me ---not a part of any of it?---------or following the dictates of your "profession"---are you here to dance with the "cowboy that brung ya"? Please respond.