We Should Denounce the Conduct of Harvard and Elizabeth Warren

Margo (Kickingbird) DeLaune & Cole R. DeLaune

As an enrolled member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, 1981 alumna of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, veteran scholastic administrator, and lifelong Democrat, I am profoundly disturbed by the emergence of recent details concerning Harvard and one of its law school’s senior faculty members, Massachusetts senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. Over the course of the past month, facts have come to attention that leave little doubt that the HLS bureaucracy and Professor Warren perpetrated nothing less than ethnic fraud. The development of this saga has elicited a disappointing response from all parties involved and reflects not just a single offense of intellectual dishonesty but, rather, a broader and systemic racial masquerade rooted in egregious insensitivity. Media commentary from both polarities has failed to articulate the troubling implications involved in the deceit in which Harvard Law and one of its most prominent contemporary staffers have engaged for over a decade. I urge fellow Native alumni of Harvard, as well as all American Indians presently associated with any of the University’s schools, to denounce the conduct of HLS and Professor Warren.

The spectacle that has engulfed the contest between the liberal folk heroine and Senator Scott Brown illuminates a willful perversion and debasement of equal opportunity ideals, as well as a chance to see elements of critical race theory writ large.

Of course, abstractions favor the Warren camp. After all, what standards can arbitrate cultural authenticity? To parse the politics of self-determination is, at cursory glance, a presumptuous business at best, and Charles Fried, the faculty member who recruited Warren to Harvard, contends that claims to minority status played no part in her hiring.

Ultimately, however, whether the Professor formally obtained her employment in Cambridge thanks to affirmative action is immaterial. An unethical endeavor does not have to succeed in its objectives in order to warrant objection. Similarly, qualification does not automatically legitimize malfeasance.

Warren has predicated her bid for elected office on an advocacy for the disenfranchised, the proverbial “99 percent.” Consequently, her conduct vis-à-vis a historically marginalized Native community is fundamentally pertinent to the ideological consistency of her campaign platform.

Despite initial reports by news outlets that a marriage certificate discovered by New England genealogists pointed to a Cherokee great-great-great grandmother, both the Boston Globe and the New England Historic and Genealogical Society recently conceded that no proof has been discovered to substantiate the existence of that document. Additionally, ReJeania Zmek, the Logan County Clerk, explained that Oklahoma only began maintaining marriage applications around 1950, the year after Warren herself was born.

Cole DeLaune

Although the academic originally asserted that she never advertised her theoretical American Indian ties to Harvard, the school bureaucracy was familiar with her background by 1996-1998, when Harvard Law spokesman Mike Chimura referred to Warren as a Native American in separate articles about women and minority HLS faculty members published by the Harvard Crimson and the Fordham Law Review. Warren contends that she had been unaware of Chimura’s promotion of her lineage, but declared that she was “proud” of her roots. In essence, then, she is effectively endorsing Harvard’s decision to publicize her as a representation of diversity, and is thus contributing to the perpetuation of environmental homogeneity and an institutionalized strain of racial posturing.

On Friday, the Boston Globe reported:

"...for at least six straight years during Warren’s tenure, Harvard University reported in federally mandated diversity statistics that it had a Native American woman in its senior ranks at the law school. According to both Harvard officials and federal guidelines, those statistics are almost always based on the way employees describe themselves."

In addition, both Harvard’s guidelines and federal regulations for the statistics lay out a specific definition of Native American that Warren does not meet.

The article also notes that Harvard Law claimed a single Native American professor in a 2011 diversity survey based on ethnic self-identification.

What’s so confounding about the efforts of the Warren camp to deflect attention from these realities is that a consideration of the mainstream progressive ethos she publicly embraces fails to support her actions. Rather, the central question here is one of intent: why did Professor Warren list herself as a minority in the AALS directories and in federal compliance statistics when the implicit purpose of the opportunity to ethnically self-identify in a professional context is a function of equal opportunity aspirations? If we lived in a color-blind America, questions of race would not appear on scholastic and employment paperwork because they would be irrelevant; as it is, their presence is not an invitation for entertainment and networking. A seasoned veteran of academia in her late thirties would presumably recognize as much.

If one proceeds from the premise that the objective of affirmative action is to promote mosaics of perspective as didactic apparatuses in and of themselves, then Warren is not an individual who can refer to a personal history defined by either Native culture or Native genetics. It is wonderful that her "family lore" aspires to inclusiveness with its nods to "high cheekbones" but to argue that such vaguely defined allusions are of similar value in shaping a unique world view as regular exposure to and celebration of specific custom, doctrine, and ideology, would be patently false. And if white privilege exists, as numerous proponents of liberalism contend, then it has to be aesthetic as well as cultural. Warren's experience has, by and large, been that of a Caucasian female American. And so Warren’s motivation in emphasizing a claim to Native lineage becomes a central issue in regard to her credibility.

A not-insignificant number of her defenders have attempted to double down by maintaining that most Oklahomans likely have at least a minute amount of Indian DNA. What a poetic illustration of the legacy of colonialism: first, the European entitlement to Native territories, and, now, white entitlement to Native cultural identity sans the conditions that confer meaning on that identity. In this respect, Warren has arguably benefited from pervasive misconceptions about Indians and a propensity of mainstream America to romanticize them. Perhaps as a result of white guilt, it is an acceptable, even trendy, practice among stalwart Warren supporters in Internet forum dialogues to sympathetically recall their own ambiguous tales of indigenous ancestors and then to admit that they themselves have no proof but muddied familial oral narratives. After all, anyone who has listened to their aunt wax envious about cheekbones can’t be ignorant about the nuances informing tribal politics, ceremonies, and traditions, or about the unique obstacles with which many Natives grapple each day: third-world living standards on reservations; endemic alcoholism and poverty; a situational dearth of legal recourse due to jurisdictional complexities; an absence of opportunity for educational or economic betterment.

Perhaps, in the end, we should appreciate Professor Warren for revealing institutionalized deficiencies at our alma mater that may have otherwise remained unexamined. However, we should nevertheless hold her accountable for the damage she has wrought—by either crassly capitalizing on the plight of the American Indian or indulging in the fetishization of a frequently caricaturized minority group. We ask the fellow Native alumni of Harvard, as well as the University’s current Native students and staffers, to join in supporting Senator Brown. Because when Warren directly facilitates a corruption of equal opportunity philosophy and then disingenuously dismisses valid concerns about her behavior as attacks against her family, she demeans the bravery of our Native forebears who fought so valiantly to resist assimilation and to preserve our various ways of life.

Educated at Darmouth College and Columbia University in the City of New York, Cole DeLaune is a native of Oklahoma and Tennessee. He currently resides in Atlanta, and has contributed editorial content to Vogue and Elle, among other publications. He is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma.

Margo (Kickingbird) DeLaune is a longtime professional veteran of the education arena. She is an alumna of Franklin & Marshall College and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Of Kiowa and Pottawatomie descent, she is presently a resident of Georgia and Oklahoma.

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quinzy's picture
I agree that Elizabeth Warren should be denounced, but with extreme caution and only by people intelligent enough to understand all the issues involved. Harvard certainly should not be denounced. There are many skins who cannot document their Indian ancestry. What do we do about such full bloods? What do we do about those "full bloods" who don't qualify for membership in any one tribe because their parents and grandparents belonged to different tribes? What do we about those who speak their language well but have been kicked out of their tribes because of casino politics? My granddaughter cannot get tribal membership because she refuses to pay $1,300 in disputed rent to the chair of her enrollment committee. Both her parents and all her siblings are tribal members. What do we do with someone like her? What do we do about the descendants of skins who still live like skins but don't qualify for membership in any tribe because of the impact of colonization? What do we do about those "full bloods" who are Bill C-31 casualties? Have either of you read the opinion editorial below yours by Cedric Sunray? Have either of you read Razing Florida: The Indian Slave Trade and the Devastation of Spanish Florida, 1659–1715 by John E. Worth? Have either of you read Shattered and Infected: Epidemics and the Origins of the Yamasee War, 1696–1715 by Paul Kelton? Have you read “Caryinge awaye their Corne and Children”: The Effects of Westo Slave Raids on the Indians of the Lower South by Eric E. Bowne? Have you read books and articles on how Indians have been devastated by colonization and slavery? Have you never met "full bloods" in New Mexico who cannot document Indian ancestry? Have you never met skins on reservations who speak the language, have the culture, look brown but don't qualify for tribal membership? What do you do about Tohono O'odham Indians who don't have birth certificates, so they don't even get social security numbers? What do you do about the Indians who lived in the US but one day the US-Mexico border was drawn without consulting them leaving them trapped in present-day Mexico? They still live like Indians right across the border. In some cases, their own tribes were pressured by the US to denounce them in exchange for federal recognition. I am a full blood by white standards and a tribal citizen. Even though I am a 4/4 skin with a "CDIB," I do have black blood in me. If I am asked to "prove" my black blood, there is no way for me to do so. I know many skins who have no way of proving their Indian blood - they have brown skin, not white skin. Finally, Margo DeLaune and Cole R. DeLaune, have you ever seen your own faces in the mirror? You look like privileged whites yourself and you have been treated as white all your life. Both of you should NOT benefit from Native status in college admissions either. Stop talking for all skins. Why do people like you who look like whites and are treated as white all over America feel they have the right to speak for all Indians? If you look white, you should NOT speak for Indians.
rezzdog's picture
I don't know Quizny. Kickingbird is a mighty powerful name in NDN country and in education. And, after studying all the pics Cole and Margo sent me, I fail to see the face of white privilege in either human being. Blood quantum and CDIB cards and any other BIA approved way of self identity is dangerous stuff and too thorny for me to embrace. In fact, the Iroquois (and Mohawks in particular) never picked up those things. Your rant on what is NDN or what is not and who looks like what is pretty discouraging to see on the ICTMN Op/Ed pages, considering the goal is to raise the level of discourse on any given issue. But, frustration is a mighty powerful force and makes folks say/think in confused and even de-constructive ways. After all, we are just humble hu-mans. I do not believe that Margo or Cole were speaking for All Indians as you claim. In the first paragraph they say their point of view is as Kiowa's and Harvard grads, that seems pretty clear and limiting if not qualifying, wouldn't you agree? I look forward to reading more of your comments again, I see your are very active in our comment sections and that is good to see. Thank you for that. R. Cook, ICTMN Op/Ed Editor
fslafountaine's picture
I agree with quinzy's comments, and I don't agree with rezzdog's comments. I feel a chilling effect in many news articles about Elizabeth Warren. I am a 64 years old member of the Colville Confederated Tribes and a long time Democrat.
rezzdog's picture
FS, It is a weird situation. On one level it appears Warren did not directly benefit from listing herself Native, she was not hired because of it. On the other hand, Harvard was happy to use her native listing in their reports to donors and the feds (as required) as having a high profile minority woman prof on their law school staff. So, that would make it hard to say Harvard should not be called on the carpet, how ever, the way the law was written around minority preference/affirmative action left many institutions desperate to find and hire minorities. Which raises a whole other slew of questions, most visible is, why was it so hard for Harvard to find a qualified native for their staff? One cannot swing a dead cat in NDN country, for decades now, without hitting some newly graduated or experienced native lawyer with real credentials and cultural grounding among their people of origin. But, you are right Lafountaine, this is a tough issue on many levels and I think it should not be convoluted by the race baiting found in remarks like Quizny's "...have you ever seen your own faces in the mirror? You look like privileged whites yourself and you have been treated as white all your life." How would he know how the Kickingbirds have been treated all their life? And, what if they did look white, which they do not btw, is Quizny suggesting that every single white person in the country receives favorable treatment based on their looks? That is simply and ridiculously unbelievable. I bet the hillbilly's in the poorest regions of the Ozarks would beg to differ.
seeforestfortrees's picture
Wow...as another Native alumna of Harvard, I strongly disagree with your argument. Your legitimate points get lost in your rhetoric about electoral implications. Yes, ethnic fraud in academia is a problem. Yes, Harvard needs to adddress it. However, you call on us, Native Harvard alumni, to vote for Scott Brown simply because he is Elizabeth Warren's opponent? Let's not forget that a vote FOR Brown is a vote FOR Brown. This action is NOT tantamount to a vote against Warren. Besides support VAWA, what has Brown done lately for Indians? Where was Brown's commitment to stopping ethnic fraud in the university setting before this convenient situation presented itself? Ridiculous. I don't care if you're a lifelong Democrat. What has Brown done for MA? I call on Harvard Native alumni who are actually registered MA voters, as well as all Massachusans, to vote FOR Elizabeth Warren and AGAINST Scott Brown. -Harvard Native alumna, lifelong Massachusetts resident, lifelong Democrat
frybreadpower's picture
All this noise about EW is only because of MA politics. We wouldn't of heard a peep had she not been running for office in such a high profile race with huge implications. Therefore, in this dust up, I'm with the "who gives a __ side " side. I hate to see Indians (Cherokees in particular) being used in this elections. Neither Warren or Brown, when elected, will give a damn about the issues of tribal membership and enrollments that are troubling to many in Indian Country. It does bother me though to see the hundreds of Indian descendants, 1/32nds to 1/512ths, clogging up the health clinics in mine and other tribal service areas in OK. I know some of these folks are of just as much or more of some combination of European ancestry as Indian. Yet they're expending precious limited resources that should be used exclusively for American Indians and their immediate descendants. The real outrage and discussion should be about the irresponsibility of several tribes with their membership criteria that have created these inequities and what can be done at this point to resolve them.
laura's picture
It seems to me that the authors make very objective and lucid points. I can't find anything to disagree on.
hontasfarmer's picture
What Elizabeth Warren did was not "fraud". She checked two boxes on forms that probably said "check all that apply". She followed the forms directions. These forms do not ask do you have a tribal ID or CDIB. These forms do not care about any of that. There is a difference between heritage and citizenship in a nation. She claims a certain heritage, not that she is a citizen. She did it based on her family stories, much as people claim to have ancestors who are Irish or Polish or Chinese. Claiming your heritage should never be wrong. As for the idea that being brown might win her some more credibility in Indian country. Really? Tell that to the Lumbee, the Nottoway, or the Cherokee Freedmen.
mandrake's picture
There is absolutely no doubt that she used her fake Indian connection to advance her career--indeed to get on the Harvard faculty. Consider that she came from a second rate law school (Rutgers), and her so-called scholarship has been widely mocked. If you can find anyone else on the faculty with such a poor resume, it would have been due to affirmative action. Strangely, even though her marriage to Jim Warren ended in 1978(!), and she re-married Bruce Mann in 1980, she still goes by the name "Warren." Maybe that's because Bruce Mann is a professor at Harvard Law, and had something to do with her being hired. Liz Warren is a complete fraud, and the tenacious manner in which she is being defended by the Left is quite telling, isn't it? Hasn't anyone else noticed that the department she created for Obama, and the one she was supposed to head, was given to someone else. Clearly, she was vetted, and they did not like what they saw.
coledelaune's picture
Actually, no, as the excerpt from the Boston Globe states, she failed to meet the criteria for the defintion of "Native American" delineated by the DOL and by Harvard itself, which specify tribal or community recognition (so, enrollment) as a prerequisite condition to self-identify as Native. So, yes, per these defintions, this action was fraudulent. Again, aesthetics was merely one aspect emphasized in the statement, positioned within the context of cultural awareness and connection.