Elizabeth Warren and the Politics of Spiritual Genocide

Cole R. DeLaune

The humid days of late summer have always been a difficult time of year for me. The purple August sunsets have acquired a valedictory undertone in the decade since my grandmother's death, but even before that, the annual transitional confusion and temporal dislocations made for a heady and disorienting brew of endings and beginnings. The merry excess of the season reaches its climax, and the succeeding diminuendo often relies on torrid, bone-dry heat and damp, clammy farewells for dramatic effect.

It was in anticipation of this inevitable interlude that I received word of my great-uncle's passing several weeks ago, so although I was deeply saddened by the news, I was not altogether surprised.

It is an unappreciated reality that people have the most impact on the lives of others by their absence, and it would be hard to overstate the implications of the Kiowas' most recent loss. As the oldest living man among his people, Matthew Whitehorse acted as a custodian of tradition both literally and metaphorically, safekeeping the physical grails of the O-ho-Mah Lodge as well as the cultural tenets of its credo. The texture of any life is a predicate of the social landscape in which it is lived, and Uncle Mac acquitted himself flawlessly for six decades as the leader of the only Kiowa warrior society to continuously observe its ceremonial gatherings in defiance of federal United States edicts designed to effect Indian assimilation. Appropriately enough, some degree of dissonance arose over the question of proper burial practices in the days after his death, a succinct and breathtakingly apt articulation of modernization's synonymy with metaphysical diaspora.

For countless millennial Natives, many of the prescripts of their respective communities are the customs of another country. To be sure, the anthropological erosion is far from complete, and the celebration of tribal tongues and rituals ensures the preservation of indigenous histories for epochs to come. However, it is not unreasonable to wonder if such ways will eventually become, pragmatically speaking, obsolete. After all, the vaults of the past are lousy with dead languages and ruined cities.

So, when prominent public luminaries like Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic nominee for Senate from Massachusetts, popularize a problematic interpretation of racial legacy as an abstract constructs assumed at will, they hasten a Native cultural corrosion originally instigated by formal early twentieth-century American government policies of acculturation. Although Professor Warren has issued few public statements on the subject of her claims to Cherokee heritage other than to promote the validity of superficial racial profiling and improvise a dubious yarn about the circumstances of her parents' marriage, she continues to simultaneously maximize and minimize the significance of her hypothetical roots. In June, she declared that she would be the "first Senator from Massachusetts with a Native background," but then subsequently refused to meet with four Cherokee women who had traveled to Boston to request an audience with her and alleged, absent any evidence, that they were financially motivated right-wing operatives enlisted to derail her candidacy. All the while, she has declined to engage with the Native media apparatus, but has consented to interviews with the Boston Globe and Time, in which she derided the concerns of her Indian critics as "non-substantive." In Warren's model of ethnic distinction, neither practical experience nor community affiliation applies; one can simply appropriate the mantle of Cherokee lineage at personal discretion. Per this formulation, the disparities between discrete cultures are meaningless, and Professor Warren is effectively championing a subtle variety of spiritual genocide.

A November victory for this pathological revisionist will legitimize abjectly appalling notions about indigenous identity. Considering how reluctant the Professor has been on the campaign trail to engage with the minority to whom she contends she is so “proud” to belong, it is unlikely that she will prioritize an advocacy for legislation related to its concerns in the Senate. However, Warren's conduct does not occur in a vacuum, and the alarming ideas she has disseminated will reverberate in the public consciousness long after Election Day for Natives irrespective of whether or not they reside in Massachusetts.

If you disagree with Professor Warren's assault on the Indian landscape, please consider recording a brief statement on your mobile phone or laptop for the Natives United Against Warren campaign and submitting your message (warrendoesnotrepresentme@gmail) via e-mail. The professor's actions demand a vigorous and unmitigated response lest her destructive and assimilatory species of racist ruse—an increasingly grotesque variant of intellectual blackface—prevails.

Educated at Dartmouth College and Columbia University, 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.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page




coledelaune's picture
I've already addressed the historical minutiae you're now deploying to bolster your argument: in the context of this dialogue, I find the resulting thesis to be a simplistic and deliberately myopic. So, "there are people on the Dawes Rolls from Arkansas". . . legit. How does that fact illuminate any knowledge of Cherokee history or language or cultural on Warren's part? You yourself previously underlined such conditions as significant in self-identifying as Native, and this is the fourth or fifth time since that I've asked you to explain that inconsistency. Unless I'm missing something, you've yet to do so. Premising your reply on the nuances of that historical period is essentially tantamount to contending that such past realities somehow increase the probability that Warren has an unidentified Indian ancestor in the family tree. As I said, that theory can be applied as legitimately to any Caucasian individual from Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, or the surrounding region with a locative ineage extending several generations. So, now I guess practically everyone of such descendancy is spontaneously Native irrespective of their functional experience as non-Natives? That's practically magical. So, you're now transitioning to the contention that anyone who finds Warren's conduct problematic, including Cherokees, is part of a political conspiracy? How condescending and patronizing of you, not to mention wildly imaginative. Perhaps you should try your hand at fiction. Why are you reading Indian Country Today if it is an agent of "gotcha politics"? Warren has refused to speak to the editorial team here despite several requests for interviews, as I understand it.
tuschkahouma's picture
Andrew Jackson was the ancient grandfather of the 1940's Dixiecrats and the state's Rights GOP of today. As a Choctaw/Biloxi descendant whose ancestors were from Mississippi I know all too well about this history. Pushmataha fought along side General Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans only to die in DC in 1824 and have many Chahta Okla moved in spite of the loyalty to the US in that time.Some Chahta Okla don't think very highly of Pushmataha due to this history. Andrew Jackson was in support of the State of Georgia subjugating Cherokee sovereignty prior to the Worcester V Georgia and Cheorkee V Georgia cases in the SCOTUS in the early 1830's. Siding with the states rights government of the South didn't work out so well for the Five Civilized Tribes during the US Civil War. Ever heard of Albert Pike? do you wonder where the Freedman issue came from or why there were punishment treaties in 1866 involving these tribes? on the subject of this election what is Romney/Ryan about? putting states first and getting their hands on tribal minerals and assets. Deregulation in the past was allotment and termination. Ask the Menominee and Klamath people about how much timber the GOP wanted their hands on back in the 1950's. As for the appearance issue....who is trying to out-Indian who? One looks at the inherent discrimination in the Dawes Act as to who got to handle their own affairs and who got a thieving guardian to steal their tribal assets. Who ran to the US government policies in some tribes and nations and who was the Chitto Harjo, Redbird Smith, or Wahquahboshkuk, who resisted allotment, Christianity, or the schools and their nahollo anumpuli to stay the people they were. I don't care if someone is 4/4ths or 1/512ths as long as they know some of their history or language and know historically who their historical adversaries are. Mrs. Warren knows who the adversaries of working people and minorities, are. She's not the recipient of a blind trust worth between $1 million and $5 million that Paul Ryan finally reported that belonged to his alleged Chickasaw spouse in VP financial disclosures a week ago. On a firsthand account I know people who are enrollable CNO descendants who haven't enrolled. When I spoke of Conservative Comanches I spoke of David Yeaghley and former Haskell President Warner. The latter had a McCain sticker on their vehicle in 2008. Nothing like having a man who one minute goes after Jack Abramov and the next minute waffles and caves to the Bush Administration on the Cobell settlement amount and goes after the Colorado River tribes over NIGC jurisdicition issues. This whole Warren issue is a non issue.
coledelaune's picture
Aren't you effectively contradicting yourself by contending, "I don’t care if someone is 4/4ths or 1/512ths as long as they know some of their history or language and know historically who their historical adversaries are"? Warren fails to meet two of the three conditions you specify in that assertion, unless you believe that every protestor who has attended an Occupy Wall Street demonstration is automatically Native or Cherokee by virtue of their opposition to the corporate apparatus. You seem to favor deflecting attention to points of reality that are essentially immaterial to the themese addressed in the opinion piece. I'm really uncertain how the inheritance bequeathed to Janna Ryan is germane to this discourse since she obviously is not running against Professor Warren, but if wealth in and of itself is somehow relevant to questions of cultural purity or moral authority, then Warren herself is among the "historical adversaries" just by virtue of the fact that her income places in her the proverbial "one percent." It seems that you're arguing that financial affluence automatically renders Native heritage illegitimate. David Yeaghley, Warner, and McCain are irrelevant to this article, as, frankly, are Ryan and Romney, since Warren isn't running against either. So. . .because the aggregate Southern voting electorate evolved from "Dixicrats" to the "GOP of today," that somehow negates the connection to "history and language" that you outlined as important parameters with respect to the authenticity of cultural identification? Talk about esoteric arguments.
tmsyr11's picture
No doubt most mature American indian tribal members (conventional) are fully aware of their tribal histories and their own reliences . Democratic politics is quietly rewriting to correlate with Democratic national political scene. Most Indians know all too well loss of land and water rights to feds and state. But to blame to one arena is a half-truth. Federal govt. isn’t responsible WITH indian affairs as we witnessed how inept AZ Gov. BBabbitt was under Billy Jeff. Didn’t Cobbell originate under Billy Jeff? He ended up KICKING THE CAN. Kicking the can is popular w/Democratic public policies today. If average American Joe/Jane “is supposed” to speak through their Rep., it stands MORE and MORE dual citizen indians should be voting in the tribal polls and HOLDING THEIR Tribal Govts. Accountable! For elected tribal officials to say ‘we have no tribal money’ is a poor excuse considering how the FedGovt notably in the mid-70s gave tribes more self-reliance. But considering federal environmental policy requirements and tribal costs (probably) being given to Democratic-sponsored consultants, it is not wonder tribal govts are caught in this tangle of lies, half-truths of Socialistic Democratic Party and Obama Whitehouse. Most tribes mistakenly are waiting for ‘promised’ federal relief while not acknowledging the White House has over-promised on federal allocations to illegitimate interests, i.e. illegal aliens/children, same-sex, green party, etc. It is apparent this White House has had no plans nor demonstrated leadership.This is what Warren represents – continued reliance and dependence on the FED GOVT – while Warren falsely assumes Indian people support her. Sorry I am not convinced on how – pure and wooley and white as snow a full-fledged card carrying Democratic member is. Though blame is falsely given to GWBush White House - WHO though was in charge of the budgetary process starting in January 2007? Who was in charge of the Banking and Financial services prior to the economic meltdown 15 months later? Who passed continuing resolutions until the Obama took office? Irresponsible leadership and failed national policies (bent on breaking the Federal govt) is what Warren represents under disguise as an “indian”. Because of Democratic policies, we have a spending (not budget) problem and unfortunately, indian affairs and collective programs are taking the hit.
michaelmack's picture
When I first read about the Elizabeth Warren/Cherokee thing, I thought on God, here we go with another instance of Indians being dragged into the muck of political correctness wrestling between the two major U.S. political parties. In such instances, the Indians always wind up getting kicked around for the political convenience of American politics. In the U.S. political system, Indians are largely symbols of whatever the political parties try to shape us into - in the moment - for their convenience. Nothing more. It's a sad and disgusting thing to witness - because it truly reveals the lack of character and lack of ethical substance the political parties have. And it shows how most Americans can't conceive of a U.S. without these two political parties grandstanding at the expense of the other. The Liz Warren/Cherokee thing is just another of a long string of unfortunate examples. Given the polarized and disintegrating nature of the American political system, is there really any hope for change?
tuschkahouma's picture
I want to address both the column author and the poster tmsyr11 here. From the beginning of the Warren debacle whose designation for public identification has used? the Dawes Commission rolls. If many other too lates or people otherwise jerked over by the Dawes Commission can have a beef with that the objectivity and the Five Dollar Indians who purchased their way onto those rolls why are they seen as some sort of marker for Mrs. Warren? Whose judgement is this really? For example...with Wyandotte/Huron communities in Wendake, Quebec, Anderdon, Michigan, Kansas City, Kansas, and Wyandotte, Oklahoma, and only two of those communities having formal recognition, how does the Wyandotte Academic Clifford Trafzer fit in as the descendant of a left behind Wyandotte ancestor in Ohio? I'm not attacking him whatsoever but like Mrs. Warren's ancestors they were left off the grid of formal paper recognition. In academia there are comparative examples....not witch hunts for people to make their names off of like the last six or so months. Do you have any idea how many actual indigenous peoples rich or poor exist off the historical paper ID grid? Ever heard of Gilmer Bennett? the Apalachee Chief whose people emerged from the backwoods of central Louisiana a decade or so ago with no papers....just the spector of hiding out in the woods from the Klan for decades and going to court to fight misgenation laws in Louisiana as a child a couple of parishes to the south of Jonesville, LA, where I grew up. Who are you to decide whose Indian with the use of historical papers created by the White Dawes Commission to steal lands away from Indian people between 1887 and 1906? that's not a contrary act at all. Want a laugh? Winston Churchill had a female Haudenosaunee ancestor from Ontario. Was he enrolled? not to my knowledge. I had a belly laugh when the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma gave like $50k to the Rick Perry campaign because he claimed Choctaw ancestry from Choctaw people who went into central Texas in the 19th century. Before Texas became American lots of tribal people went there. Mr. Perry even looked a little Choctaw to me even though I could not even begin to stomach his politics. While you're at it what about Tommie Lee Jones and Willie Nelson? Mrs. Warren's ancestors were in the same kind of cultural mixing area on the Ark/OK border as there was between American Louisiana and Spanish Texas. Look at the larger picture without an angle. There are grey areas. Tmsyr11....where do I start....I don't like Babbitt now because of the San Francisco Peaks mess... however he actually gave validity to the Cobell issue while Ross Swimmer carried the water for the Yonegeh and the GOP during the W era and talked down the settlement amount substantially after Mr. McCain came with a $7 billion amount. Socialism...really...do you know who David Stockman is? he was the Reagan cabinet member who called tribes socialists and basicially got BIA funds for tribes kneecapped in the early 1980's. He now says that trickle down economics are a farce as tribal people have always known looking at a turned off spigot. You talk about the 1970's as being good for Indians....do you know who did a lot of good for indigenous peoples in that era in which I was alive? Jimmy Carter. American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, ARPA, numerous tribes restored from congressional termination, fishing and hunting treaty rights affirmed, land claim settlement acts stemming from the 1790 Trade and Intercourse acts, the Indian Child Welfare Act. Sometimes I wonder what is being taught for recent history in Indian Country these days. I'm angry that not more is being done to protect sacred sites and I've voiced my opinion vigorously and have gotten some DC replies back. However, Cobell was settled for not near as much as the amount that Mr. Vine Deloria stated in front of me ($20 billion) but it was higher than the $794 million that Ross Swimmer wanted during the Bush Administration. I've learned to split the difference and keep fighting against deserving adversaries and judgemental gatekeepers.
coledelaune's picture
Again, sir, you introduce self-negating barometers (as in your previous comment when you emphasized the importance of familiarity with tribal history and language, two spheres of knowledge with which Warren has failed to demonstrate any acquaintance) and hollow rhetoric (as in referring to "historical adversaries"; doesn't Professor Warren's refusal to engage with and predilection for maligning Cherokees with whom she disagrees as right-wing operatives position her as an "adversary" to them?) into the discourse, and then, rather than clarifying the inconsistencies therein, you default to superficial situational equivalence and entirely separate thrusts of contention. I never exalted the Dawes Rolls as the supreme arbiter of ethnic identity; I highlighted the fact that Warren has no relationship with the tribal history, language, culture, and population that you delineate as important even as she facilitated Harvard's promotion of her as a "woman of color" whose Cherokee background contributed to the diversity and multiculturalism in Cambridge.
tuschkahouma's picture
No papers for Elizabeth Warren....admitted....empirical evidence... family lived in Indian Territory before Oklahoma existed...lived in a part of Arkansas where numerous Old Settler Cherokees and people who jumped off the Cherokee Trail of Tears settled. Old Settlers have been in Arkansas since the 1790's. Very few of them are in the CNO or Keetoowah Bands now. It is believeable that she a lineal Cherokee ancestor amongst all those Euro American Ancestors of hers due to the area they lived in. Cherokees have intermarried with Yonegeh since the 1700's. There were Dawes Cherokee enrollees in 1906 whose blood quantum was 1/256ths whose descendants are probably at the 1/3000 or 1/4096ths range of blood descendency currently. Colonialism or external pressure to subvert identity can lead to people having ancestry and living within the same state without having daily contact with tribal customs and the like. You're from Oklahoma. How many suburban Indians have you seen? Nothing against Sam Bradford but where did he live and how does he differ from say Joba Chamberlain? real life comparative examples... I live in Kansas. My late mother's ancestors were from SE Mississippi. I don't get to Mississippi or Alabama as much anymore but I do go to Tuschkahouma which is still almost 400 miles from where I live for the Labor Day Gathering. I know you're going to probably not admit any of this and ride this attack for whatever purpose it serves. I must say from searching your name on Conservative blogs they love you. Nothing like doing historical adversaries a favor in their attempt to yet again apply divide and conquer tactics on Indian Country. Gatekeeping and out Indianing people is the best thing to do? right?