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Massachusetts Senatorial Race: Identity Standards, Not Identity Politics

Suzan Shown Harjo
9/26/12

The senatorial race in Massachusetts is too close to call—between incumbent Senator Scott Brown, Republican, and Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren, Democrat—and could decide which party controls the U.S. Senate. But you can set your watch by this: no matter who wins on November 6, Native Peoples will get blamed for the loss by the loser and vanquished as a distraction by the victor.

Here’s another prediction: many of those who are harrumphing about the Brown staffers caught on video “tomahawk chopping” at Warren boosters will go back to rooting for or tolerating teams with racist stereotypes and ignoring or laughing at people who try to stop the race-based symbols and behaviors in sports.

If the Democrats lose the Senate, some will blame Native Peoples for not keeping quiet as Warren reenacted in excruciatingly slow motion how she did not check a “Native American” box (and how no one who hired her paid attention to boxes, checked or unchecked), but that she was entitled to check the box because she believes she is Native American, albeit if only by family rumor. If the Republicans can’t take the Senate, some will blame it on “Indians,” and some bad law could result from suspicions that “wannabes” could take advantages intended for “real Indians.”

Let’s stipulate that Brown and Warren believe what they say and are offended by what they see as untruths or racism by the other. I commend them for taking these matters seriously and for doing a very hard thing: learning out loud and in public that Native American issues and identity are nuanced, and for calibrating their language along the non-offensive scale.

Brown and Warren went wrong when they played the race card—she by mocking the idea of backing up her “part Cherokee and part Delaware heritage” and he by mocking her appearance as not Native American and as evidence that she is lying. Now they need to stop playing identity politics and focus on identity standards.

Brown and Warren are lawyers—he’s been making law and she’s been teaching law. They know the meaning of evidence and standing. They should know that federal and tribal Native American identity centers on nationhood and citizenship, under criteria set by each Native nation. The standard is political relationship, not racial composition.

“I never asked for documentation,” said Warren, “What kid would?” Kids of the 39 Native nations in and pre-dating Oklahoma (Warren’s home state) have all sorts of documentation, from treaties and governance documents to tribal IDs to verify eligibility for health care.

Even if Warren never sought or noticed proof about her family or ties to Native peoples past and present, is she curious about or interested in others, such as the many Native students at her Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City? Did she make friends with any? Did she ever go to a pow-wow or to a Cherokee or Delaware event? Oklahoma has the second largest Native population of any state today and Oklahoma City has the fourth largest Native population of any U.S. city. It’s hard to miss Native peoples or history in Oklahoma. Did she notice the awful “No Indians or Dogs Allowed” signs in Oklahoma when she was growing up?

As an adult, did she contact the Cherokee Nation or Delaware Tribe? As a lawyer or law professor, did she contact any tribal courts to find out how they are structured or how they handle cases in her areas of legal interest? Did she seek Native lawyers, teachers, students or policymakers in D.C. or Michigan (she was there at the height of the treaty fishing and hunting courtroom wars) or Harvard? Why didn’t she meet with Native American Delegates at the Democratic National Convention in August? They were trying to help her.

If she were so proud and certain of her family history and she did check the Native American box, why not admit it? If she did not, why not? And why the box-hopping from white to minority to Native and back to white?

Brown asks Warren and Harvard to release her personnel records “to make sure that she did not have an advantage that others were entitled to.” In their September 20 debate, he cast the issue as one of character, which it is. But then he said, “Professor Warren claimed that she was a Native American, a person of color, and as you can see, she’s not.”

Many non-Native people think lots of public figures “look Indian,” such as “Iron Eyes” Cody—the Italian man who played the crying “Indian” in the Keep America Beautiful ads and in his life—and William “Lone Star” Dietz—the football Hall of Famer, who was 100 percent German, not the “full-blooded Sioux” the Washington owners claim spawned their team’s despicable name. There are even those who think any disembodied head with feathers on a sports uniform “looks Indian.”

Which brings us to the Brown staffers. Were they chopping and yelling like drunken sports fans because they thought Warren was Native or wasn’t, but pretending to be? Or is “thought” too strong a word for their mindless activity? They should apologize to Native peoples for doing it and never do it again.

No matter who wins, Brown and Warren should meet with Native people about Native identity standards and imposed identities in November, Native American Heritage Month, because 1) each will be influential in American policy for a long time; 2) these issues they have stumbled over and into are threshold matters in federal and tribal law; and 3) the public could benefit from their experience and lessons learned.

Suzan Shown Harjo is a Cheyenne citizen of the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes and is Hodulgee Muscogee from the Nuyakv Grounds. An award-winning columnist, she is president of The Morning Star Institute, Former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians and a founder of the National Museum of the American Indian.

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