The Elizabeth Warren Situation Is More Complicated Than Many Think

Laura Waterman Wittstock

A ton of ink has been spilled on the subject of the Elizabeth Warren run for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts. Most of the writing on the Indian side of opinion is whether or not Warren has a legitimate claim to her Delaware and Cherokee ancestry. Strong language has emerged on the subject, rightly due to the fact that so many Americans claim Indian heritage without any idea of what being an Indian is all about. But between the Indian and non-Indian sides of the coin are a million slices of what-ifs and others. Example one: I met a woman whose husband was enrolled in Coweta Creek and got support for his considerable higher education costs. Beyond that, he knew next to nothing about his tribe. He was born into an African American family, married an African American and had a couple of wonderful children. His wife’s question to me was how she could get the children enrolled after they had been informed the children lacked sufficient blood quantum. This mother was interested in her children’s education and wanted them to have all the benefits they might be due as a result of their father’s heritage. I did not have good news for them. Example two: my brother married a lovely French woman when he was in Europe with Patton in World War II. They married and had four great children. None of these children was enrolled in our nation because enrollment descends from the mother. Since my father’s father was Stockbridge Munsee, my brother or I could have enrolled in that tribe, but my nephews and nieces lacked sufficient blood quantum to enroll. Either way, with their 50 percent blood quantum, they could not be called Indians in the parlance of our nation. I am not enrolled in Stockbridge Munsee in addition to my home Seneca Nation because Indians may not be dual citizens among tribes. I can choose one or the other, or as in my case, my mother chose my tribal affiliation when I was born. I can admire the Stockbridge Munsee from afar but I cannot join without leaving my natal nation. When Elizabeth Warren’s mother told her she had Indian heritage and Elizabeth did not question it, should she have known that when she entered a political campaign years in the future that she would not only be questioned, she would be ridiculed, and that a Pandora’s box of ugly behavior would emerge? And how quickly it emerged. How rapidly it spread. It seems there is a thin film of resistance that holds civility in check, but once the surface is pierced, all sorts of anti-Indian rhetoric and reprehensible behavior emerge, as if at the ready and simmering. The displays went well beyond addressing Elizabeth Warren’s character or any genuine concern over claims to Indian identity by the undeserving. Of course the Indian opinion, as would be expected, was a spectrum of views while the Cherokee Tribe took a neutral position. Warren’s opponent Scott Brown has apologized for some of the behavior of his staff, which was seen performing in a video, whooping and chopping the air. Meanwhile the Massachusetts senate race has taken on national interest because of its controversy. The free publicity is worth gold. Example three: I have another brother who married a Hawaiian and his children think of themselves as Indians as well as Hawaiians. They know they cannot be enrolled, but still they will not throw away their father’s blood. They are proud of who they are and as Native Americans they have every right to be. But being Native American and being a member of a nation are marked by a chasm of difference. They can never be Indians. Does that mean the nation should change its ancient law that says who we are is who our mother is? It is a serious question with many arguments and sides. Tribes across the country are discussing citizenship, a standing that does not necessarily relate to blood quantum or as in the case of nations with no blood quantum, tribes ask how many generations will elapse before no trace of Indian heritage remains? It seems we are unprepared to settle these questions because there are many sides to the question of identity—it is not a coin but an icositetrahedron with 24 faces—as if the coin with its two sides grew into many planes. But that is what is really there when we address the question of Indian identity. It isn’t that we should open the gates and let all the people in who say they have a claim to identifying as an Indian; but it isn’t that we should close the gates and keep all the people out who under current tribal rules have no claim. The question is, what is it? Laura Waterman Wittstock, Seneca Nation, is a  retired nonprofit executive and journalist. She currently hosts the live weekly radio interview program, First Person Radio,  on KFAI-FM in Minneapolis, MN

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seakmk's picture
Good article. It is complicated. We are all citizens of mother earth. This country is a melting pot. As we move seven more generations down the line with many intermarriages and multiple backgrounds, perhaps it is values that matter most, not percentage of blood quantum. Can we work together as global citizens for shared values??
seakmk's picture
Nice comments.
tuschkahouma's picture
I give you an example of this situation. My mom's father told me in 1988 that his grandmother was Choctaw and her last name was Breland. This was before the internet. I found Dawes rolls microfilm at Baker and Washburn University with Brelands that had the MCR designation. It took a while as a young man to figure out this meant Mississippi Choctaw Rejected. My ancestors were in Greene and Perry County Mississippi both White and Choctaw and Biloxi. My Native ancestors were there before 1800 and my White ancestors came there around 1800. I've spent 15 years researching ancestry to see if anyone made it to Oklahoma. They didn't. They were given the MCR designation because they were Mixed. My ancestors were between 1/8th and 1/2 who tried to enroll on Dawes from the Mississippi Coast. These were relatives of my great great grandmother Shepard who was half Choctaw and half Biloxi and married a German man named Riley Breland. I'm 2/32nds Choctaw and Biloxi and the rest German, Scotch, Irish, and English. I have ancestry to enroll in Oklahoma but my ancestors were not awarded an allotment. I'm below the half Blood Quantum required in Mississippi. There are people like this all over Louisiana and parts of Mississippi. That's why I defended Mrs. Warren. We have Citizen Delawares in Kansas who didn't go to Oklahoma in 1867 around me here in eastern Kansas. Rolls don't always get everyone enrolled.
rezzdog's picture
"The solution is pretty simple. Have kids with somebody from your tribe." Yea, but, if everyone keeps marrying and/or having kids within their respective tribes, pretty soon, really soon, you will be having birth defects, mutations - and not the good kind - due to too much inbreeding. Then what do you have? Well, then you would have a Mohog Indian, just kidding everyone, just kidding. I'm here all week, don't forget to tip your waitress. But, you get my point, eh?
notnek's picture
Laura there is one other group that was adopted (taken) at birth from Indian mothers. Almost all boys, half white, given birth certificates that were falsified. Born very near reservations and denied there heritage. Children purchased by religious groups to expand their population. It is out there and hidden from view even to those that were handed over. When for example one of those attend collage and ending up in an anthropology class. The instructor just for fun had the class make tooth impressions, then announced we have a Native American in our class. No one responded as the secret was well hidden. Where does that individual fit, after an ethnic identity is proven? This happened all over this country and few if any want tribal membership, just to be accepted that they too are half native and proud of it. Details are not need about the lives and in the case of Ms. Warren why is there such an outrage over something that is so trivial. An individual proud of their heritage and assaulted for it appears to me just racist comments about Indians that is socially acceptable and another national disgrace.
andre's picture
The question posed here is of little significance from my perspective. Ms. Warren may or may not have direct Indian heritage. I find it admirable that she would identify herself as Native even though lacking tribal formal enrollment. While Mr. Brown has ridiculed Natives. The 236 year history of the United States since being colonized using the Doctrine of Discovery is such that Indian country receives the least of the least of everything. So little, most Indian leaders are now attempting to engage the United Nations for recognition of long term systemic problems no politician is willing to address. I cannot vote in the Massachusetts election, but if I had to make the decision between Ms. Warren and Mr. Brown, I would vote for Ms. Warren. Historically and statistically we (Indian Country) have not had a place at the table, Ms. Warren may be more of a voice of reason for the pressing concerns that afflict Indian Country.
ikwewe's picture
There is yet another perspective on tribal membership. The exclusive outlook that is now the rule replaced the inclusive rule. In Anishinaabe society, who the woman married and brought into the tribe became a full member of the nation. His powers and gifts transferred to his new nation for their benefit. The same applied to people brought into the community by capture or attrition. It is to everyone's benefit that a person be a full participating member of the community. In Elizabeth Warren's case, the family did not preserve the community contact and traditions, but there is nothing to stop her from resuming and acquiring these contacts and this wisdom. Look at how the Commanche are accepting Johnny Depp!
greenriverkate's picture
My children's tribe is currently going through this. It has caused great divide, friends, family, insiders, outsiders and the list goes on. Just a few years back, you'd go home and NO ONE would ask if you were registered. Everyone was like family and if you have ever lived on a rez, you know what I mean. Now, it is ugly. This tribe goes by total tribal blood quantum, not one parent or the other. My kids are enrolled, went home a few times but basically live in white country, and raised there. They have NEVER denied their blood or tribe as they have pride it it. However, their kids can not be enrolled any place. Three of my grandkids are almost full, but from 4 tribes and a touch of white (me since I am not registered in my tribe). I have no answers but do hate the fact that this has become such a divider amoung the people. If Ms Warren was raised to believe she is Native, so what? At least she has tribal names of two tribes. This divide is in my own family, since SOME looked Native and some didn't and the government MADE THE DECISION of who could be taken down on THEIR rolls. Blood quantum is a white man thing, not so much native. I have brother and sisters divided because of this little thing in history. One darker than the other, one had "ndn" features, one not so much. If there is an answer, I wish it would hurry up. I am heartbroken over these divides within tribes. It is wrong and this is NOT what Native means. Native means Family, Belonging, Being yourself.
thechief's picture
The solution is pretty simple. Have kids with somebody from your tribe. Whenever I dated anybody I would always go through the fractions in my head. "shes half navajo, quarter cherokee and quarter hopi-We have match" Even though I really didn't have to because my offspring are good for a few generations according to current enrollment laws. If you don't have the common sense to do that, don't complain about your kids not being enrolled. I have seen to many of my friends that are quarters have kids with non tribal members and complain their kids aren't eligible for benefits. What were they thinking they knew they were a quarter and their children would only be an 1/8. In the past being a quarter indian was seen as a handicap now it seems as its the reverse. Elizabeth Warren types are extreme in that they have little to no proof other than "my mother said my great grandmother was a cherokee princess." I am an 1/8 stockbridge munsee and even though I am an enrolled in a different tribe(like the author) I am a descendant so I can hunt on their land if I ever choose to. So, even though the author may not be able to participate in voting or getting per cap(if one is ever paid out again) she can still do somethings.
rezzdog's picture
Well said ikwewe. When a nation, or even a tribe, accept a new member/citizen there is no such thing as partially adopted. No looking back, what is done is done.