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.

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myche's picture
This attack on Elizabeth Warren who is a consumer protection advocate is absolutely without any basis. The Republicans, if they get control of the Congress, and the Presidency is likely to end the safety net for all Americans including Native Americans. They might even disband the Native American tribal system including Indian Health. I am not Native American though one of my grand children is half Navajo, Hopi, and Sioux and one of my sister's grand children is half Native American. I am just second generation American on my mother's side. My mother's parents were immigrants in the early 1900s. There is a chance that many Americans whose families have been in North and South America for several generations have some Native American ancestors. So there is a good chance that Elizabeth Warren has some Native American ancestors which she may or may not be able to document. There is a lot of controversy today about how many generations back the Native American ancestors are and how well you can document it for anyone to say they are Native American for them to legally become a member of one of the tribes. Some tribes welcome in people whose distant ancestors were Native American if they can document it. Besides, not all of the tribes are recognized by the Federal Government and some tribes lobby for these tribes not to be recognized. So for Elizabeth Warren to say that the family history passed down to her says that she has Native American heritage is not out of line. Even if she cannot document it or has not tried to. It would be very difficult to prove that she doesn't. You are just involving a Ms Warren in the Native American controversy over who can say they have Native American ancestry and who can't. Ms Warren is not applying for membership in a tribe to collect tribal benefits. She is not likely to gain any financial or political benefits unless she can prove it. There is nothing wrong with her acknowledging that she has Native American ancestors, because so what if she does. In all likely hood she would probably not be the first senator from Massachusetts to have Native American ancestors, but she could be if elected the first Senator from Massachusetts to acknowledge it. President Obama's ancestors come from a multitude of ethnic and racial backgrounds. He could just as well say that he is Irish instead of identifying his African ancestors. President Obama's is even a descendant on his mother's side from the one of the earliest African slaves brought to North America and his ancestors were both slaves and African immigrants. Your argument is faulty on many grounds and of absolutely no consequences. You should be offended by the argument you are making and one day you may well be. I am not speaking as a Native American but as one of mixed ethnicity being Celtic, Norwegian, Swedish, and Finish background. You may lump all people of European background as white, but this is prejudicial because each of these ethnic groups are proud of their heritage and would dispute that they are all one of the same. This is the same as saying different Native American tribal heritages are all one and the same. We know that Native Americans would disagree with this and those of us of European background say that we are being discriminated against because we are all lumped into one big group labeled white.
coledelaune's picture
So, is this issue a question of abstract considerations or of partisan expediency? Because you seem very preoccupied with the inclinations of conservatism and the interests of the Democratic party, both of which are essentially immaterial to the reality that Warren has displayed no understanding of Cherokee history, culture, languae, customs, traditions, or of the contemporary tribal community. Nor has she engaged with any Native media outlet during her candidacy, even while insisting that she is "proud" of her heritage, will be a voice for the conventionally marginalized population (how's she going to effectively do that when she won't speak to said peoples?), and will be the first Native American Senator from Massachusetts. You continually decline to expound upon arguments you yourself previously intiated (such as touting the significance of "language," "history," and "knowing one's historical adversaries"), and seem to prefer to grasp at the next in a litany of faulty rebuttals. Please explain either how Mrs. Warren's refusal to engage with 'fellow' Cherokees who travel across the nation to request an audience with her does not situate her as an "adversary" to them, and please delineate how she fulfills your criteria for familiarity with tribal tongues and history. So, because of the area in which her ancestors lived, it is "believable" that she has a "lineal cherokee ancestor." Well, guess what? That same contention applies equally to Janna Ryan, with whom you seem to have a philosophical disagreement vis-a-vis reports concerning her Chickasaw ties, and absractly encompasses just about everyone who has extended lineage in the United States. Mary Fallin was born in Missouri; guess she can claim indigenous origins now, too! The argument is facile and reductive, and is essentially a less exaggerated variant of, "Humanity originated in Africa, so everyone in America, regardless of descendancy, is technically African-American."
tuschkahouma's picture
what is it with all of these conservative Comanches??? do you not realize that states rights GOP people see you as an adversary and going back to Andrew Jackson they've always had that attitude? Why you're at it why don't you ask Paul Ryan's blonde Chickasaw descendant wife why she and their kids aren't tribally enrolled? maybe it's the same reason why Elizabeth Warren's ancestors weren't tribally enrolled. With Paul Ryan's wife the paper evidence is there and yet she isn't enrolled with the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. You've seen Kevin Washburn whose a Chickasaw attorney and Obama appointee right? he has the same Indian phenotype as Elizabeth Warren and he's tribally enrolled right? let this issue go....the shelf life has come and gone....I think Mr. Treuer has figured this out before you....
coledelaune's picture
Michelle, you remarks about "the Republicans, if they get control of Congress," suggest that you're unable to divorce partisanship from abstract philosophical considerations, since the entire Warren imbroglio would prove troubling irrespective of her party affiliation. Besides that, your assertion, "They might even disband the Native American tribal system," reflects a significant separation from practical reality, since the GOP has amassed majorities at various points in both American legislative chambers throughout the past 18 years, and, last time I checked, both IHS and the "tribal system" remained intact. I really appreciate your sensitivity to indigeneous matters, and that you're willing to condescend to enlighten me on the nuances of Native American history, tribal affiliation, and cultural context. As an American Indian myself, I have to say. . . I never considered such matters; thank you! You really add an educational element to the discourse. Aside from the patronizing and colonial subtexts implicit when an individual who does not share the experience of a cultural community presumes to instructively argue on behalf of that cultural community, I'm unsure whether you're simply unfamiliar with the specifics of this entire controversy, or if you're just electing to be deliberately myopic. However, I will be happy to, once again, delineate the problematic elements of Warren's conduct, even though I've highlighted them before on this very site. Warren, after a lifetime of self-identifying as Caucasian, suddenly began listing herself as a "minority" in professional directories at the age of 37. This is in itself disturbing, as the opportunity to ethnically self-identify in any professional or academic context is a function of equal opportunity aspirations. If we lived in a colorblind society, questions of race would not appear on such paperwork because they would be irrelevant. Warren, per her own previous self-identification, evidently felt that her experience for her entire childhood and young adulthood, as well as part of her middle age, was commensurate with that of a non-minority. After she acquired tenure at Harvard, the school began claiming her as a Native American in Department of Labor diversity statistics. The administrator responsible for compiling those statistics said he always allowed employees to self-identify. Since the purpose of these reports is the encourage multiculturalism in academia, why is is unreasonable to ask, Okay, well how did Warren add to the heterogeneity at Cambridge on the basis of her nominal Cherokee roots? So far, Professor Warren has said that she has "high cheekbones. . . like all the Indians do." Evidently, Warren feels that external signifiers of race are important as long as they conform to stereotypes that benefit her. Harvard Law promoted her as a "woman of color" who reflected the fact that they did not have a dearth of faculty diversity; since she facilitated and condoned this position, questions about ideas she herself introduced into the public arena (and continues to disseminate into the political discourse via comments like the "first Native Senator from Massachusetts") are inevitable and appropriate. Thus far, she has demonstrated no understanding of Cherokee customs, traditions, history, culture, or contemporary tribal affairs, and her lineage remains unsubstantiated. So, again, how is she effectively Native American per any possible criteria? I'm unsure how you concluded "lump all people of European background" together, because that's essentially my point: the idea Warren is promoting, in which one can suddenly say, I'm a "woman of color," absent any cultural conditions, is deleterious not only to the Cherokees, but also to all other Native American tribes because mainstream America has demonstrated a propensity to view indigeneous peoples are one large homogeneous group rather than as discrete and unique yet historically interrelated communities. Ergo, the notion that both you and Warren are promoting, in which anyone can maximize their connection to a non-existent heritage, will likely impact Natives regardless of their specific tribal origins. And you didn't really address a foundational question that this saga precipitates: Warren maintains that she is "proud" of her hypothetical roots, but is refusing to speak to Native American news outlets like the one you're reading, and maligning Cherokee women who travel to Boston to speak with her, so how is that consistent with her advancement of herself as an unabashed Indian woman or with her assertions that she will be an advocated for the ignored and marginalized in the Senate? She can't even bother to engage with those who find her conduct and philosophies contradictory to liberal tenets, so how is she going to effectively represent an entire state in Congress? Furthermore, per the formulation of "high cheekbones," do you believe that it would be unproblematic for Mitt Romney to advertise himself as the first Hispanic President? He has "black hair," a feature commonly ascribed to Latinos, and his father was born in Mexico. So, in Warren's model, there should be nothing strange about an individual of any race claiming any other ethnicity as long as there is some reductive physical characteristic to substantiate their misguided logic.
talyn's picture
I fear, Michelle, that you have missed the point. Suppose I were to apply to schools or apply for jobs saying that I was Swedish, and then campaign for a political office saying that I had Swedish ancestry and touting this as a unique and valuable qualification that I had, even though I had never had any significant interaction with anyone Swedish, and knew nothing of Swedish culture or concerns. Suppose that I was refusing to engage with other Swedish people, refusing to represent them, advocate for them, or even give interviews to their media outlets, while simultaneously spewing unfounded accusations at any Swedes who dared try to approach me. Would not people of Swedish ancestry have cause to be offended? Would my Swedish blood or lack of it, documented or not, have any bearing on their right to be offended? The author is not saying that Elizabeth Warren definitely does not have some Cherokee ancestor somewhere. She may. We don't know. But even if she does, it really doesn't matter. That isn't the point. The point is that she has been a hypocrite, claiming native associations when they offer her an advantage, and shunning them when they might require some thought or effort from her. And if that is allowed to stand as a genuine Native identity then that damages us all, whether we are native or not. It damages the proud Swede, whose identity can be usurped by whoever sees an advantage in it. It makes that lump of 'white' you seem to object to the only possible category, since it renders all ethnic identity meaningless. And that is what the author is arguing against. Funny. I think if you had really understood his point, you would have agreed with it.
tuschkahouma's picture
Since you don't want to deal with actual periods in history I'll do it for you. Arkansas was Quapaw, Osage, Koroa, and Caddo to begin with. Later Michigamea, Kickapoo, Peoria, Delaware, Shawnee, and Cherokee peoples came to Arkansas. Indian treaties for Arkansas lands ended in by the 1840's and those involved treaties for Cherokee Chickasaw and Choctaw Arkansas lands after those tribes left their southeast homes. Quapaw treaties were done a decade or so earlier as were the Osage treaties for Arkansas lands. There are people on the Dawes Rolls from Arkansas. I'm going to turn the tables here....if you were ambushed by people with political motives and nothing else would you cave to the ambush? I wouldn't. How much integrity is there in gotcha politics anyway?
tmsyr11's picture
The American Indian (collectively) didn’t sign up for POLITICS when Treaties with the “Great White Father” (US Govt.) were made in the 1800s. The Indian Tribes signed with the mis- understanding of how they collectively were in the way of ‘progress’ considering the sordid history of the Democratic Party of the South, from Andrew Jackson (Cherokees) to the 1960s (Civil Rights Era - how many in the Democratic Party were against Civil Rights! To call the Democratic political machine today -progress- is akin to leaving my children and grandchildren the federal bill of implementing illegitimate socialized welfare to ‘interest political groups’. It is the faux ‘progressives’ as Elizabeth Warren that conceivably use ‘heritage’ as means for advancement much like Barack Obama is doing (as an affirmative action US President) at his convenience. No the problem with Americans (progressives/regressives) in general when it comes to American Indian affairs is this: it is okay and acceptable to learn or gain acceptance or experience from Indians AND THEN make a living/career and pulling the “honorary indian card member” if it suits the the white guys/gals interests/career/ advancement/placement. Most every European has visited a reservation for the sake of ‘hiding’ from the real world or becoming a writer of indian affairs, expert on archeological finds, I.H.S. doctor indian expert, etc. and benefited to great lengths in being the EXPERT on Indian affairs! However, when a full-fledged tribal individual/tribal Indian Interests succeeds, it somehow in the public eye isn’t quite GOOD ENOUGH, i.e. something is missing. Considering how only 6-8 generations ago, the Western United States was reeling on ‘negotiating’ with indian tribes on establishing indian reservations, considering how only 3 generations ago, American Indians were only given the right to vote in Arizona and New Mexico, it should be understandable how the odds are stacked against Tribal members particularly when people like the Elizabeth Warrrens benefit on questionable grounds.
coledelaune's picture
Who's Comanche, again? Per the questionable reading comprehension skills displayed in your opening line, I'm not surprised your response relies on deflection that essentially counfounds the themes expressed in the article. You may want to refer to your history books, or at least Wikipedia, because Andrew Jackson was a Democrat. Of course, one could have a debate about the shifting ideological polarities of the two major parties, but that's a different discussion entirely, and you're factually incorrect in asserting that President Jackson was a member of the GOP. Additionally, I'm unsure how you've concluded that the arguments I've emphasized are fundamentally "conservative" just because they operate against the electoral interests of a Democratic candidate; I'd contend that they are much more commensurate with the ideals consistently invoked by contemporary progressivism because, like the principles of affirmative action and equal opportunity initiatives, they acknowledge the reality that racial distinctions do exist and afffect society in fundamental ways. Mr. Treuer's insistence that one is simply magically a member of an ethnic community just because one says so defies the most elementary logic, unless you really want to reconfigure the context of this debate as one involving reality vs language. Just because I say a duck is a bear does not somehow suddenly alter the functional behavior or genetic composition of the duck. Similarly, it's not necessarily simply about Mrs. Warren's "blonde hair," as that seems to be a major point of this discourse for you; it's about the sociological reality of aesthetic privilege and disadvantage, sure, but only in conjunction with her total inability to articulate any internal connection to the apparatus of Cherokee culture. The notion that Professor Warren is advancing, by contrast, effectively denies the importance of cultural context and ethnic uniqueness. This thesis, in fact, is relatively congruous with the conventional right-wing assetion that nuances of race should invariably garner little to no consideration because they are antithetical to movement toward a color-blind America. Your stabs at moral equivalence don't really hold up as analagous situations either, since Mrs. Ryan, as far as I'm aware, is not touting herself as an advocate for historically marginalized communities; has not self-identified her primary race as Chickasaw on federal paperwork despite not meeting the definition of "Native American" as outlined by both her employer and the government; and is not contending that she will be the first Second Lady with Native American heritage.
coledelaune's picture
Exactly! Thank you.
coledelaune's picture
In addition to the rejoinders below, I'd also like to point out that the persuasion articulated in your first paragraph ("There is a chance that many Americans whose families have been in North and South America for several generations have some Native American ancestors. so there is a good chance that Elizabeth Warren has some Natives American ancestors which she may or may not be able to document.") is merely a less hyperbolic iteration of the assertion that, "Hey, humanity originated in Africa, so we're all African-Americans." And in your construction, those Republicans who you insist will dismantle the "tribal system" (whatever that specifically is) are evidently Indian, too! They may just as likely have some distant indigeneous ancestor in their family tree as Elizabeth Warren, and, no matter their familiarity or lack thereof with the challenges and enrichment that commonly accompany Native distinction, according to you, they're equipped to tout their ability to confer a Native perspective in their policies. So in the hypothetical you've created, the dismemberment of IHS would arise from "Indians" themselves. I'm relieved to learn that everyone in America is consequently multicultural!