Elections 2012: Massachusetts Debate and Elizabeth Warren’s Native Kinship

Mark Trahant

This has to be a first: Dueling campaign ads about whether Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren has any Native American roots. Sen. Scott Brown launched a new TV spot with a series of short news clips that question Warren’s identity. “Warren admitted to identifying herself as Native American to employers,” one anchor says. Then Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly says, “something now genealogists have said they have zero evidence of.”

Warren responded with her own TV ad. “As a kid I never asked my mom for documentation when she talked about our Native American heritage. What kid would? But I knew my father’s family didn’t like that she was part Cherokee and part Delaware. So my parents had to elope,” Warren said. “Let me be clear, I never asked for, never got any benefit because of my heritage. The people who hired me have all said they didn’t even know about it. I’m Elizabeth Warren. I approve this message. Scott Brown can continue attacking my family, but I’m going to keep fighting for yours.”

But Warren’s commercial is contrary to what she told ABC News in May. She said the schools did know about her claim after she was hired. “I let people know about my Native American heritage in a national directory of law school personnel. At some point after I was hired by them, I also provided that information to the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard,” Warren told ABC. “My Native American heritage is part of who I am, I’m proud of it, and I have been open about it."

Indian Country Today Media Network’s Rob Capriccioso has written extensively about Warren’s claim, including a story about the Senate debate that kicked off this latest back and forth. But let’s consider the politics. While the idea of tribal identity and citizenship matter to Native Americans, why has it suddenly become a campaign issue? Up until last week the race – while heated – had generally been positive.

During the debate, Brown said: “Professor Warren claimed she was a Native American, a person of color. As you can see, she’s not. That being said, she checked the box.” Brown and Warren are both checking boxes at this point, seeking that one vote above 50 percent. Indeed, what’s changed in the last few days is that as President Barack Obama’s campaign has improved, the support for Warren has followed.

A compilation of polls in Real Clear Politics tells the story: Warren is surging. “Brown has cut a moderate profile in Congress, similar to that of Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine,” says Real Clear Politics. “His approval ratings have remained relatively high ... Brown has done most everything right for a Republican in the Bay State, but in a presidential year even that might not be enough.” Voters of Massachusetts will pick their next senator based on a variety of issues, possibly even choosing after watching the dueling commercials. But the politics for Indian country remain a bigger question. Which candidate would be more effective on issues that impact tribal communities? Cherokee Chief Bill John Baker, at the Democratic National Convention, answered that question this way: “I wished every Congressman and Senator in the U.S. had a kinship, or felt a kinship, to the Cherokee Nation.”

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.

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marklaroux's picture
Submitted by marklaroux on
Wait, so Brown says you have to LOOK like a 'person of color' to BE a 'person of color'? So if you don't look Indian....don't 'play the part' according to him, then you aren't one, right?

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Sen. Warren can go on "Finding Your Roots" with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and settle it once and for all. Her mother told her what she told her about her ethnicity, and that's what she learned about her family. Also, her hair is died in the hair salon now as so many women do when their hair turns gray...her pics as a young girl and woman show dark hair. Many white people in America have Native American blood lines..it's not unusual. Mr. Brown tried whatever he could to use it for ammunition. If she hasn't refuted it it's probably because she isn't lying, just heard that she is part Native American through her family's history.