Many Native Americans are angry at the GOP assault on Elizabeth Warren for, Republicans claim, misusing her ancestry to advance her career.
Last month, the Boston Herald reported that Harvard Law School had listed Warren, the presumed Democratic candidate for Senator in Massachusetts, as a minority professor to deflect criticism that it lacked diverse faculty. Sitting Senator Scott Brown’s campaign and right-wing media have not let up, even though it has since been reported that Warren definitely is one 32nd Cherokee.
Warren told reporters on May 2 that she listed herself as a minority in Harvard’s directory in order to connect with others like her, “people for whom ‘Native American’ is part of their heritage and part of their hearts. There aren’t a lot of people like me in law teaching. And so I just thought I might find some others. That’s evidently not a particularly good use for the directory because it never happened.” That’s why, she says, that she stopped calling herself a minority in the directories after having done so for almost a decade.
Warren says she was qualified for her position, and the Native aspect didn’t play a role in her hiring, which has been backed up by the Harvard officials who hired her.
But people like conservative blogger and Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin have not let up, calling Warren names like “Pinocchio-hontas,” “Chief Full-of-Lies,” “Running Joke” and “Sacaja-whiner.”
Donna Akers, a professor with the Department of History and Native American Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, told Indian Country Today that she is skeptical of the conservative outrage:
“I think this is simply a cynical ploy by right-wing propagandists trying to find a piece of mud that sticks against Warren,” she says. Akers believes Republican politicians sometimes use racial issues to divide voters and to play on their insecurities. In this case, she says that the Brown campaign is trying to make it seem like a white person may have lost out on a position due to Warren’s situation.
“Smearing Warren by the suggestion that she benefited unfairly by claiming Native ancestry panders to the racism extant in many sectors of the right wing—especially the working class,” Akers says. “The Republican Party today solidly embraces a thinly veiled racist agenda that privileges white Americans at the expense of Native Americans and other peoples of color in the United States.”
“The mainstream media definitely has added to this controversy due to their well-known ignorance about tribal citizenship and other tribal issues,” says Julia Good Fox, a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University. Good Fox notes that the media has largely failed to explain tribal citizenry and blood quantum issues to give context to the situation because these aren’t easy stories to tell. It’s easier to label the case ‘convoluted,’ blame Warren, and move on to the next political gotcha story.
“Unfortunately, for the most part, their coverage is just adding to the confusion and threatens to feed racism or anti-Indianism,” Good Fox says. To do better, she says the media should start by noting that tribal nations have a right to determine who their citizens are, rather than focusing on the misunderstood notion that tribal citizens can only be determined by U.S.-imposed mathematical fractions.
Writing for Politico, Sarah Burris, an Oklahoman like Warren, points out that the current chief of the Cherokee Tribe also is 1/32 Cherokee.
“Conservative commentators scoffed all last week at what they assert is Warren’s low percentage of native ancestry. Their problem — like most people who didn’t grow up in a place like Oklahoma — is they have no real frame of reference for how much blood is removed with each generation,” writes Burris.
“These commentators ignore a history tracing back to a mixed heritage, like Warren’s, that is the epitome of the American story. Seems like a double standard.”
But Warren has not escaped criticism. Says Good Fox:
“If they want, Warren and her team could take control of this controversy. Right now, it looks like they are unclear about tribal issues, including the difference between tribal citizenship and simple ancestry.”
“This is playing into her opponents hands, including those who are anti-American Indian.”
“Apparently, she has no conception of Native identity as a function of community upbringing, not ‘blood,’ and that is a problem brought about by U.S. colonialism, one which has been adopted by many tribes under their own schema for calculating individual eligibility for citizenship,” adds Akers, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation. “It brings up the whole can of worms of Indian identity.”
Good Fox says Warren could help herself and her campaign by initiating a meaningful dialogue with the Cherokee Nation.
Harvard is also being criticized. Indian Country Today says that it has been known to be insensitive on Native issues.
Indian scholars have long complained that the institution has failed to hire a permanent scholar to fill the Harvard Law School’s Oneida chair, which has received substantial financial support from the Oneida Indian Nation of New York (which also funds ICTMN). The position was created in 2003, with the understanding that Harvard would hire a full-time, tenured faculty member dedicated to Indian law. Visiting professors – some of them non-Native – have instead filled the position. That practice, some claim, has denied the tribal law program the chance to grow under steady guidance.
Caricature by DonkeyHotey