Brown’s call follows a fortnight of right-wing media assaults on Warren, ones which the Native American Journalists Association says “has resulted in a series of disrespectful headlines and puns that show disregard for Native Americans and our history.”
At question is whether Warren’s listing as a minority, as Native American, at Harvard Law School benefit her career there, in particular her initial hiring.
Warren has said that she is 1/32nd Cherokee — something which some have mocked, yet the leader of the Cherokee Nation also has the same blood quantum. But the Brown campaign says:
Serious questions have been raised about the legitimacy of Elizabeth Warren’s claims to Native American ancestry and whether it was appropriate for her to assume minority status as a college professor.
Such comments by the Brown campaign have led some Native Americans to accuse them of pandering to racism.
But some Native Americans are also questioning Warren’s history over whether it was appropriate for her to claim minority status when she was a professor when she was not an enrolled tribal citizen, and whether at the time she had genealogical evidence. Native Americans also want to know whether someone else was passed over when Warren was hired by Harvard in the 1980s. Warren’s May 2 press conference in which she referred to her grandfather’s “high cheekbones” has also upset some Native Americans.
Said one Native American commentator:
Just to think that we’re so fictionalized and cartoonsque that she can give “ high cheek bone” explanation and voila you’re an Indian. Out of her own mouth in her recent interviews she makes it demonstrably evident she doesn’t have a clue what it means to an Indian.
Warren’s campaign have dismissed the Brown campaign’s call to release her records as ‘distracting Massachusetts voters from more important issues’ but have also refused to talk to Native American media. Warren has said that she listed herself in Harvard’s directory as Native American in part in the hope of meeting others like herself but when that didn’t happen, she de-listed herself. 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.
Writing for Indian Country Today, Rob Capriccioso explains why Native Americans are not dismissing the questions over Warren’s ancestry on her say so — because of “the cautionary tale of Ward Churchill.”
The former professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder was once praised in Native circles for his work to extinguish racist notions about Indians in American society. With his long, straight hair and angular features, he was a major star in academia until the mid-2000s, when a drumbeat of questions over his research and his Native heritage resulted in both his college firing him and the tribe he had claimed to have been a citizen of, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, renouncing his claim. He was officially fired, the college said, for research misconduct, and he has since waged legal battles to have his position restored—all the while never being able to prove he is any part Indian.
That recent history led the Osage Nation to issue a statement, ‘Identity and Academic Integrity’:
“Too often, we realize, American Indian studies as a field of academic inquiry has failed to live up to its potential at least in part because of the presence of scholars who misrepresent themselves and their ties to the Native world,” it says.
What appears to have happened is that Harvard promoted the fact of her ancestry to show they were diverse, but this raises questions about what they are actually doing for Native American scholars and scholarship. In reaction to the controversy, Native American scholars have pointed to the example of their long complaint that Harvard has failed to hire a permanent scholar to fill the School’s Oneida Indian Nation Professorship of Law, which has received substantial financial support from the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, but sat vacant since 2003.
In her senior position in the world of academia, Native American scholars say it would have been desirable and appropriate for Warren to learn more about her roots before checking any boxes.
But Warren appears to be avoiding the concerns of Native Americans, who are stuck between a Brown campaign evidently using them and pandering to racist sentiment and a Democratic candidate who is not seeking any help or advice from them either.
As usual, actual Native Americans and their views seem to be invisible in this episode and Elizabeth Warren is not helping either them or herself.
Caricature by DonkeyHotey