When a Liberal Icon Fails: Elizabeth Warren’s Ancestry Problem

Senator Scott Brown is now fundraising off the ‘scandal’ of Elizabeth Warren’s Cherokee heritage.

The campaign email accuses Warren, his likely opponent in Massachusetts, of dishonesty. It says:

In the academic world, when you fabricate a fictitious background for yourself, the consequences are serious – especially when the university you work for uses that false information to misrepresent the diversity of its faculty. Yet, what do we hear from Harvard and Professor Warren? Silence.

It says Harvard, where Warren worked as a Professor and she was listed as Native American, should release her personnel records.

The problem for Warren is, despite her campaign’s claims, that the evidence for her ancestry just isn’t there. The Boston Globe has retracted its report that an 1894 marriage application form listed her great-great-great-gretat-grandmother as Cherokee.

Furthermore, Steve Russell, a Cherokee, Professor and Trial Judge, a Warren contributor and someone who has followed her career since the 1980s, adds further that this one piece of documentry evidence only raises more questions. It comes from a time before Oklahoma was a state, when marriage to a white man would have been prohibited by anti-miscegenation laws, and the application was made in a location far from the Cherokee nation. He notes that 1894 would have been during the height of the white intruder problem in the Cherokee Nation.

Warren is not Cherokee in the sense of being a tribal member. This is citizenship, just as it is with any other nation, and since a Supreme Court decision in 1974, tribes, like any nation, make up their own rules. That’s why the current leader of the Cherokee Nation can be 1/32nd Cherokee, as reports suggested Warren is. But now that the genealogical record has been further investigated, she would not have the evidence to become a Cherokee Nation member.

Warren has said that she grew up with stories about her ancestry. Many others who have oral history Native ancestry claims also don’t have records to back them up. Many Natives deliberately listed themselves as ‘White’ in order to access opportunities otherwise denied them. Many were listed as ‘White’ to loosen ties to the communally held land settlers desperately wanted.

Reporters have discovered that Warren was not listed as Native on applications either to the University of Pennsylvania or Harvard, but she was listed by both universities as a minority; as “Harvard’s first woman of color” in a Fordham Law Review.

What is opaque is on what basis both universities accepted Warren’s claim, presumably on her say so, and whether and how it may have benefited her. It clearly benefited both universities to claim they had minorities on staff, although this point is being under-examined in the partisan rancor.

Says Russell:

If she’s guilty, it’s some evidence of a character flaw and a tragedy for the 99%.

Warren calls this all a ‘distraction;’ she claims that ‘questions have already been answered.’ Except that they haven’t been.

On her show, Rachel Maddow ‘debunked’ Scott Brown’s campaign by pointing to the now disputed document and to the current Cherokee leadership. This is a problem, not just because of the issues with the document trail, which Maddow hasn’t corrected, but because her show failed to consider Native American opinion and experience.

In her rush to have a go at the Brown campaign, Maddow and her research staff completely ignored Native Americans when the issues raised are being extensively covered in Native media.

Many Native Americans are, like Russell (a Warren supporter, remember), extremely disturbed that a “box ticker” may have won advantage over Native scholars. But not all. David Treuer, an Ojibwe, writing for the Washington Post, points out that it shows (given the historic attempt to eradicate Native cultures), that America is advancing if someone like Warren is claiming Native ancestry. As to any career advantage, Treuer says ‘good luck’ to her.

Writes Lindsey Catherine Cornum (who is Navajo but ‘passes’ as ‘White’):

People who invoke their Indian heritage are disproportionally held to a higher burden of proof. You can tell anyone you are descendent from Swedish royalty without problem, but try being accepted as really Indian, without knowing some sacred rites or sporting dark, brooding looks and you’re out of luck. People who are an estimated 1/33rd Irish, such as President Obama, are not viciously attacked when invoking their heritage. They are not asked to release documents to prove that their trip to Ireland was not an attempt to cheat a system that unfairly grants favors to white people.

Many Native Americans see full well how the right is using the issue and how blatant racism is being directed at them, with such commonly circulating terms as ‘Fauxcahontas.’

Writes Cornum, “it’s as if conservatives have been storing up all the unoriginal stereotypes of Indians they can think of, just waiting for a chance to unleash them all in one gushing flow of digital racist vomit.”

She argues that it is the lack of indigenous presence in the media that makes possible the “wanton racism” that has been expressed around Warren’s Native American identity.

“I guarantee that if a wider variety of stories about Indians were presented in the mainstream media, beyond the usual ‘Poor, Drunk Indians Continue to be Tragic’ specials we see every five years, it would be a lot harder for people to get away with the casual racism that is leveled at Indians much too often,” Cornum writes.

As Cornum and Truer point out, and as others from Oklahoma (as Warren is) have said, there is nothing wrong with Warren’s interest in her ancestry. However, Warren has failed to talk to Natives, is ignoring interview requests from Native media, has made remarks which have offended Natives and continues to upset people by failing to demonstrate how her status claim gave her no career advantage. She has even failed to condemn the “casual racism.”

Liberal media outlets are giving her a free pass and failing to cover Native American reaction.

Writes Suzan Shown Harjo, “Warren’s defenders and detractors have blamed, smeared and minimized Cherokees, Cherokee Nation and Native Americans generally, with sophomoric language usually heard only at sports events featuring ‘Indian’ stereotypes.”

She may be a liberal icon, the hope to retain the Senate for the Democrats, and she may come across as a really nice, whip-smart woman, but right now Elizabeth Warren is throwing Native Americans under the bus.

Related stories:

Update: The Racist Assault on Elizabeth Warren

The Racist Assault on Elizabeth Warren

Brown, Warren Both Produce Commercials Using…Obama?

Image by DonkeyHotey


Stanley Rampersad
Stanley Balgobin4 years ago

Elizabeth Warren one of the finest people to enter into the sleezy world of politics.

rose h.
rose h.4 years ago

Janna I agree..worse article every

rose h.
rose h.4 years ago

Phillipa that is exactly why I said worse article written

rose h.
rose h.4 years ago

Donald I believe in Warren and think she is the best ever

rose h.
rose h.4 years ago

I agree with you all who would vote for Warren she is for America not the wealthy nor the corporations like all these other haters

rose h.
rose h.4 years ago

Glenda I'm with you I would vote for her above any republican ever, she is for the American people and the republicans are not

rose h.
rose h.4 years ago

I.am sorry but that should have read Gene not John

rose h.
rose h.4 years ago

John YOU ASKED WHY WOULD i BELIEVE A LIAR? BECAUSE SHE DIDN'T LIE AND SINCE YOU SAID THAT YOU MUST BE A REPULSIVE PARTY OF NO (republican) and your party and the candidates and persons in control have done nothing but lie abut everything that is important. every time they are in office they have done every thing they could and can to take America back into the past for the wealthy and corporations.

Don H.
Don H.4 years ago

Linda T said: "I don't know about anyone else but I'm 3 generations away from my german ancestory and guess what I still consider my self as Irish/German. I put the Irish in front of the German because that is my father's ancestory. But my mother is full blooded German."

We're a bunch of mutts, Linda. I share your German-Irish heritage along with Scottish.

Linda T.
Linda T.4 years ago

I don't know about anyone else but I'm 3 generations away from my german ancestory and guess what I still consider my self as Irish/German. I put the Irish in front of the German because that is my father's ancestory. But my mother is full blooded German.