FEATURE: The Story of America
Voters are divided on party lines as Republicans revel and Democrats react in disgust at President Trump’s latest tweet referencing the Cherokee Trail of Tears, a tribe from which the senator has claimed descent. Despite Warren’s punchy response that Trump will probably not even been in the 2020 race because “he won’t be even a free man” his base has not abandoned yet. The answer is in U.S. history.
On the night of the State of the Union, as the nation watched the fireworks between Trump and the women of Congress dressed in white. The Washington Post quietly dropped a story under the rather bland headline “Elizabeth Warren apologizes for calling herself Native American.” The most remarkable disclosure in the article wasn’t Warren’s mea culpa, but a document the Post had procured through an open records request. On her 1986 registration card for the State Bar of Texas, Warren identified herself in her handwriting as “Native American.” a discovery that could mean this issue will continue to hamper her presidential campaign, which officially launched on Feb. 9. Warren has always denied claiming Native identity to take advantage of Affirmative Action opportunities meant for Native Americans. She says she filled out the card after admission to the bar in Texas.
In what is perhaps, to most Americans, an inexplicable sideshow of identity politics which threatens to overwhelm Warren’s political aspirations as she prepares to face off against a sea of Democratic candidates for the nomination in 2020. Headlines trumpet the story every time Trump calls her “Pocahontas” to sneer at her claims to Native identity and send his base to their keyboards and phones to dredge up yet more hoary old stereotypes. Including his son, Donald Jr. who instagrammed his dad’s Trail of Tears tweet with the comment “Savage.”
The President’s thinly-veiled racism makes his attacks on Warren means little to Democrats, but polling still finds her falling behind former V. P. Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker. A month after launching her “exploratory committee,” the senator was still polling in single digits—neck and neck with failed yet charismatic Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke from Texas.
Whether she knew the Post’s story was about to break or was attempting to make right earlier missteps, Warren, without telling the press, privately apologized on Feb. 1 for releasing her DNA results in a phone call with Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker. News of the apology was announced by the Cherokee Nation.
“While Principal Chief Baker and Senator Warren have been in contact on occasion over the past three to four years,” Amanda Clinton, Senior Advisor of Communications for the Cherokee Nation said via email, “the Cherokee Nation was not notified of Senator Warren’s intent to undergo or release a DNA test.”
The elaborately produced video featured geneticist Carlos Bustamante telling an excited Warren she had some genetic markers that indicate Indigenous ancestry between 6 to 10 generations back.
“And it is about an apology from the heart,” Warren maintained when questioned by reporters in the Senate hallway after the Post story broke, “An apology for not being more sensitive to tribal citizenship and tribal sovereignty and for harm caused.”
It is evident she expected her video and proof of distant Native ancestry to silence her critics and embarrass Trump. However, her DNA testing was widely considered a mistake. The Cherokee Nation Secretary of State issued a stern rebuke. Trump dismissed the findings with “who cares?” And Kate McKinnon portraying the senator on SNL’s Weekend Update played it as a punchline revealing much about America’s relationship to a racially-troubling past:
"Colin Jost: What about releasing the results of your DNA test. Do you think that will come back to haunt you?
Warren (Kate McKinnon): It came back 100% bad idea. Who knew race science was not a good PR strategy? Lost that fight.”
Warren has accused those questioning her family story of Native identity of calling her “mamaw and papaw” liars. However, even if the DNA findings confirm an ancestral tie, the shame her mother’s family is hard to square with it being 6-10 generations ago. Six generations ago Warren would have 64 great-great-great-great grandparents. Ten generations ago she would have 1,024 many-greats grandparents. When 63 or 1,023 of her ancestors in a generation were white, how would local white Oklahomans know to discriminate against her family 150 to 250 years later? Especially, if they kept it a secret and had not lived in tribal communities for several generations?
The only context this has any viability is in the context of genocide. If all Europeans were extinct and anyone with minute quantities of European DNA several generations back could be understood to be say French? Native nations are not gone they are still very much in existence (there are 573 federally-federally-recognized tribes). It is only to non-Native Americans that they are invisible and that is the result of hundreds of years of U.S. policy to disappear the political reality of Indigenous nations that pre-existed the United States and persist to this day.
Consumer DNA tests have been taking the heat in the media after a pair of identical twins got varying and inconsistent results from each other with several DNA kits. Despite what ads may promise, the fine print on these DNA sites confirm the accuracy cannot be guaranteed only at the continental level. Human DNA is largely similar, and the genetic markers that contain variation around the world comparatively few. Analyzing them and assigning ethnic or national identities to them is still both a science and an art. Tribes use DNA to ascertain a close family relationship like between an enrolled parent and a child. They do not accept DNA genetic markers as proof of citizenship and neither does any country in the world.
Despite the apology, Warren still has up on her “Facts Squad” website a page titled “The Story of an American Family” that asserts her family’s claims to being of Cherokee and Delaware descent.
Her website also contains the statement: “She never used her family tree to get a break or get ahead.” The phrase invariable casts Affirmative Action and Native Americans who are beneficiaries of it in a negative light. By attempting to prove Trump wrong, Warren haplessly gives credence to anti-Affirmative Action biases. The statement also scuttles evidence revealed in a Boston Globe investigation that Harvard postponed searching for minority women faculty for a few years and cited Warren’s hire to show they had minorities on staff. The senator says she was unaware of this.
Nowhere on the “Fact Squad” site is Warren’s family tree compiled by Cherokee Nation genealogists David Cornsilk and Twila Barnes. The genealogy compiled by Barnes & Cornsilk is of a white family with no ties to the Cherokee or Delaware nations. Not even with cousins or second cousins of Warren’s ancestors. Typically, Native ancestors, are found to be living in at some point over the past 300 years in communities, and their neighbors or cousins have been flagged as Indian in paperwork. The Cherokee people are amongst the most documented in the world according to Cornsilk, second only to royalty. The genealogists were unable to document any ties between the Cherokee Nation through several generations of Warren’s family.
In stark contrast to Warren’s claims, when Native children are taken from Native families and nations, low “blood quantum” is often used to question if a child, even a tribal citizen, is “Indian enough” to be protected by the Indian Child Welfare Act. ICWA, a federal law passed in 1978 to prevent the wholesale removal of Native children from Native nations is under attack. Conservative think tanks like the Goldwater Institute have been seeking to overturn ICWA so more white parents, particularly Christians, can adopt and raise Native children at will. Congressional hearings conducted in the 1970s found 25-35 percent of all Native children were being removed from Native homes and placed with white families. Taking children in this way is an ethnic cleansing tactic often used against unwanted ethnic minorities and falls under the Geneva Conventions on Genocide. No nation would allow a wholesale kidnapping of their next generation of citizens. However, a federal court in Texas ruled in October that the term ‘Indian” was race-based and unconstitutional. If the case makes it to the Supreme Court, it could scuttle any federal law or treaty where the term appears, leaving Native people and nations vulnerable to further depredations and erasure. Warren’s DNA announcement that same month served to validate the Goldwater Institute’s claims that to be Native American or ‘Indian' is racial, and not implying citizenship.
Warren, a one-time registered Republican in the 1990s, has become in the 21st century one of the most influential voices in the Democratic party for corporate accountability. When her supporters rail at Native Americans criticizing the senator and hold up her record on taking on Wall Street, they fail to see the connections between that fight and the fight for Indigenous sovereignty. Throughout American history, the spread of modern capitalism across this continent has been incumbent on the obliteration of Native nations. America’s origin story begun at Jamestown, an English colony in what was the Powhatan Confederacy. The Virginia Company of Adventurers funded the settlement in London, an early joint-stock company that was the forerunner of modern corporations. Both Virginia and the senator's state of Massachusetts began as entities owned by these early corporations which were given governmental powers by the English crown.
This model persists today as seen at Standing Rock when a Texas corporation was given governmental powers of eminent domain to build the Dakota Access Pipeline across unceded treaty land guaranteed to the Great Sioux Nation by the 1868 Fort Laramie treaty ratified by the Senate. Taking on bad corporate actors must include the deconstruction of self-serving mythologies that embolden such predatory institutions. Otherwise, the will to hold them accountable through regulations and laws Warren champions cannot take place. The recognition of tribal sovereignty and a full understanding of what it means is a necessary part of that process.
If Sen. Warren is serious about helping Native peoples (much less being a Native person) she cannot slide into old colonial habits of appropriation of Indigenous identity which has gone hand in hand with assuming the rights to the land and resources of those Native nations and peoples. It is also within this context that her mother’s story of Native identity must be understood. Not as a conscious lie, or one that makes her mother a liar, but one that has been passed down in European families and which is part of the DNA of colonialism in this country. It is an expression of the colonial prerogative to split the spoils of war and subjugation of Native nations and people between those of European descent, even fairly recent immigrants like the Trump family. And it is the triumphalism of that victory that Trump and his followers truly seek to embrace when they wear red MAGA hats and march in the streets chanting “you will not replace us.” Warren and Trump are on a continuum of European colonial experience.
And it does not help Native people or their nations when media commentators describe expressions of preening colonial prerogative as “tribalism”—an intrinsically pejorative description of tribal identity.
The recent spate of revelations of white politicians in blackface, even liberal ones, demonstrates how out of step white Americans are and how ill-equipped they are to lead a pluralistic nation of which they are only another minority group. Trump’s rise to power using the dog whistle mantra of ‘Make America Great Again’ harkens back to a pre-Civil Rights era America of a white “Father Knows Best” and a post-War period when Trump’s father built a real estate empire and enforced redlining and discrimination of non-white Americans—all underwritten by federal contracts and tax dollars. And those gains are still reflected in studies that show the average accumulated wealth of white families is ten times that of black families.
And despite Warren’s struggles in those years, as recounted on her “The Story of an American Family” webpage, they as a white family benefited from the protections and cushion afforded by the system of white supremacy. She attended an all-white high school; her parents had moved to Oklahoma City for the express purpose of obtaining for her the best public education available in their state. The public education she extolls would not have been possible were her family not white. The neighborhood they lived in, the mortgage on their house, the job her mother got that saved their mortgage, even the minimum wage her mother got for that job (which would have been less if she was not white), all possible because of their white identity. Warren’s story would have been very different if her family had endured the racism and racist system a brown or black family was subjected to for the several generations they lived in the United States as white people. As a Native American family, her family’s brush with insolvency and medical issues would have most likely led to her placement in a white foster home where she would have faced the prospect of years of abuse by strangers.
And it is not clear if in the period she was identifying as Native American while teaching law school, she has ever given back in any meaningful way to the Native American community. Until last year, in Feb. 2018 when she spoke to the National Congress of American Indians in her preparations to challenge Trump in 2020, her Senate record had no evidence of support for legislation that would help Native people.
Where are the initiatives to help Cherokee people that she conducted in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s? While at Harvard did she ever speak to the Native American Law Students Association or mentor Native law students? Has she ever taken or taught an Indian Federal Law class? Did she speak out in 2013, after the Supreme Court ruled against a Cherokee family in Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl and a Cherokee citizen Veronica Brown was taken from her Cherokee family from a Cherokee Nation-owned house at by federal marshals? Cherokees have a long and noble tradition in the legal profession, and the Cherokee Nation has been arguing cases before the Supreme Court since the 1820s when they were fighting removal before Jackson’s Trail of Tears. What cases has Warren argued or done pro bono (as so many Native American attorneys do) to fight for her people? Where did she do for Cherokee or Delaware people in the years she was identifying in employment paperwork as Native American?
In 2012, a delegation of Cherokee women traveled to Massachusetts to present Warren’s genealogy to her and to discuss with her not only the senator’s (very white) family tree but the culturally-specific ways in which Cherokee people’s national identity is traditionally and legally understood.
Their hopes were dashed when a Warren spokesperson speaking to The Boston Herald labeled them an “out-of-state group … being promoted and supported by a right-wing extremist.” The Senate race between Warren and Brown, the incumbent, was close. And Brown, despite running as a moderate Republican, had no scruples about making use of former Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s right-wing website Breitbart’s inflammatory coverage of the visit. Brown staffers insultingly performed tomahawk chops to mock Warren.
In the more than six years since Warren has never responded to the women’s inquiries to speak with her.
“If you had told me this would still be going on six years later,” Twila Barnes, the genealogist who did Warren’s family tree and was a part of the delegation says, “I would never have believed you.”
Warren made memes and headlines by refusing to stop speaking out against the confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General and drew a rebuke from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who complained, “Nonetheless she persisted.” This persistence represents the best of the strengths of what she has to offer America, but when utilized blindly in a fight against a political opponent that leaves Native nations vulnerable it is her greatest weakness. She persisted too long in this. The most we can hope now is for an Obama-inspired speech that drives the discussion above the slings and arrows of Trumpian sneering to a message of unity, admission of mistakes of a past that preferences some American families over others and their stories and how we can become more than that. The American family story can become one of all American families, black, immigrant, refugee and even those of dual tribal and US citizenship. Recognizing Native nations’ sovereignty is the only route open to Americans and American leaders to ever come to terms morally with an immoral past and to make a better present.
“We are at a unique time in history where the national conversation around tribal issues can be leveraged as a tool for tearing one another down, or as a tool for learning more about the First Americans,” says Cherokee Nation official Clinton, “We hope public discourse moves in the direction of the latter.”