Boston Globe columnist and Cherokee blogger face off on whether proof of Elizabeth Warren’s heritage matters
There is much dispute when it comes to Elizabeth Warren’s claim to be Cherokee. What is not in dispute, however, is that there is no known documentary evidence that Warren is Cherokee, and much evidence she is not.
The family line which supposedly has Cherokee lineage has been traced back to the great-great-great grandparent level, and all known documentation points to Warren’s ancestors not being Cherokee.
Evidence and proof matter. And if those things don’t matter to a law professor, then that law professor has no business running for Senate.
Yet this absence of evidence gives rise to two lines of defense. First, the argument goes that Warren’s “family lore”may be accurate even if not provable, and second, that it doesn’t matter unless Warren tried to use her alleged Cherokee heritage to her advantage.
These arguments are set forth by Boston Globe columnist Farah Stockman in Elizabeth Warren’s Wetumka roots. Here’s an excerpt, but by all means read the whole thing (emphasis mine):
The problem with these heritage treasure hunts is that they presuppose that the question of racial identity is always absolute: is she or isn’t she? ….
Nowhere in America has more people per capita who identify as Native American than Oklahoma, where Warren grew up. Twelve percent of people there identify as such.
That’s because the place is literally Native America. It was the last stop on the Trail of Tears, where the federal government deposited tribes forcibly removed from more desirable lands in the 1800s.
Some settled in Wetumka, the homeland of transplanted Creek Indians. By 1890, the tiny town housed a boarding school where native children were taught to live like white people. In 1901, the railroad came and white settlers flocked there to buy cheap Indian land.
Elizabeth Warren’s father — the son of a hardware store owner — was born in Wetumka in 1911. Her mother — a bartender’s daughter, according to some census records — moved there with her parents when she was young….
Race classifications on census records aren’t infallible, according to Billy J. Osborn, author of “Wetumka: A Centennial History.’’
“It is very difficult to determine who is and who isn’t an Indian,” he said.
Ironclad claims of Native American ancestry are often based on the so-called Dawes Rolls, a list of tribal people that the federal government began collecting in 1898. The list was drawn up by a commission that abolished tribal ownership of the land to pave the way for white settlers. It divided up tribal land into individual plots. Native people had to register to receive them. Many refused in protest.
“They said, ‘Why not subdivide the sky?’ ” Osborn said. The rolls closed in 1906, making it difficult to be declared an Indian….
Should Warren have had deeper roots to list herself in a directory of minority law professors? Probably. But unless there is proof that she tried to benefit from that identity — and so far there isn’t any — why should we care how Warren identifies herself? Every family has its lore. Most of us never get to learn how true those yarns really are. Unless, of course, we run for Senate. Or become secretary of state.
In response to this column, Cherokee genealogist Twila Barnes wrote a rebuttal rejecting the notion that it is difficult to prove Cherokee heritage or that the complete lack of evidence of Cherokee heritage can be excused.[*]
Here is an excerpt, but again read the whole thing, A Cherokee Can’t Be Found Because A Cherokee Isn’t There:
Though Farah writes, “Ironclad claims of Native American ancestry are often based on the so-called Dawes Rolls”, this is not true. The “Dawes Roll” is the final roll of citizens of the Five Civilized Tribes; the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole. Most Indian Nations do not use the Dawes Roll as their basis for enrollment or registration. I know it might be hard for some people to believe, but there are a lot of other Indian Nations or tribes in the United States. Everyone is not Cherokee. And Farah’s statement isn’t even true for Cherokee ancestry because the Eastern Band uses the Baker Roll as their base for enrollment. But, Farah doesn’t tell her readers that. She makes it seem that because Warren’s ancestors were not on this roll, one roll, the Dawes Roll, they might have lost their chance to ever prove their purported Cherokee ancestry.
Why didn’t Farah point out the many other rolls of the Cherokee people like the Emigration Roll, Henderson Roll, the Drennen Roll, the Old Settler Roll (two of them), the Guion Miller Roll, the Chapman Roll, the Siler Roll, the Lipe Roll, the censuses of 1869, 1880, 1890 and 1896? Or the muster rolls of Cherokee soldiers from the War of 1812 and the Civil War? Or the Moravian and the Brainerd Mission records? Or the muster rolls from the removal? Or the ration lists from before and after the removal? Or the claims the Cherokees filed against the US in the 1840s? Why didn’t she point out Elizabeth Warren’s ancestors are found on none of those rolls or in any of these records either?
I raised these issues with Stockman and here is the pertinent part of her e-mail response (emphasis mine):
1) My understanding is the that the Dawes Rolls were created to destroy native lands and in many ways native culture, and therefore many people resisted and were not enrolled. I was told that the Dawes Rolls are a great way to determine native ancestry, but not the only way. I can’t really tell from Twila’s comments whether she disputes this. She says many were forced to enroll, or ended up on the list anyway. Is she arguing that the list is 100% accurate? I can’t tell and that would be hard to believe. She gives a lot of useful information about the Dawes Rolls which – in a 750 word piece – I would never have been able to include….
3) I have done a lot of research on African American census records and I have found errors in them – white people who were described in census records as black because they lived in a black neighborhood. Black people who passed and were described as white. In some cases, census records reflect the census-takers own biases and assumptions, rather than what people’s racial identity actually was.
4.) I am a biracial person. My mother is African American while my father is white. I am always wary of people who try to tell others how they should identify themselves and those who act as self-appointed “gate-keepers” of the race or culture. The main point of my column – which Twila seems to have missed – is that mixed ancestry, evolving culture and changing definitions often make the question of racial identity more complex than we initially appreciate. I was particularly fascinated by accounts of the free slaves of the tribes who were fighting for recognition as tribal members. So we live in a world where racial identity is complicated. That is why I am not up in arms about Warrens claims – just yet. I’d need more information to conclude that she was trying to game the system. Twila, on the other hand, seems to take such personal affront to someone claiming Native heritage, because it is such an important part of her own identity. She has obviously amassed a lot of very useful and important knowledge about native ancestry, but she can’t expect to be the sole voice on the subject. Her sense of outrage at me not having quoted her email is puzzling. I am not an expert. I’m a columnist. I call experts up and ask their opinions. The expert I called was a man who wrote a history of Wetumka and who grew up there, not Twila. That seems to be the real reason Twila attacked me.
To which Barnes responded via email (emphasis mine):
1- The Dawes Roll is Final Roll of the citizens of the Five Civilized Tribes. They were not ever intended to record every person in the US who had Cherokee ancestry, but instead, to record the heirs of the Cherokee Nation so those heirs could share in the assets of the nation when the government was dissolved. I am not saying the Dawes Roll was 100% accurate. I am saying I have never personally researched a story about an ancestor hiding out and not being on the roll when they should have been. Every time I research such a claim, the person was not a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and not entitled to any of her assets.
Also, as I explained in my blog post, there are many ways to determine Cherokee ancestry even if one cannot enroll or register with one of the three federally recognized tribes. I listed rolls and records that are available to be searched, but I did not list everything. There is just a lot of information on the Cherokees and Warren’s ancestors are found in none of the records.
Also, just because the Dawes Roll has some flaws doesn’t mean Warren’s ancestors were Cherokee. To make such a sweeping statement like she made and then expect that to apply to one person is wrong. There is no evidence to suggest Warren’s ancestors were left off the roll or that they refused to sign up for the roll. They weren’t Cherokee and they knew it. The fact that they moved into Indian Territory right before allotment yet did not even make an application for enrollment (many whites did and were denied) shows that family didn’t consider themselves Indian.
The rest, I have no more to say. She sees this as a fight between the two of us and I see my post as simply correcting her mistakes. This isn’t about her and it isn’t about me. It is about truth in Cherokee history.
Does it matter that based on everything that is known that Warren is not telling the truth about her heritage?
If she did nothing else with it, it still would matter. Perhaps Warren could be excused for believing family lore in the past, but now that we know it is not accurate, she has no basis for repeating it. That Warren repeats something she knows has no evidence with such conviction and indignation tells us a lot about her.
And there is evidence Warren sought to use her supposed Cherokee heritage to her advantage. She used that heritage to put herself on a list of “Minority Law Teachers” at a time when law schools who used that directory were under intense pressure to increase the diversity of their faculties. Warren then reported that status to at least two employers for federal reporting.
Whether Warren benefitted or not, she put herself in a position to benefit based on a false status as to which she had no proof.
The truth matters. It matters as much when evaluating the trustworthiness of Elizabeth Warren or any other politician. And it matters to the Cherokee.
*There is a side issue as to an exchange of information between Barnes and Stockman prior to the column, and whether Stockman ignored information provided by Barnes. I’ve seen the e-mail exchange, and Stockman says she did not see Barnes’ email prior to finalizing her column.