Over 200 Native Americans Demand Elizabeth Warren Retract Her Family Lore Stories About Being Cherokee
“Like many other white families, your family story of Cherokee and Delaware ancestry is false and it was wrong for you to repeat it as an adult. You have had the genealogical evidence since 2012. Stating you do not qualify for citizenship is not enough; the truth is you and your ancestors are white.”
Elizabeth Warren is not Native American, and never claimed to be Native American until her mid-30s when she made that claim for employment purposes while climbing the law professor ladder to Harvard Law School.
From the moment Warren was outed in late April 2012, she bobbed and weaved to avoid answering hard questions about why she claimed to be minority and Native American. As this May 2012 interview reflected, Warren stuck to talking points trying to divert the issue.
Warren never associated with Native Americans, never affiliated with a tribe, never helped Native Americans, and never lived as a Native American. When the issue did not go away, Warren defended her claim to be Native American by relying on stories her parents and other family members supposedly told her.
The key family lore story, that Warren’s parents had to elope because her white father’s family would not accept her Native American mother, has been cast into serious doubt by contemporaneous documentation of the wedding. The Aunt Bea “high cheekbones” story also is suspect.
Genealogical research going back almost 200 years of Warren’s family tree, conducted by a group of Cherokee geneaologists led by Twila Barnes, proved that Warren had no Native American ancestry going as far back as records were available.
When those Cherokee genealogists traveled to Boston in June 2012 to meet with Warren and provide her with the evidence, Warren refused to meet with them, instead blaming a right-wing consipracy.
Warren stuck to her claim of family lore and being Native American for almost 7 years, even going so far in the fall of 2018 to roll out a DNA test in order to quell the continuing controversy. That was a disaster. Not only did the DNA test show a potentially miniscule (1/2014th) percentage of possibly Native American DNA, it offended Native American groups who reject DNA as a test of whether someone is Native American.
The DNA rollout almost collapsed Warren’s presidential campaign, so Warren began to issue carefully worded apologies which did not actually apologize for Warren’s own deceptive conduct. Instead, the apologies were worded around acknowledgeing that she was not a member of a Tribe. Warren has stuck to that non-apology apology ever since.
To date, Warren has never acknowledge that her family lore stories were false.
Now a group of 214 Native Americans, including 143 Cherokee, have demanded not only that Warren issue a complete apology, but also that she retract her family lore stories as false. The Los Angeles Times (archived) was the first to report on this Open Letter:
More than 200 Cherokees and other Native Americans have signed a letter urging Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren to fully retract her past claims to being Native and help dispel false beliefs held by many white people that they have American Indian ancestry….
The criticism comes at an awkward time for Warren. The Massachusetts senator did not win any of the first three states in the nominating calendar and faces an uphill battle in the South Carolina primary this Saturday….
But the authors of the letter — Cherokee Nation citizens Daniel Heath Justice, Joseph Pierce, Rebecca Nagle and Twila Barnes — called those [Warren] apologies “vague and inadequate.” They say she needs to state clearly that family stories she heard were false, and that it is wrong to use DNA tests to determine Native American identity.
“As the most public example of this behavior, you need to clearly state that Native people are the sole authority on who is — and who is not — Native,” wrote the authors, who are Cherokee citizens but don’t speak on behalf of the tribe….
Barnes, one of the letter’s coauthors, said in an interview that she and other Cherokees often encounter Warren supporters who insist that the DNA test proved Warren’s claims and that her recounting of family history was harmless.
“It’s totally misrepresenting who Cherokees are and ignoring our voices in it,” Barnes said. “There are so many people using our Cherokee identity to defraud or trick other people for their own benefit. It’s just an incredibly huge problem.”
Here are excerpts from the Open Letter:
… Senator Warren, as you seek the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, your history of false claims to American Indian identity and the defense of these claims with a highly publicized DNA test continue to dog your political career….
You have yet to fully address the harm you have caused. While your apologies are a step in the right direction, they have been vague and inadequate. Accountability is not just admitting you made a mistake, but working to correct the harm it caused. A recent collective statement by Cherokee scholars makes clear that any person who publicly identifies as Cherokee has initiated an open discussion about their identity. As a Harvard professor and U.S. Senator, you have the unique opportunity to turn this controversy into a needed learning moment.
As Native community members, academics, activists, scientists, writers, organizers, aunties, uncles, young people, and tribal citizens concerned about the future of Native rights, we call on you to make a clear public statement that includes the following:
• Like many other white families, your family story of Cherokee and Delaware ancestry is false and it was wrong for you to repeat it as an adult. You have had the genealogical evidence since 2012. Stating you do not qualify for citizenship is not enough; the truth is you and your ancestors are white.
• Equating Cherokee identity with the results of a DNA test was more than a misstep—it was dangerous. Your supporters and the public need to understand why. We ask that you explain that only tribal affiliation and kinship determine Native identity, and that equating Native identity with race and biology erodes the foundation of Indigenous sovereignty.
• Claiming Native identity without citizenship, kinship ties, or recognition from Native communities undermines Indigenous self-determination. As the most public example of this behavior, you need to clearly state that Native people are the sole authority on who is—and who is not—Native.
… You have done some good things for Indian Country during your time in political service. You have also done real harm. Right now, you have the platform and the opportunity to stand firmly on the side of justice. This is not about politics or your career. This is about the well-being of our nations. The time has come for you to show true leadership and make this right.
Warren wrote a 12-page response. As before, Warren (or more likely her campaign communications staff) carefully words the apology to focus on tribal citizenship standards rather than her own deceptive conduct. Warren apologizes for the “harm” she had caused, but not her own deceptive actions in claiming to be Native American for employment purposes and then defending it for almost 7 years after she was exposed:
… I am not a person of color; I am a white woman, and that is how I identify. In addition, I am not a tribal citizen. Tribal Nations—and only Tribal Nations—determine tribal citizenship. It’s their right as a matter of sovereignty, and they exercise that in the ways they choose to exercise it…. And I understand that the confusion my actions propagated around tribal sovereignty and citizenship caused real harm to Native people and communities. I was wrong to have identified as a Native American, and, without qualification or excuse, I apologize for the harm I caused….
Your letter noted that I “still defend [my]self by stating [I] believed what [I] heard growing up.” But when I talk about my family story now, I am offering an explanation, not a defense. Many people do not know that I—an elected official from Massachusetts— grew up in Oklahoma, or that mybrothers and I had been told family stories. This is important context—important to fully understanding what I did, why I did it, and why I have apologized repeatedly….
As I said, I believe in accountability, but accountability is a methodology—not an ideology. It means little to believe in it if we do not practice it, so I am grateful for your willingness to hold me accountable and for the opportunity to have had this courageous conversation. I know this kind of engagement only happens with people you expect more from, and I am grateful to be one of
those people. Please continue to expect more from me, and I will continue to dedicate myself to living up to it.
Warren’s reply is another non-apology apology. She used her supposed family lore as a defense for almost 7 years, and it’s doubful much of it ever even was told. If Warren truly had this family lore, then you would have expected her to act as if she believed she was Native American, by identifying as Native American when she applied for college and law school and by associating with Native Americans. But she didn’t do any of those things. Warren’s failure to identify as Native American until it could help her law professor career proves either that the family lore never happened, or if it happened, Warren didn’t believe it.
Incredibly, no other Democrat presidential candidates have hit Warren on her misappropriation of Native American identity, despite Warren attacking them on stage on a variety of supposed personal and political problems. By not raising the issue, the other Democrat presidential candidates have compounded Warren’s deception, which should have been exposed on the debate stage with at least the vigor with which Warren went after others for their past conduct.
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