The drama over whether Elizabeth Warren could rightfully be considered Native American -- and whether she used this claim to gain favor in her academic and professional career -- began in earnest in 2012.
The latest chapter features the Democratic senator from Massachusetts on camera, with a backdrop of emotional music, declaring that even though “some people have questioned my heritage and my family history ... no one, not even the president of the United States, will ever take it away from me.”
It’s certainly true that we each create our own identities and are entitled to them.
Just don’t count on acceptance into the community whose ranks you claim.
“This story for us has a much longer timeline than I think many Americans understand,” said Kim Tallbear, professor of native studies at the University of Alberta and author of “Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science.”
Tallbear recently spoke to the public radio show “On the Media” to discuss Warren’s claims of being Cherokee on her great-great-great-grandmother’s side.
“Everything that’s taken from indigenous people, be it actual land and resources, or be it an image that can be marketed and used for a football team, or taking claims to ancestry and making those part of the identity that one is espousing to the world -- our understandings of kinship and family and tribe are not governed so strongly by the idea of having distant unnamed ancestry,” Tallbear said. “We have a much stronger sense of what it is to be Native American that is governed by our family relationships, by lived social relations ... that matters to us.”
She went on to caution non-native observers that “blood,” identity and genes -- which she called “fractions on paper” -- cannot be conflated when it comes to determining native ancestry. Tallbear explained the commercial and contractual origins of Indian registers and the incredibly complex tribal citizenship rules that are still being negotiated and adjusted in order to ensure that “total Indian blood” rules and “lineal descent rules” don’t exclude true descendants.
Indeed, these debates go back years.
“I know full-blooded Indians who have lived their entire lives on reservations but can’t be enrolled because they have blood from many different tribes, and I know of non-Indians who have been enrolled by accident or stealth just because they’ll get something out of it,” wrote David Treuer, an Ojibwe writer and academic, in 2011. “Who is and who isn’t an Indian is a complicated question, but there are many ways to answer it beyond genetics alone.”
It’s a question best left to those with the strongest claims to the heritage.
Tallbear noted that Warren “has for her entire life -- like many people in Oklahoma and in the South and in the East of the U.S. -- lived with this myth of an Indian in her family tree, and that’s really important to those people. ... I’ve seen people break down crying when they find out that they don’t have a native American ancestor. This is a cherished idea for a lot of non-native Americans.”
Still, the desire by people to be “native” but never work to empower Native Americans or to fight against their high rates of poverty, disenfranchisement, substance addiction and lack of educational opportunities is a point of real pain.
For Tallbear, Warren’s video crystalized “the deep power imbalance that exists between indigenous people and everybody else. Our voices just don’t matter, our definitions of who we are just don’t matter, because our images are so much more important to non-native people as they romanticize this American past. So who we are as people in and of ourselves is not important, we are only tokens that help most Americans feel comfortable in a land that’s been stolen.”
Sadly, lots of people feel quite comfortable caricaturing Native Americans as a collection of feathers, beads and war whoops. Go to your local party supply store and you’ll find offensive Halloween costumes, from “Chief Long Arrow” and the equally sexualized “Native American Temptress” to countless variations on Native American braves, princesses, maidens, warriors, healers, and Buffalo dancers.
Warren and her self-identification aside, if everyone who claimed to have a Cherokee princess great-grandmother dedicated themselves to ensuring Native Americans had healthy lives, respect and basic humanity, then perhaps those communities would have more than just their cultural legacy to hold onto.
Esther J. Cepeda is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post.