Elizabeth Warren Again Pressed on Past Claims of Native American Heritage

February 27, 2020by Adam Elmahrek, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren at the Democratic Presidential Candidate Debate in Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Dan McCue)

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 letter cites a Los Angeles Times investigation that found more than $800 million in government contracts reserved for minorities instead went to companies set up by members of groups with dubious claims to being Cherokee and Creek Indian tribes.

The letter describes The Times’ findings as an example of the harm done when white people rely on family lore and DNA tests to falsely assert Native American identity.

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.

In response, Warren sent a 12-page letter to the Cherokee authors on Tuesday night. Her letter repeated past apologies, reiterated that she is a “white woman” and detailed a policy agenda that she said was good for Indian Country.

“I was wrong to have identified as a Native American, and, without qualification or excuse, I apologize,” she wrote. Warren’s campaign provided a copy to The Times.

She also distanced herself from the cases cited in The Times investigation, which she called an “injustice.” She said her “situation differs from these cases because I never benefited financially or professionally,” and cited a Boston Globe story that concluded her past identification as Native American never boosted her career.

Warren previously apologized for claiming to be Native American, and for publicizing the results of DNA test that showed she likely had a distant ancestor indigenous to the Americas. She has apologized to the chief of the Cherokee Nation, has said she is not a member of a tribe and expressed regret over causing “confusion” about tribal membership.

But the authors of the letter — Cherokee Nation citizens Daniel Heath Justice, Joseph Pierce, Rebecca Nagle and Twila Barnes — called those 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.

After receiving Warren’s response, three of the authors — Justice, Pierce and Nagle — said Warren “made an effort” to address their points about DNA tests and who gets to determine who is Native, but noted that Warren hasn’t recanted her family story. “We hope that after further dialogue with the campaign, Warren will bravely and publicly tell the truth about her family,” they said in an email to The Times.

For years, Warren has contended with allegations that she falsely claimed to be Native American, specifically Cherokee and Delaware. The former Harvard University professor was identified as a minority law professor in a Harvard directory, and wrote that she was “American Indian” on a registration card for the State Bar of Texas.

The controversy started in 2012, when questions arose about her university listing. Barnes researched Warren’s genealogy and found that, despite Warren’s claims, she had no ancestral ties to Cherokee tribes.

The senator doubled down on the claim after attacks from President Donald Trump, who derisively called her “Pocahontas” and challenged her to take a DNA test. She did and released the results in late 2018. The test showed she likely had an ancestor indigenous to the Americas between six and 10 generations ago.

The test was condemned by some American Indians who said Warren undermined tribal sovereignty by equating racial science with tribal affiliation and Native American identity.

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.”

Kinship with a tribe is key to how Native Americans identify themselves. There are many groups calling themselves tribes, often composed of people who have unproven family legends of an American Indian ancestor, that Native Americans consider to be illegitimate.


©2020 Los Angeles Times

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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