Thursday, May 31, 2012

About Elizabeth Warren's Family Story about being Cherokee

Several weeks ago, the news media began to cover a story about Elizabeth Warren's claim of being Cherokee. I've followed developments in that story, and wish that Warren had chosen a different strategy in response to challenges to her claim.

I'm writing about this because Warren is not alone in that claim.

I think it is accurate to say that thousands of U.S. citizens believe they are part Native American. According to the polls of voters, the majority of voters in Massachusetts say that the controversy over her claim is a non-issue for them. I have some thoughts on that, but lets start with the beginning.


For those who don't follow national politics, Elizabeth Warren is running against Scott Brown for a seat in the United States Senate. Brown found out she claimed to be Cherokee and didn't believe her. He challenged her claim and since then, there have been lots of media stories on her claim.

Last night (May 30, 2011), she issued this statement:
Growing up, my mother and my grandparents and my aunts and uncles often talked about our family’s Native American heritage. As a kid, I never thought to ask them for documentation - what kid would? - but that doesn’t change the fact that it is a part of who I am and part of my family heritage.

The people involved in recruiting and hiring me for my teaching jobs, including Charles Fried - solicitor-general under Ronald Reagan who has publicly said he voted for Scott Brown in 2010 - have said unequivocally they were not aware of my heritage and that it played no role in my hiring. Public documents that reporters have examined also show I did not benefit from my heritage when applying to college or law school. As I have confirmed before, I let people know about my Native American heritage in a national directory of law school personnel. At some point after I was hired by them, I also provided that information to the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. My Native American heritage is part of who I am, I’m proud of it and I have been open about it.

The people of Massachusetts are concerned about their jobs, the future for their kids, and the security of retirement. It’s past time we moved on to the important issues facing middle class families in Massachusetts.
Obviously, she is not backing away from her claim to Native identity, but she is changing it a bit... She is not saying Cherokee anymore. That may be because Twila Barnes, a Cherokee genealogist, has been doing an extensive study and finding nothing that could support Warren's claim to Cherokee status. And, the group "Cherokees Demand Truth from Elizabeth Warren" was launched yesterday.

Why this matters to me

I am not one of the people of Massachusetts, but I am a citizen of the United States, and, I'm enrolled at Nambe Pueblo, a federally recognized sovereign nation. If elected, Warren will vote on legislation that will have bearing on me and Nambe Pueblo. To do that and do it well (from an informed position), she's got to let go of this story!

Instead of asking voters to move on, she could say that:
  1. She was raised to believe that that she is part Native American, and based on that belief, she claimed Cherokee identity at various times in order to meet people like her. She knows, now, that...
  2. There is a Cherokee Nation that has policies in place that determine who its citizens are, and, she is not a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.
  3. There are a lot of people like her who believe they have Cherokee ancestors and they, like her, proudly assert that ancestry. 
  4. The hard reality is that she doesn't know what it means to be a Cherokee, and that her heartfelt pride is based on romantic ideas and stereotypes. That she embraced that identity uncritically because schools in the U.S. don't teach children that, in addition to the federal and state government, there are tribal governments with inherent powers to determine who its citizens are. She could point out that, instead of an education about tribal governments, students learn about Indians at the First Thanksgiving, and how they did cool things like using every part of the buffalo, and that it is sad that Indians are all gone, now.
  5. In other words, she'd be saying she is ignorant, and that America's collective ignorance can't go on unchecked because it gets in the way of being able to see American Indians in today's society for who we are. Instead of knowing American Indians as we should, Americans choose to know and love them in an abstract stereotypical way that does more harm than good.

Why this should matter to you

I think Warren ought to use her status as a candidate for a national office to educate the public. Her claim is especially problematic because of her prior work on protecting the consumer. Does she know, for example, that there is a federal law that was written to protect the consumer interested in buying American Indian art? Here's some info about that law:
The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-644) is a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in marketing of Indian arts and crafts products within the United States. It is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the United States. For a first time violation of the Act, an individual can face civil or criminal penalties up to a $250,000 fine or a 5-year prison term, or both. If a business violates the Act, it can face civil penalties or can be prosecuted and fined up to $1,000,000.

Under the Act, an Indian is defined as a member of any federally or State recognized Indian Tribe, or an individual certified as an Indian artisan by an Indian Tribe.

The law covers all Indian and Indian-style traditional and contemporary arts and crafts produced after 1935. The Act broadly applies to the marketing of arts and crafts by any person in the United States. Some traditional items frequently copied by non-Indians include Indian-style jewelry, pottery, baskets, carved stone fetishes, woven rugs, kachina dolls, and clothing.

All products must be marketed truthfully regarding the Indian heritage and tribal affiliation of the producers, so as not to mislead the consumer. It is illegal to market an art or craft item using the name of a tribe if a member, or certified Indian artisan, of that tribe did not actually create the art or craft item.
Of course, she is not a product, but I hope you see why this claim by her is especially egregious. I hasten to add that the law excludes Native artists who cannot be enrolled with a tribe because they don't meet the tribe's criteria for enrollment. For example, someone could have four full blood grandparents from four different tribes, making them 1/4 of each one, but if each one requires more than 1/4 blood quantum to be enrolled, that person could not be enrolled in any of them. There's a lot more to say about enrollment and blood quantum, but lets stick with the current discussion of Elizabeth Warren.

A more informed public

America could emerge from this moment as more-educated about American Indians. And, maybe we'd even have the courage to reject all those disgusting headlines wherein people skewer Warren by playing with racist language and ideas like the Fox News personality who said the first thing she'd say to Warren (if she agreed to an interview) would be "How!"

Warren could do a lot of educating if she had the courage to do so. It would help us (teachers and librarians) do a better job of selecting literature, and it would give us the information we need when a person or group is being brought in to our schools to do Native American workshops or performances.

But, I doubt Warren will ever step away from her family story, because she's running for a political office. In campaigns, people don't generally say "I was wrong" because those admissions will be called "flip flops" and work against the candidate. She won't do it, and, in the end, we all lose an opportunity. That's too bad.


See also Dear Elizabeth Warren: I know kids who would ask their parents for proof of identity


Anonymous said...

In campaigns, people don't generally say "I was wrong" because those admissions will be called "flip flops" and work against the candidate.

That's the fear, but I suspect an honest admission of being wrong or making a mistake would go a long way if the candidate is otherwise qualified. I think, truly, that people are sick and tired of fake apologies and weaseling and false certitude.

Anonymous said...

I think this is an interesting issue. Generally I think a lot of Americans have trouble describing their ethnicity and it's easy to get it confused with nationality. A lot of Americans describe themselves as "Irish" (for example) though they aren't, their parents weren't, and they really know next to nothing about Irish history or culture and have never been to Ireland - although they do have ancestors who were Irish.
Do you think this is similar to this situation? If it's different, why? Is it because there seems to be something gained from falsely claiming a Native identity? What do those of us say who do have a Native American ancestory, but no claim to nationality and little to its culture? What do we call ourselves? How should we describe it when people ask? (And they do ask!) Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I was thinking the same thing as Anon from June 1 and was going to ask the same question. Why is it okay for me to say "I'm Danish" from my great-grandfather, but it would be frowned upon if I inserted a Native American tribe in that statement. I wouldn't try to gain Danish citizenship or tribal recognition with that small percentage, but it's not wrong to state such a thing, is it?