Tuesday, September 25, 2012

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

Yesterday (September 24, 2012), Elizabeth Warren responded to Scott Brown's attack on her heritage by putting out an ad in which she rhetorically asks "What kid would?" ask her parents for documentation of her Native heritage.

Ms. Warren? Here's my answer. A Native kid who is part of her Nation would, that's who!

From her childhood, my kid knew what it meant to be Native, not in a "family lore" way like Elizabeth Warren, but in a day-in-and-day-out way where being a member or citizen of Nambe carries a responsibility to the Native community.

Several hundred years ago, our ancestors fought for our rights as nations. They prevailed in the face of enormous onslaughts of military might, but, they prevailed.

Our responsibility is to continue that fight.

Will you join us in that fight? Right now, your statements undermine our sovereignty.

And, by the way, since you have no idea what it means to be a citizen of a Native Nation, your outrage at Scott Brown's staff for their war whoops and tomahawk chops is superficial.

I'm a Democrat who makes phone calls and knocks on doors. I supported you until I learned of your claims. No more, Ms. Warren. My strongest allegiance is to my ancestors and the status of Native Nations. There are things you could do to regain my support and maybe the support of other Native people who have questioned what you are doing. And you know what sucks (pardon my use of that word)? Democrats need you to win your race so that things we care about are more attainable.

Scott Brown? You're as ignorant and racist as they come. You don't know what Native Americans look like.


Update, 6:41 PM, September 25, 2012:

A few people asked what Warren could do. I made some suggestions when this story first broke in May. For your convenience, I'm pasting them and my thoughts on why this matters here:

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. 


Anonymous said...

Did she claim to be a Cherokee citizen? How is claiming ancestry akin to claiming citizenship? I can claim French ancestry, but I wouldn't meet the requirements for French citizenship. (Nor would I try to.) I'm just trying to understand the difference.

Debbie Reese said...


I don't see any evidence in any of her remarks that she understands there is a distinction between the two (citizenship/ancestry). If she did know, she could have articulated the difference.

The difference is important. If she really knew what it means to be Cherokee, either a citizen OR a person who has ancestors but can't be enrolled as a citizen, she could have explained all of that, but she didn't.

And, she did, at one point, admit to checking the box so that she could meet other people like her. I don't think she knew what that meant, either. And, I'm not sure she really wanted to "meet other people like her" because according to Native students at Harvard, she did not reach out to them and did not attend events there. Harvard has had a program for Native students for a long time.

Kaethe said...

Hear, hear. Like many in the South, I grew up hearing that I had a full Cherokee great(great?)grandmother. And for a while, when I was younger, I thought that was so cool. then I did a little research, realized that I didn't even know the name of the supposed ancestor, let alone her tribal affiliation, started to discover some of the recent history and current issues facing the Cherokees and other tribes in the area. And then I was mostly ashamed. Now I try to remain educated.

Anonymous said...

Did you see the op-ed piece in the New York Times today about the Warren/Brown situation? The scariest line is this one: "Once I was told I couldn’t be Indian because we’d all been killed" and that line alone sums up why I'm so glad you do what you do.



Anonymous said...

I don't see any problem with her acknowledging that she has Cherokee ancestry if that is the case and the tradition in her family. I grew up with a fair number of people who didn't qualify for tribal membership because they didn't meet the blood quantum requirements for the tribe (25 percent in that tribe's case) but who were still very much Indians, with the surname and the family ties. Yes, I know how tribal sovereignty works and that each tribe has its own laws and ways of deciding who is a member. I am white but about half of my high school classmates were American Indians.