You've got to kind of feel sorry for Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate who's running against short-term Republican incumbent Scott Brown (he won a special election in 2010 to replace the late Ted Kennedy). Everything seemed to be going her way and then—pffft!—it's all going to shit.
Born and raised in a working-class setting that's genuinely rare among academics and politicians, she eventually ended up teaching at Harvard after a stint at another Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania. Best-known as a relentless scold of the 1 Percent, she nonetheless pulled down $429,000 in salary alone in 2011 and could be worth as much as $15 million.
After claiming that most of us were too dim to understand our mortgage and car-loan payment schedules, she was tapped by the Obama administration to create the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which was designed "to protect the financial interests of middle-class families" by regulating and restricting the types of financial products available.
Widely expected to be named the first head of that agency, she instead got thrown under the bus by the Obama adminstration when her nomination looked to be hotly contested.
The tough times have only continued. As a progressive Democrat in a Massachusetts race for Ted Kennedy's old seat, she ought to be enjoying an electoral cakewalk, but she's neck and neck with Brown in most polls at least partly due to her dubious claims of Cherokee heritage. Despite family lore, self-described "high cheekbones," supplying (possibly plagiarized) recipes for "Cold Omelets with Crab Meat" and other dishes in a cookbook called Pow Wow Chow (1984), listing herself in various ethnic professional directories, and being publicly touted by Harvard as a "woman of color," Warren has failed to produce documentation that she has any native-American ancestors. As radio host and MSNBC talking head Michael Smerconish put it in a recent column:
Warren only stopped listing herself as [native American] in 1995, just after she was hired by Harvard. But while she was at Harvard, the Crimson newspaper reported that the university's faculty included one Native American: Warren. And when she received tenure there, another Crimson story said she was the first woman with a minority background to receive tenure.
All of which would be well and good if Warren could substantiate her claim of Native American ancestry, which is a federal requirement when universities report diversity data. Thus far, she has not, and by her own admission, her connection to American Indians is remote….
Ever since this issue was raised by the Boston Herald in April, Warren has stumbled in her efforts to explain her claims of minority status. She initially sought to minimize the controversy by saying she had merely hoped "that I'd get invited to some lunch group or some—maybe some dinner conversation, and I might find some more people like me … people for whom Native American is part of their heritage and part of their hearts."
Her opponent Scott Brown says that Warren's self-designation goes "right to the integrity and character of a person" because she may have unfairly benefited from affirmative action policies in academia. Warren contests that charge, saying she never identified as native American in hiring situations.
But the question looms over the Brown-Warren race: A Cherokee genealogist is now circulating a death certificate of a family member apparently signed by Warren that further suggests the candidate is talking out of both sides of her mouth.
On the surface, the blue-eyed, blonde-haired Warren is the least convincing Indian since Paul Newman starred in Hombre. But if Warren's evasive replies to inquiries about her ancestry cost her the election, she can at least take comfort in knowing she's hardly alone in passing herself off as having Indian blood.
Here are five other memorable fake Indians from America's past.
NEXT: At Least the Tears He Cried Probably Were Real…
5. Iron Eyes Cody, a.k.a. The Crying Indian
Americans of a certain age well remember the "Keep America Beautiful" public-service announcement released around Earth Day in 1971. The spot featured an actor called Iron Eyes Cody paddling through scummy harbors and walking through landfills as the announcer reminded us that "People start pollution and people can stop it." At the dramatic end of the commercial, a kid in a passing car tosses a bag of fast-food garbage at the feet of Cody, who turns to the camera and reveals the most famous tear in commerical history. (Watch the ad.)
As Snopes.com tells it, Cody was born Espera DeCorti in Louisiana in 1904 to Italian-immigrant parents. Sometime in the 1920s, he started passing himself off as native American and typically dressed in mocasins and buckskins for most of his life. Though not born an Indian, he lived as one and insisted against documentation to the contrary that he was one. He married a native American woman and adopted two Indian boys. He died in 1999.
Next: Earth Day is About More Than Hacky Sacks…
4. Chief Seattle's Phony Speech
Speaking of Earth Day 1971, Snopes.com also susses out another form of Indian impersonation. While there was in fact a historical figure named Chief Seattle, he never gave the stirring speech that's well-known to all environmentalists and head-shop regulars. "How can you buy or sell the sky? The land?," asks Seattle in response to a government offer to purchase Suquamish territory.
Typically dated to 1854, Chief Seattle's speech is more wooden than, well, a cigar-store Indian, trading in the sort of phoney-baloney Noble Savage pieties that would make Rousseau blush:
If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life that it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also received his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.
The words are the work of screenwriter Ted Perry, who wrote the speech in 1971. Twenty years later, a version was published in a children's book (Brother Eagle, Sister Sky) that sold hundreds of thousands of copies to credulous readers. There is a record of Chief Seattle talking to government agents in 1854, but it's a paraphrase made decades after feds bought the land. According to the witness, Seattle thanked the president for his generosity in buying the land.
NEXT: If He'd Really Been an Indian, He Would Have Called Them "Little Chingachgooks" rather than "Little Eichmanns"…
3. Ward Churchill
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill published a notorious essay in which he called office workers who died in the World Trade Center "little Eichmanns."
That brought Churchill, the chair of Colorado's ethnic studies department, no small amount of fame—and scrutiny. In 2007, he was cashiered by the school, which ruled that he had committed "academic misconduct" by plagiarizing and falsifying parts of his research.
If that wasn't bad enough, Churchill's claims to Indian heritage have been challenged by those he's named as sources. For instance, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees has said that he was awarded "associate membership" status precisely because he was not a member by blood. Churchill's Wikipedia page notes that in 2005, the Rocky Mountain News failed to find any Indian ancestors in his background and university officials, though acknowledging he benefitted from affirmative action, refused to check his heritage, claiming that "a person's race of ethnicity is self-proving." For his part, Churchill says that while he has native American ancestors, he "never claimed to be goddamned Sitting Bull."
Next: A Full-Employment Act for Irish, Italian, and Jewish Actors…
2. F-Troop's Hekawi Tribe
With the possible exception of Hogan's Heroes, no sitcom has ever featured a grimmer setting than F-Troop, the 1965-1967 TV series set during the brutal and genocidal Indian Wars. Joining the hapless Capt. Parmenter, scheming Sgt. O'Rourke, and mentally challenged Cpl. Agarn was the Hekawi tribe, whose principal income came from selling tchotkes to tourists.
The Hekawis were a stunningly multicultural bunch, representing all sorts of ethnicities except for actual native Americans. Chief Wild Eagle was played by the Italian-American actor Frank DeKova and his deputy chief Crazy Cat was played by Don Diamond, a Yiddish-speaking graduate of the University of Michigan. Medicine Man duties were split between legendary actor Edward Everett Horton ("Roaring Chicken") and J. Pat O'Malley, who was originally born in England.
NEXT: To Sleeper Hold, Perchance to Dream of Being a Professional Wrestler…
1. Chief Jay Strongbow
If you watched professional wrestling in the 1970s and 1980s, you probably remember Chief Jay Strongbow, the colorfully clad practitioner of the "sleeper hold" (which knocked out its victim) and the "tomahawk chop" (exactly what it sound like). Like the Eyewitness News Team format that arose at the same time, professional wrestling sought to look like an America increasingly comfortable with ethnic pride and the country's wrestling rings quickly filled with the likes of Chief Jay, Professor Toru Tanaka, the Iron Sheik, and more.
Strongbow was born Joseph Luke Scarpa in Philadelphia and, according to The New York Times, was either 79 or 83 when he died earlier this year. Chief Jay earned his greatest victories in the ring as a tag-team champion, sometimes teaming up with his "brother" Jules Strongbow (a.k.a. Frank Hill). The Strongbow warriors even defeated Misters Fuji (a Hawaiian impersonating a Japanese) and Saito for the championship belt.
As it stands, it's far from clear that Elizabeth Warren's weak claim to native American status will have much of an effect on a tight race. One poll in June found that 70 percent of voters said it wouldn't affect their choice. More recent surveys suggest that the story has had a significant impact on her chances.
Given the oddness of the story and the unflattering light it casts on Warren, it seems unlikely that it will fade anytime before the polls close in November.
Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv and the co-author with Matt Welch of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America, now out in paperback with a new foreword.