Native Americans

The Complex, Childish Identity Politics of Elizabeth Warren's Native Heritage

There's nothing wrong with a little self-mythologizing when you're young, but there comes a time to set aside childish things.


Michael A. McCoy/ZUMA Press/Newscom

There's a party trick my ex-husband, a member of the Creek Nation, told me about: The next time a white-looking person tells you they have Native American blood, look at them thoughtfully, maybe tilt their chin this way and that, and say, "I bet you're part Cherokee."

Nine times out of 10, the person will light up and say, "How did you know?"

At which point you can keep the trick going ("I see it in your profile…"), or chalk them up to being another member of the Wannabe tribe.

Non-Natives who "self-identify" as Native American, as Elizabeth Warren has done on paper as early as 1989, is something American Indians who come into contact with white people deal with constantly. (According to the Department of Health and Human Services, this is the majority of the 2.5 million Native Americans living in the U.S., only 22 percent of whom live on reservations.)

Warren's political opponents claim she appropriated Native status for professional gain. In response, Warren yesterday trotted out the "Elizabeth Warren Family Story," a hodgepodge of umbrage-taking family and colleagues and one DNA expert to counter any claims that she was faking her heritage, which she says came directly from her grandmother. If this was Warren's attempt to stop Trump's schoolyard taunts (as if) and tip opinion in her favor, it was a spectacular failure.

In Warren's defense, there is a good possibility she could have Native blood, as do many people who came to Oklahoma in the 19th century. It was the territory to which the so-named Five Civilized tribes—Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole—were forcibly relocated in 1838–1839, from the southeastern United States, via the death march that came to be known as the Trail of Tears. Those who made it to Oklahoma intermarried, the Cherokee primarily with whites (which is why the party trick works; alternately, the Choctaw often married freed and runaway slaves, though I have yet to meet a black person claiming Native blood; go figure).

Because it just really could have been, I believe Warren believes herself to be part Native, that she is one of the millions of Americans who have been told they have Native blood (though often don't); who, while wishcasting for identity, alight on Native American because #motherearth and #nicehair and because Natives tend to put up with white people parachuting in for a perceived spiritual hit.

In my experience, as a 100 percent white person who's spent three decades around Native people—who, also in my experience, usually refer to themselves as American Indians, or simply 'skins—Natives are amazingly tolerant of the wannabes. The woman who comes to Okmulgee, Oklahoma, every year from Germany to visit Grandma for a month but brings with her money and gifts and steaks for the barbecue? She can stay. The little orange-haired girl dancing at the powwow who, when my former brother-in-law asked, "What tribe are you?" answered, "I don't know but Mama knows," forever bequeathed us the "Mamaknows" tribe. My half-Native daughter's classmates who, during the 1997 drought in Los Angeles, suggested she lead them in a rain dance? They were second graders, in thrall to Pocahontas! They danced! And that was fine!

If we self-mythologize when we're young, most of us (who are not politicians) would be too ashamed, or would not see enough benefit, to keep the lies going. (I stopped telling people the Osmonds were my cousins around age 11, about the time a friend said he stopped talking about his "Aunt Raquel.") We don't need little lies anymore to feel special; we develop identities based on accomplishments, on facts, not feelings.

Warren's accomplishments, including her initial employment at Harvard, do not seem to be in doubt. What is, and should be, is why in her 30s she changed her racial designation from "white" to "Native American," claiming affiliation with the Cherokee and Delaware tribes. As anyone following this political football learned yesterday, no DNA test can prove you're Native American. Further, the Cherokee Nation secretary of state stated that Warren's gambit at "proving" her heritage, "makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses, while dishonoring legitimate tribal governments, whose ancestors are well-documented and whose heritage is well proven."

No amount of plaintive claiming from Warren that to question her Native roots is to "call my mother a liar," is going to change the fact that saying you are Native American does not make it so.

What qualifies you for Native status is tribal membership. Tribes, which are sovereign nations, set their own standards of blood quantum required to get a Certificate Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) card. Within four hours of my daughter being born in California, her aunties in Oklahoma had gone to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Council and applied for her CDIB card. It is the only official document that makes her a legal citizen of the Creek Nation. Warren's 1/1054th, or whatever it is today, would certainly not allow her on the Cherokee Nation tribal rolls, which she has acknowledged.

Warren's grandmother did not apply for her CDIB, either because she did not see the need, or because she did not qualify, or because being a Native at that time was not a propitious thing to be. That was her choice. And then times changed and her granddaughter saw some benefit, which she now couches in terms of identity politics as a personal choice, and says that no matter what anyone says, her Native heritage will "always be etched on my heart."

Let's keep it there, shall we?