What Elizabeth Warren Got Wrong and What She Can Do Right

For a while now, there has been a controversy of heritage surrounding Senator Elizabeth Warren. The Democratic Massachusetts senator and law school professor has stated on numerous occasions that she is descended from Native Americans-- a point which has been frequently torn apart by members of the Republican Party. From President Donald Trump referring to her as “Pocahontas” to various supporters chanting in racial mockery, the issue has been an apparent doubt that Warren is actually Native American, which culminated at a Trump rally in which the president declared "I will give you a million dollars to your favorite charity, paid for by Trump, if you take the test and it shows you’re an Indian."


Well, apparently she has.


Image via WBUR


In a new promotional video released by Warren, she and her family members tell the story of her heritage, concluding in the reading of a DNA test that strongly suggests Native American ancestry between six and ten generations ago. So, is the controversy over now? Nope.

While it is certainly good that Warren has scientific proof to back up the stories of her heritage, trouble still looms in this issue. Warren acknowledges in the video that she does not belong to any of the official Cherokee tribes, and both former colleagues in the video and an independent study by The Boston Globe have proven that she was never hired as a professor under any basis of ethnicity, however Warren's track record of how she discusses her heritage is, to put it simply, confusing. While she never claimed to be Native American through student applications, or during her time as a professor at the University of Texas, she listed herself as a Native American minority in the Association of American Law Schools directory. Because of this, when Warren was a professor at Harvard, she was listed as being a minority professor, and thus could be used to affect the school's ratios. From that point on, Warren became known for this heritage. She has campaigned by discussing her Cherokee ancestors and intentionally built being a proud Native American into her overall brand. It was because of this branding that the controversy initially began, and it is the branding that is not allowing this issue to disappear simply because of a genetics test.

The issue seems to have been misrepresented before the DNA test came to light. It was never an issue of whether Warren is scientifically Native American, but whether she IS Native American. To truly be Native American today is to live through discrimination and mistreatment, especially at the hands of the federal government. It is to be influenced by the mass unemployment rate among tribe members. It is to actually be legally a part of a tribe, knowing the history and customs, and treating them with respect. Elizabeth Warren may have Cherokee ancestry, but I’m not sure that she is Native American. The Cherokee tribes aren't sure either, with public statements being made condemning the DNA tests and stating that they find the entire ordeal insulting. 

Perhaps this issue is affecting me more because of my own heritage. My great-grandmother was an Ojibwe Indian; she lived on a reservation, participated in rituals, was forcefully assimilated into “white culture” and yet still carried on the traditions of her tribe throughout the entirety of her life. My grandmother, and all of her siblings, officially and legally belong to the Ojibwe tribe, with several of them participating fully in tribal traditions. I have seen these events, learned this history, met these people-- but I am not Native American, nor will I claim to be. It’s the same way that I might have German ancestors, but I will not claim to be German, after all, I’ve never been to Germany even though I’ve read about the country. That isn’t who I am. I haven’t lived the life of someone who is completely and utterly Native American, even if it is in my blood. When I fill out forms, I put that I am white, because I don’t believe I truly have claim to anything else. So, why does Elizabeth Warren think that she does? It's no wonder that people are confused by her claims- I am too.


Image via Daily Wire


I’d like to believe, optimistically, that Warren’s frequent alignment with her Native American roots is because she honors the tribe and its traditions. Warren has repeatedly spoke of how connected she is to this part of her family history and the stories she was told as a child about her lineage, which is lovely. And as many news outlets have pointed out, Warren's releasing of this video and DNA test was with the intention to clear up the initial controversy, rather than to make it larger. All of that is commendable. But I would argue that Warren needs to go a step further. If Warren would like to claim Native American heritage, she should do so while standing up for the tribes that she is aligning herself with. Combating the intense poverty or injustices like the Dakota Access Pipeline would be a great way for Warren to both connect with her roots and stand up for the people she calls her own. To her credit, Warren has already shown support for organizations like The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, which helps to raise awareness and support for victims of domestic violence in tribes. So why not continue to be a voice for these people? Or, why not take the steps to actually connect with the heritage and tribe itself? If Warren is truly confident in her family's connection to the Cherokee, she could try to find an ancestor on the Dawes Rolls and apply for legal Cherokee citizenship. That way, there would be no doubt whatsoever about her claims of being Native American-- because right now, there definitely are.

Ultimately, no amount of DNA tests can force your way into a tribe- the Cherokee Nation itself has released a statement saying so. Warren’s use of DNA and heritage in this way to score cheap political points is damaging to a group that is already often victimized. If she is going to use her Native American heritage to help get jobs and score votes, the least she could do is support the people she is claiming to be a part of. At least that way she could return to being in the news for her trailblazing reforms, and not ethnic controversy.