What's the Actual Story With Elizabeth Warren's Native American Heritage?

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What's the Actual Story With Elizabeth Warren's Native American Heritage?

Yesterday, in a move that was crass even by his low standards, Donald Trump used a ceremony honoring Navajo veterans to take a weird, arguably racist potshot at Elizabeth Warren. Here’s what he said:

“You were here long before any of us were here…although we have a representative in Congress who, they say, was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas.”

Okay, so—great. Trump being Trump. It prompted the usual backlash, and the usual backlash to the backlash. Reasonable people can agree that the remark was racially motivated, though whether it was flat-out racist seems a bit more confounding. At The Root, Michael Harriot makes the compelling argument that it was indeed a slur:

Calling someone by a stereotypical name that is not their own because of their racial background is racist…But here is the biggest reason Trump’s nasty nickname is racist: because Native Americans said so.

In May the National Congress of American Indians said in a statement: “The name of Pocahontas should not be used as a slur, and it is inappropriate for anyone to use her name in a disparaging manner.”

After the incident Monday, NCAI President Jefferson Keel, a U.S. Army officer and Vietnam War veteran, stated: “We regret that the president’s use of the name Pocahontas as a slur to insult a political adversary is overshadowing the true purpose of today’s White House ceremony.”

That rationale works for me, and it renders irrelevant the question of whether Warren really has Native American heritage.

But, hey, since we’re here, let’s ask the question anyway: Does Elizabeth Warren have Native American heritage? How did this “Pocahontas” business, which has been used by Republicans for years against Warren, come about?

When I first heard of the GOP attacking Warren in 2012, I largely ignored it, the way I largely ignore most of the baseless GOP mud that gets flung about like political fecal matter. I assumed it had something to do with Warren claiming Native American heritage in her college application, and I didn’t really care. My father once encouraged me to apply for a scholarship that awarded money to the descendants of wounded veterans on the grounds that someone in our distant past had once been grazed by a bullet in the Civil War. I think I qualified, technically, but it was clear that the scholarship wasn’t meant to benefit someone like me. I didn’t apply—a decision that was partly ethical and partly lazy, to my memory. Point is, college is expensive as hell, everybody tries to game the system, and if 18-year-old Elizabeth Warren’s family used some dubious heritage to save a few bucks or to gain admission to school, it didn’t strike me as deserving a lifetime of shame.

As it turns out, I had the wrong idea entirely. Warren has never used her heritage to gain admission into college, or to benefit professionally or politically, at least in any way that her enemies have been able to prove. And boy have they tried.

So where does “Pocahontas” come from?

Unsurprisingly, it began in 2012, when she was running against Scott Brown for a seat in the U.S. Senate. She won that race, of course, but the controversy surrounding her heritage began when the Boston Herald reported that Warren, then a law professor at Harvard, had listed herself as a minority in the Association of American Law Schools directory from 1986 to 1995. Harvard, it seems, specifically used her claim to bolster their diversity credentials at a time when they were being criticized for a lack of minority faculty. Brown played up the idea that she was trying to game the job market, but Harvard denied that the heritage benefited Warren in any way. Here was her explanation for checking the Native American box:

“I listed myself in the directory in the hopes that it might mean that I would be invited to a luncheon, a group something that might happen with people who are like I am. Nothing like that ever happened, that was clearly not the use for it and so I stopped checking it off,” said Warren.

The larger question here is whether Warren actually has any trace of Native American blood. Her siblings defended her in the aftermath of the controversy, backing up the story that their parents had long told them they had Cherokee and Delaware roots. The Atlantic, which has the most thorough breakdown of the hunt to prove or disprove this ancestral claim, outlines a complicated situation involving the New England Historic Genealogical Society:

Supporters touted her as part Cherokee after genealogist Christopher Child of the New England Historic Genealogical Society said he’d found a marriage certificate that described her great-great-great-grandmother, who was born in the late 18th century, as a Cherokee. But that story fell apart once people looked at it more closely. The Society, it turned out, was referencing a quote by an amateur genealogist in the March 2006 Buracker & Boraker Family History Research Newsletters about an application for a marriage certificate…No one has surfaced that document, and there’s some reason to believe it may not exist…The New England Historic Genealogical Society backtracked on Warren’s ancestry in a statement, saying the group has “no proof that Elizabeth Warren’s great-great-great-grandmother O.C. Sarah Smith either is or is not of Cherokee descent” and that the Society “has not expressed a position on whether Mrs. Warren has Native American ancestry, nor do we possess any primary sources to prove that she is.

Warren continued to stand by her claims of Native American heritage, telling NPR that, “these are my family stories. This is what my brothers and I were told by my mom and my dad, my mamaw and my papaw. This is our lives. And I’m very proud of it.”

Even if the document proving that Warren has a Cherokee ancestor is real, it would mean that she’s 1/32 Cherokee, which isn’t enough to qualify for citizenship in the Cherokee Nation.

Essentially, the convoluted tale leaves us with two possible conclusions:

1. Elizabeth Warren lied about Native American heritage, for some reason, even though it never benefited her personally or politically.

2. Elizabeth Warren’s parents and grandparents told her for years that she had Native American blood from the Cherokee and Delaware nations, she believed them, and she didn’t fact-check the story when she ticked a box on a questionnaire. The truth of the ancestry remains unclear—either there’s no connection and the story somehow became part of family lore generations ago, or there’s a remote connection that can’t be confirmed due to missing records and the fog of history.

If you’re a Republican with a vested interest in Warren’s political failure, you probably want to believe the first explanation. If you’re a neutral observer, option two makes a lot more sense, and the “Pocahontas” attacks are beyond pathetic. The choice is yours.

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