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Brian McGrory

Warren: ‘I won’t deny who I am’

Elizabeth Warren, outside her childhood home in Norman, Okla., last year. She said her parents had to elope because her father’s family disapproved of her mother’s Native American ancestry. Darren Durlach/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

She has given clumsy answers, evaded questions, and for five weeks running allowed the story of her undocumented Native American ancestry to consume the entire Senate campaign in Massachusetts.

Thursday afternoon, my phone rang with Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren on the other end of the line, ready to talk. Finally.

On the phone, she spoke sometimes expansively and without the slightest hint of apology about her conviction that she has maternal roots from the Cherokee and Delaware tribes. “I know who I am,’’ Warren said. “I know my heritage.’’

A moment later, in response to a question over whether she took any professional advantage of her self-identification as Native American, she said, “I won’t deny who I am, I won’t deny my heritage, but I didn’t ask for anything because of it.’’


Warren conceded for the first time that she is worried about how the issue of her self-identification as a Native American - which first surfaced in a Boston Herald story on April 27 - has overwhelmed virtually all other aspects of the campaign.

“Of course I’m concerned,’’ she said. “I decided to run for the Senate because the middle class has been hammered and Washington doesn’t get it. I want to talk about Scott Brown’s voting record.

“He has worked hard to make this campaign about anything else, even my heritage, and he’s not spending time on what Massachusetts voters are concerned about,’’ she said.

And so it went for the duration of a 30-minute telephone conversation, one in which Warren repeatedly and adamantly proclaimed that the law schools at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania hired her as a professor because of her scholarship and teaching abilities, not to improve diversity on their faculties.

Both schools listed her on federal labor forms as Native American, and Warren repeated in the phone interview what her campaign had acknowledged in a written statement to the Globe on Wednesday night: She had told the law schools that she was Native American, but not until after she was hired.


Officials from both schools, including Charles Fried, a Harvard professor with deep Republican roots, have publicly said that Warren’s ancestry, and the potential lure of listing her as a minority professor, played no role in her hiring. Warren declined again on Thursday to call on the schools to release hiring records that might provide more information.

“We have definitively cleared this up,’’ Warren said. “The people who hired me have all made the same statement.’’

Warren gave far and away her most elaborate and emotional responses to questions over why she still believes she has Native American heritage, despite a lack of documented evidence. She revealed that her parents eloped because of tensions between their two families over her mother’s ancestry.

Her family is not known to have an official affiliation or any registration with an Indian tribe, and any sparse indications that a great-great-great grandmother had Cherokee blood would fall short of federal guidelines that would grant Warren minority status. Warren was born and raised in Oklahoma.

“In the 1930s, when my parents got married, these were hard issues,’’ Warren said. “My father’s family so objected to my mother’s Native American heritage that my mother told me they had to elope.

“As kids, my brothers and I knew about that. We knew about the differences between our two families. And we knew how important my mother’s heritage was to her. This was real in my life. I can’t deny my heritage. I can’t and I won’t. That would be denying who my mother was, who my family was, how we lived, and I won’t do it.’’


Asked what made her mother’s family distinctly Native American, Warren laughed and replied, “It was exactly what I said.’’ Asked again, she responded, “One side was Cherokee and the other side was Delaware. I never had any reason to doubt them. I never asked for any documentation. It’s who we were.’’

She added: “We were between two families. My mother and father loved each other deeply.’’

Warren maintained that she never personally wrote herself in as Native American on any documents at Harvard, though she lacked specifics in how she informed school officials of her ancestry. “I’ve never seen any Harvard forms,’’ she said. “I don’t have forms on what they report to the federal government. I know that at some point after I was hired, I let them know.’’

Asked how Harvard came to list her as a Native American while she was a visiting professor in the 1992-1993 academic year, essentially a trial run before she was offered a tenured position, Warren replied, “I don’t recall telling them. But I never tried to hide it. I don’t want to mislead in any way on this.’’

When the question was repeated, Warren said, “I don’t know.’’


Warren’s answers were no more enlightening, though never clipped, on other fronts, notably why she told reporters on April 27 that she first learned that Harvard claimed her as a Native American by reading the Herald, only to reverse course in Wednesday night’s campaign statement that acknowledged she had informed Harvard and Penn of her self-identification.

“I misunderstood the question,’’ she said.

Similarly, asked why she never raised her Native American roots with Globe reporter Noah Bierman when he met with Warren in Oklahoma City for a three-thousand word story on her upbringing, published in February, she replied softly, “Noah didn’t ask.’’

Only minutes later, though, while waxing on her Native American heritage, she said, “It’s who I am, it’s how I grew up. It’s part of the home I grew up in. It’s me, part of me, through and through. I can’t change that.’’

To the question of when she had informed her campaign strategists of her general self-identification as a Native American, Warren said, “When it showed up in the Boston Herald. I had never raised it with anyone.’’

In fact, Warren had for many years listed herself in the Association of American Law Schools directory as a minority, beginning in 1986, shortly before getting hired at Penn Law. She had previously identified herself at the University of Texas Law School, her first teaching job in the 1980s, as Caucasian.

She stopped listing herself as a minority in the law directory in 1995, shortly after she accepted a tenured post at Harvard - one that she at first declined. Asked about the timing, Warren said only, “Listing is about identification.’’


At that point, 30 minutes into the interview, aides were beseeching her to end the call because she was late for a speech.

“Nothing happened,’’ she said, in reference to the law school directory.

And with that, Elizabeth Warren was gone.

McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at