Imagine a major political figure addressing a festering personal controversy with grace and self-reflection.
These days, about the only way you’ll find that is by flipping channels until you land on “The West Wing” reruns.
Maybe that’s why Elizabeth Warren’s surprise appearance at the National Congress of American Indians on Wednesday landed with uncommon impact. Warren, who has for years been dogged by accusations that she leveraged dubious Native American ancestry to advance her academic career, delivered the speech some of us have been waiting to hear from her for a long time.
“I get why some people think there’s hay to be made here. You won’t find my family members on any rolls, and I’m not enrolled in a tribe,” the senator said, before recounting the family history that she says informs her beliefs about her ancestry. “I respect that distinction. I understand that tribal membership is determined by tribes — and only by tribes.”
The speech wasn’t an apology, and it wasn’t an excuse. But it was an acknowledgment that Warren understands why the questions surrounding her ancestry are more than just a political problem.
To be clear, this speech wasn’t for the crowd that has spent years calling her Pocahontas and Photoshopping her into feathered headdresses. Some people are unreachable. And political enemies who simultaneously feign offense on behalf of Native Americans and use cultural caricatures to mock Warren could not be more transparently disingenuous.
After the speech, the only people to whom Warren actually owed an explanation gave her a standing ovation.
Whether her appearance Wednesday blunts the Native American issue as a political cudgel against Warren is, frankly, unknowable. But politics are unimportant compared with what Warren pledged: to become a champion for native people and the issues that affect their communities.
Calling upon the sad history of America’s treatment of its indigenous people, Warren promised to help author a different story in the future.
Anyone who has spent any time in “Indian Country” knows that change would be welcome.
I called Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. Frazier had been chairman when I was covering the state’s reservations for a weekly tribal newspaper called the Lakota Journal in the early 2000s. After a hiatus, he was once again elected chairman in 2014.
The Cheyenne River reservation is directly south of the Standing Rock reservation, where two years ago native people and supporters began a brave protest of an oil pipeline slated to slice through their land.
On many reservations, the idea of white people claiming Cherokee roots is a running joke. The tribe’s wide diaspora and prominence in the popular consciousness contributed to years of white people making dubious pronouncements about being the descendant of a Cherokee princess.
The issues around claims of native ancestry are complex, and Frazier said he believes there will never be consensus on Warren’s story. Everybody feels differently about it, he said. To some, a white person boasting about supposed Native American ancestry would be unforgivable — even if some long-lost relative really was part Cherokee. To others, including Frazier, it’s no big deal either way.
“I guess I don’t dwell on stuff like that,” Frazier said of Warren’s claims about her ancestry. He remembers a time not so long ago that people would have been ashamed to talk about the Native American blood in their veins. If powerful people are now proud of that part of their lineage, he said, that’s a step in the right direction.
A bigger step would be Warren following through on her pledge to focus on the serious issues that plague places like Cheyenne River: crushing poverty, failing health care systems, staggeringly high teen suicide rates, economic development, mining, and encroachment onto culturally significant lands.
“It’s tough to pick which one is the most important,” Frazier said. Another champion in Congress — one with the stature of Warren — would be welcome, he added.
“It’s time to make real investments in Indian Country to build opportunity for generations to come,” Warren said. It was the only thing in her speech that rang false.
The truth is that it’s well past time.
Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.