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Delaware Tribe of Indians to skip meeting with Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren spoke during the first day of the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa in August.
Elizabeth Warren spoke during the first day of the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa in August.TIM HYNDS/SIOUX CITY JOURNAL/ASSOCIATED PRESS/SIOUX CITY JOURNAL VIA AP

A representative from the Delaware Tribe of Indians said on Saturday evening its tribal council had decided not to attend a meeting with Senator Elizabeth Warren set for Sunday in her home state of Oklahoma, and cited her past claims of Native American heritage as part of their reasoning.

Nicky Kay Michael, a member of the tribal council , said the tribe’s chief had been invited to the meeting, but the governing body had decided it was not in their interest to go.

“She’s made these claims. We don’t know her. Personally, we wish her all the best — nobody’s bashing her,” said Michael, who is a professor of indigenous studies. “What we’re saying is, ‘We don’t want to be involved with it.’”

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Warren’s campaign invited numerous tribal representatives to meet with the Senator on Sunday in Tulsa — a meeting that was first reported by the Washington Post. It is one of multiple meetings and events Warren has held with Native Americans over the course of her presidential campaign after her previous claims of Cherokee and Delaware ancestry — and her use of a DNA test last year to prove it — fueled discomfort among some Native and progressive activists.

“Being native is really strongly about who claims you,” Michael said. “It’s not necessarily about what you claim.”

Warren’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Massachusetts Democrat has made a point of reaching out to Native Americans over the course of her presidential campaign, and she has held private meetings with tribal leaders in Minnesota, Seattle, Phoenix and more.

The Globe reported that she had one of those meetings with the late Frank LaMere, a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, after her very first campaign stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa; her most recent private meeting with tribal leaders was on Friday in Los Angeles.

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Warren’s heritage claims been uncomfortable political territory ever since her first Senate campaign in 2012, when she was revealed to have identified herself as Native American in some academic directories. A Boston Globe investigation found that Warren’s claims never helped her career or propelled her remarkable rise through academia to a Harvard professorship.

Warren has described distant Indian ancestry as an indelible part of her family history, passed down through generations, but the claim has been ridiculed by Republicans, both in that race and more recently by President Trump, who has referred to her with an ethnic slur and called her a “fake.”

In the fall of 2018, Warren sought to prove her claims with a video that showed her getting the results of a DNA test that showed she likely has a very small amount of indigenous ancestry. The video bothered some Native Americans who are deeply opposed to the use of such tests to prove heritage, and the secretary of state for the Cherokee Nation denounced the move in a widely circulated statement.

Later, she apologized privately to the Cherokee Nation for causing any “confusion” about a tribe’s right to determine who its members are — but Michael said her tribe did not hear from Warren at the time.

Warren has prominent Native American supporters, including Representative Deb Haaland, the New Mexico Democrat who is one of the first Native American women elected to Congress. Her sweeping policy proposal for Indian Country, released in August, drew wide praise.

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Days later, she attended a forum organized by Native Americans in Sioux City, Iowa, and offered her first public apology for her claims. “I am sorry for the harm I have caused,” she said. “I have listened and I have learned a lot.”

Some Native Americans who attended that event said they considered the issue settled. “I don’t think it’s a major concern to Native Americans in our area,” Frank White, the chairman of the Winnebago Tribe, said at the time.

But the looming meeting underscores how this issue is still fraught for others.

Michael cited three reasons for the Delaware Tribe of Indians’ decision not to attend the meeting. She said they were not sure as of Saturday where and when the meeting would be, and that they were not inclined to involve themselves with a political campaign.

Michael also said the tribe has struggled with the past with people making dubious claims about being Delaware, and they have “disclaimed” those people.

“Warren falls in line with those that are making these claims but have no clear evidence,” she said.

Michael added that members of the tribe are frustrated Warren has claimed Delaware heritage but not been involved in the Delaware Tribe of Indian’s struggles to get land into trust and deal with federal recognition.

“She’s had no involvement with our tribe in the past. That’s not to say she couldn’t in the future,” Michael said. “If she wanted to form that relationship, we could probably welcome her.”

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Jess Bidgood can be reached at jess.bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@jessbidgood.