WASHINGTON — There’s a ghost haunting Elizabeth Warren as she ramps up for a possible 2020 presidential bid and a reelection campaign in Massachusetts this year: her enduring and undocumented claims of Native American ancestry.
Warren says now, as she has from the first days of her public life, that she based her assertions on family lore, on her reasonable trust in what she was told about her ancestry as a child.
“I know who I am,” she said in a recent interview with the Globe.
But that self-awareness may not be enough, as her political ambitions blossom. She’s taken flak from the right for years as a “fake Indian,” including taunts from President Trump, who derisively calls her “Pocahontas.’’ That clamor from the right will only grow with her increasing prominence.
And, more telling, there’s also discomfort on the left and among some tribal leaders and activists that Warren has a political blind spot when it comes to the murkiness surrounding her story of her heritage, which blew up as an issue in her victorious 2012 Massachusetts Senate race. In recent months, Daily Show host Trevor Noah mocked her for claiming Native American ancestry and the liberal website ThinkProgress published a scathing criticism of her by a Cherokee activist who said she should apologize.
As Warren is mentioned as a serious presidential contender in 2020, even some who should be her natural allies say Warren has displayed a stubborn unwillingness to address the gap between the story she was told of Native Americans in the family tree and a dearth of hard evidence to back it up.
It’s a disconnect that has lingered unresolved in the public sphere for more than five years.
Warren says she grew up understanding that forebears in her mother’s family had Cherokee and Delaware blood. But examinations by genealogists of documents including birth, marriage, and death records have shown no conclusive proof of Native American ancestry.
While it may be easy to dismiss Trump’s continued Twitter attacks as bigotry, which has been Warren’s response thus far, the view of her more sympathetic critics is that she is leaving herself vulnerable by not clearing the air in a definitive way. Their fear is that the issue could act as a drag on her profile as she considers whether to seek the Democratic nomination for president.
“From a strategic perspective, taking the live step of taking responsibility and an apology, even while noting that it was not her intention to harm anyone, is important,” said Tom Bonier, CEO of the Democratic polling firm TargetSmart. “Will that change votes? I don’t think that doing so will lose her votes.”
If Warren seeks to tackle the issue, there are no easy options. Some tribe members want her to apologize to Native Americans for claiming heritage without solid evidence. Tribes across America have spent centuries denouncing whites who claim Indian DNA without a clear basis, claims they find deeply offensive.
Another path includes pursuing stronger outreach to the tribes with whom she claims to share kinship, a strategy that she’s begun to employ. This too is fraught, as some Native American leaders are resentful that she’s done, in their estimation, little to help tribes as a powerful senator.
“She’s not part of the Cherokee community,” said Chad Smith, who was the principal chief of the Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation from 1999 to 2011. “She hasn’t reached out. She hasn’t come here and participated much.”
“The mark of value in claiming heritage is: Do you use your position to give back?” Smith said. “If it is a claim that is valuable to her, she should be helping Indian country. She might be doing it with the overall agenda. But unless she’s contributing back, it is a somewhat hollow claim.”
Other Native Americans do give her credit for engaging on issues in Washington that benefit tribal members, even if the measures have been fairly low-profile and not entirely targeted at Native Americans. That includes a proposal she’s backed to allowing post offices to offer some financial services — an idea aimed generally at helping rural communities that could also be beneficial to tribes.
Warren declined to say if she would consider saying she’s sorry to Native communities, or otherwise address this lingering issue.
“My three brothers and I learned about our family heritage back in Oklahoma the way everyone does,” Warren said in a brief phone interview from storm-ravaged Puerto Rico, where she led a delegation of Massachusetts lawmakers this month. “From our aunts, our uncles, and our grandparents. I never asked for any benefit from it and I never got any benefit from it.”
Warren disputed the notion that she’s been absent on Native American issues, saying that she’s forged relationships with tribal leaders from Massachusetts and elsewhere including meeting with the current chief of the Cherokee Nation.
She’s pointed to her work ensuring that data is collected to monitor education in Native schools, and she notes her efforts in combating opioid abuse, a particular scourge among Native Americans.
“I work on these issues,” said Warren. “I meet with tribal leaders. I attend events. I speak. I’ve appreciated the opportunity to speak out. And I’ve tried to be helpful.”
Still, highlighting such relationships can be awkward for Warren, given the avalanche of criticism she endures when questions about her heritage arise. But just as Barack Obama had to deal with claims that he wasn’t born in America and Mitt Romney felt he had to address, in a major speech, questions about his Mormon faith, observers believe that Warren is going to have to find a way to defuse the issue before it gains traction in presidential swing states.
“She’s saddled with it,” said Jeff Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University who has closely followed her rise.
He predicted that, if she runs for president, her claims to Native American heritage will be picked over on conservative websites and the issue will bubble over into questions at her news conferences.
“Do you need to answer questions? Absolutely,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist and former spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “Are you ever going to give an answer that’s going to suddenly make her biggest haters okay with her? No.”
If anything is for sure, Republicans will attempt to use the issue to their advantage.
“It’s just going to raise a lot of questions about her integrity, ultimately,” said Jacob Daniels, a Republican lobbyist who helped orchestrate Trump’s win in Michigan during the presidential campaign. Warren’s heritage claim “could be an honest mistake, it could be an intentional misrepresentation. I think without addressing it, it leaves the question in the minds of the voters.”
Questions about her complicated relationships with Native American tribes gained steam recently, soon after Trump launched another “Pocahontas’’ attack while he was hosting elderly Navajo code talkers in the White House. His comments drew heat, both for their tone and the setting, but the line of attack resonates.
“Her false claims back up some of the worst stereotypes of Indians, which is that we no longer exist and we’re not seen as a contemporary or vibrant community,” said Rebecca Nagle, a Cherokee advocate who, on Nov. 30, penned the scathing rebuke of Warren on ThinkProgress. Nagle’s op-ed was entitled: “I am a Cherokee woman. Elizabeth Warren is not.’’
“If Warren is going to be this bulldog of the left, she has this really problematic thing,’’ Nagle said in an interview with the Globe. “If she just apologizes, it would go away.”
The ThinkProgress piece was especially startling because the website is operated by the political arm of the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank closely associated with Hillary Clinton. Neera Tanden, a Clinton ally who runs CAP, didn’t respond to a request for comment. Neither did Judd Legum, editor in chief of ThinkProgress.
Democrats say that Warren should closely consider the criticism coming from some in her own party.
“These are personal perspectives she might not have considered,” said Bonier, the CEO of TargetSmart. “From a perspective of what’s right, I do think the senator has to listen.’’
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Warren’s family has ties to Oklahoma dating from the end of the 19th century — before it was a state. Oklahoma is now home to more than 35 federally recognized tribes, and it’s common for people there to claim Native American ancestry, often based on little more than family mythology. That’s partially because there is, for some, a certain mystique in popular culture associated with American Indian ties and many families liked to include those ties in their lore.
But claiming Native blood without evidence cuts to the very core of Native American identity because it usurps the rights American Indians have to define their own people and nations, according to native advocates.
“The problem with Elizabeth Warren is she is not the average wannabe,” said David Cornsilk, a Cherokee historian and genealogist. “She is an academic. She has a higher level of aptitude to examine these issues. And a higher responsibility to examine them, and accept the research that is done, or to counter it with alternative research.”
Cornsilk described himself as a liberal who supports Warren’s agenda of attacking income inequality. “Warren could be an ally,” Cornsilk said. “But she will not be an ally that we will accept if she continues to claim Cherokee and Delaware heritage without proof.”
Cornsilk wants Warren to offer a full apology that acknowledges that she made claims without proof, that those claims have been damaging, and that she will work to repair that damage.
“It is a fundamental issue of who we are and who gets to decide that,” Cornsilk said.
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Warren wrote in her 2014 book “A Fighting Chance” that her mother’s family grew up on land known as Indian Territory. By the time her mother was born in February 1912 it had become the nation’s 46th state, Oklahoma.
“Everyone on our mother’s side — aunts, uncles, and grandparents — talked openly about their Native American ancestry,” Warren wrote. As Warren’s mother aged and lost family members she “spoke more forcefully than ever about the importance of not forgetting our Native American roots,” she added.
In 2012, the Globe tracked down members of Warren’s extended family and found some who also claimed Native heritage and some who were unaware of any ties to Indians. In Oklahoma, it was also common for people to hide their Native roots because Indians faced discrimination.
Over the course of her life, Warren did at times embrace this family story of Native American roots. In 1984, she contributed five recipes to a Native American cookbook entitled “Pow Wow Chow: A Collection of Recipes From Families of the Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole.” In the book, which was edited by her cousin and unearthed during her 2012 campaign by the Boston Herald, her name is listed as “Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee.”
Warren also listed herself as a minority in a legal directory published by the Association of American Law Schools from 1986 to 1995. She’s never provided a clear answer on why she stopped self-identifying.
She was also listed as a Native American in federal forms filed by the law schools at Harvard University and University of Pennsylvania where she worked.
And in 1996, as Harvard Law School was being criticized for lacking diversity, a spokesman for the law school told the Harvard Crimson that Warren was Native American.
Warren has not formally claimed to be Native American during her time in the Senate, where the chamber’s historian lists three former senators as having American Indian heritage. Senators self-report their ethnicity to the historian’s office. Her office has declined to comment on why.
The issue became explosive in 2012 as Warren was running for Senate. The Massachusetts Republican Party and her opponent Scott Brown focused on her heritage, which included Republican operatives trying to rattle her by dressing up in American Indian regalia, attending her public events and making war whoops.
“It frankly became a much bigger issue than anyone expected, and it went on much longer than anyone expected,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist based in Boston. “It was compounded by the Warren campaign’s refusal to address it.”
She added: “When someone is pouring gasoline on a fire it’s always better to put the fire out. But, in this case, the Warren campaign thought it would burn itself out.”’
Marsh said that Brown’s campaign erred in overreaching on the issue. And Warren won that race by 7 percentage points, even as Obama carried the Bay State over Romney by more than 23 percentage points.
Warren says she believes these issues are in her past.
“These issues were extensively litigated in 2012 and I think the people of Massachusetts made their decision,” Warren said in her brief interview with the Globe this month. “I think what the people of Massachusetts and what voters are concerned about is the direction that Donald Trump is pulling this country.”
And Warren appears to be taking tentative steps to build ties to Native American advocates in Washington.
“I’d put her on a list of someone who is open and willing to listen and engage,” said Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, a Washington-based group supporting Native Americans.
But when asked if Warren has led any major legislative efforts for tribes, Pata demurred. “Not that I know of,” she said. “Nor do I believe we’ve asked that either.”
In December, Warren attended a rally in Washington led by the Gwich’in Nation and Inupiaq Tribe in December opposing a provision in the Republican tax bill that opens a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
In the Globe interview, Warren pointed to her broader agenda of working to reduce opioid addiction and substance abuse. “Its an extraordinarily seriously problem for Native Americans,” Warren said.
Warren said she has also pushed for a provision in an education bill that would require reporting on student performance by ethnicity, with an eye toward ensuring that Native American students are being monitored — though the provision also tracks other minorities and isn’t specific to American Indians.
She helped a tribe in Northern California protect water rights by helping in negotiations in a larger defense authorization bill, according to several with knowledge of the bill.
And she has sat down with the Cherokee Nation’s principal chief, Bill John Baker. In a statement, he described Warren as “very welcoming.”
He credited her for supporting a provision in the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that lets tribal law enforcement prosecute non-natives accused of abusing American Indian women on reservations.
But perhaps ironically, it is Trump who may be doing the most to push Native Americans into Warren’s camp. Every time the president labels Warren as “Pocahontas,” she reacts swiftly, calling out the president for using what she terms a racial slur.
“She stands up to the racial slap,” said Smith, the former Cherokee Nation chief. “Anyone who stands up for Indian Country,” he said, “it endears her to me.”
Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.