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Elizabeth Warren faces new questions about heritage amid apology effort

Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke to reporters last month.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File

WASHINGTON — Senator Elizabeth Warren is facing a new round of questions about her claims of Native American heritage, days after she apologized over the issue to representatives of the Cherokee Nation but chose not to immediately explain to the public what the apology was for.

She has sought to clarify her apology by telling reporters it was for “harm” caused to Native Americans, and answered in the affirmative when a reporter asked if it was for identifying herself as Native American during parts of her academic career.

The lingering questions about her claims — as well as a 1986 document published by The Washington Post on Tuesday in which she wrote that her race was “American Indian” — are an unwelcome distraction for her campaign days before she is expected to make her candidacy for president official. That announcement is widely expected this weekend in Massachusetts, and would launch a tour of six more states between New Hampshire and California.

Warren’s claims have long drawn taunts from Republicans who suggested she was lying about them — including President Trump, who has called her “Pocahontas.” In October, she released the results of a DNA test intended to prove she has an indigenous ancestor. It was meant to put the issue behind her, but she was ridiculed on the right because the ancestor would have been so distant, and it drew criticism on the left for using racial science to prove her point.


In the first month of her exploratory committee, she has worked hard to make inroads with non-white voters by talking about the role racial discrimination has played in holding back minorities and by traveling to Puerto Rico for a speech.

The issue has rarely come up on the campaign trail. When a voter in Iowa asked about her decision to take the DNA test, Warren said she wanted to “put it all out there” and that she knows she is “not a person of color.”


Warren, who was born in Oklahoma and has said she grew up hearing stories about the family’s Native American ancestors, identified herself as a minority for eight editions of law school directories, beginning in the 1986-1987 academic year, at a time when older family members of her were dying and talking about the family lore. Warren’s critics have said that gave her an unfair advantage and fueled her meteoric rise in the world of legal academia, but an exhaustive review by The Boston Globe determined that wasn’t the case.

On Tuesday, the Post published a registration card from the state bar of Texas from 1986 — the same time period as the first law school directory outlined in previous reporting. In that Texas bar registration card, Warren identified herself as “American Indian” and signed her name.

“As Senator Warren has said, she is not a citizen of any tribe and only tribes determine tribal citizenship,” said Kristen Orthman, a spokeswoman for Warren. “She is sorry that she was not more mindful of this earlier in her career.”

Warren has been asked to clarify her apology to the Cherokee Nation multiple times this week.

Asked by a CNN reporter in the halls of the Capitol about the apology, she described it this way: “I told him I’m sorry for adding confusion about tribal citizenship and tribal sovereignty and for harm caused to native tribes — and also for not being more mindful of that decades ago.” And on Tuesday, when a reporter for the Post asked if she was also apologizing for calling herself Native American while at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, she said “yes.”