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Elizabeth Warren apologizes in private to Cherokee Nation officials

Senator Elizabeth Warren
Senator Elizabeth Warren(Elizabeth Frantz/New York Times/File)

WASHINGTON — Senator Elizabeth Warren apologized to Cherokee Nation tribal leaders this week for the hurt her much-publicized DNA test caused them, marking a sharp contrast to her public defense of the results thus far on the campaign trail.

During a phone call Thursday with Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker, Warren apologized for how her DNA test caused “confusion” about the tribe’s right to determine its own membership, Cherokee Nation spokeswoman Julie Hubbard said in a statement.

“The chief and secretary of state appreciate that she has reaffirmed that she is not a Cherokee Nation citizen or a citizen of any tribal nation,” Hubbard said.

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“We are encouraged by this dialogue and understanding that being a Cherokee Nation tribal citizen is rooted in centuries of culture and laws not through DNA tests.”

The Warren campaign did not respond to a request for comment

The DNA test has become a flash point for the Democrat, who is expected to officially announce her presidential candidacy next Saturday in Massachusetts.

Though the test showed that she likely has an indigenous ancestor six to 10 generations back, her touting of the results in a highly produced video to back up her claims of Cherokee ancestry outraged some Native Americans.

Instead of sweeping aside lingering questions about her identifying as Native American for several years as a law professor, the test results triggered a barrage of criticism and calls to apologize.

The Cherokee Nation and some Native American activists harshly criticized the release of the DNA results, saying it elevated President Trump’s racial attacks and reinforced harmful ideas about “blood quantum” determining tribal identity.

The secretary of state for the Cherokee Nation, Chuck Hoskin Jr., wrote in an op-ed in the Tulsa World earlier this week that it does “harm” to tribes when people such as Warren “boast” they are native due to the results of a DNA test.

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Warren has defended her decision on the campaign trail amid the backlash. Asked by a voter in Sioux City, Iowa, in early January why she took the test, Warren said she wanted to “put it all out there” and be transparent.

But she also took steps to emphasize that she was not claiming minority status, telling audiences, “I am not a person of color,” and underscoring that she recognizes only tribes can decide who are members.

Though Warren hasn’t faced questions about the DNA tests in recent campaign stops, her apology is an admission that she needed to do more to repair ties with the Native American community. And it also suggests this disputed piece of her life story may continue to cause trouble for her as a candidate.

Warren’s critics in the Cherokee community, for example, want a more public reckoning.

“Calling the leadership of the Cherokee Nation is definitely a necessary step in the process, but it needs to be followed up by a public apology and also for her to just stop claiming to have Cherokee heritage,” said Rebecca Nagle, a Cherokee activist who’s been critical of Warren.

David Cornsilk, a Cherokee genealogist and historian whose work showed that Warren could not document her claims to Cherokee ancestry, said he found the apology “totally lacking.”

“Where is her public statement?” he asked. “Where is she saying, ‘I apologize to the Cherokee Nation, I am sorry that I did this and here’s how I intend to make it right’?”

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Warren has taken other steps to reach out to tribal members in recent months. After her first campaign stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Warren met privately with Frank LaMere, a member of the Winnebago tribe of Nebraska and associate chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party.

In an interview, LaMere said the two did not discuss the DNA test, although they did touch on Trump’s insults about her claims of Native American heritage.

“I acknowledged that she has taken a lot of heat from the president,” he said, adding, “I simply mentioned to her that I appreciate her resolve and her commitment.”

LaMere said they talked about other issues that affect Native Americans, and said that her response to the question about the controversy in Sioux City had put the issue to rest.


Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin. Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.