WASHINGTON — Senator Elizabeth Warren on Friday denounced the federal government’s treatment of Native Americans and offered a suite of proposals to improve the lives of indigenous people, a plan that won praise for its ambition but risked reviving a fraught subject for her presidential campaign.
In a 9,000-word post on the website Medium, Warren called for the federal government to do more to honor its treaties with tribal nations, safeguard tribal lands, and improve funding for programs that provide Native Americans with health care, education, housing, and other critical services.
“As a nation, we are failing in our legal, political, and moral obligations toward tribal governments and indigenous peoples,” Warren wrote. “Washington owes native communities respect — and so much more.”
The proposal represents Warren’s most exhaustive effort since launching her presidential campaign to address a policy area that has become tricky terrain due to the long-simmering controversy around her own claims of Native American heritage. And it did not satisfy some of her critics on the issue.
“I think Elizabeth Warren should be lauded for setting the bar high,” said David Cornsilk, a Cherokee historian and genealogist who praised Warren’s recommendations on health care. “Still, in all of those words, those hundreds and hundreds of words, she has not addressed in an adequate way the impact of her false claim of indigenous heritage on the sovereignty of indigenous tribes.”
Warren’s decision to identify herself as Native American in academic directories during part of her career as a law professor became a flashpoint in her first Senate race, in 2012, and it has lingered since; critics have said the identification gave her an unfair advantage in her academic career. A review of her advancements by The Boston Globe in 2018 determined that wasn’t the case.
After President Trump seized on the narrative, Warren last fall released the results of a DNA test that showed an inconsequential amount of Native America ancestry in her family. The move angered some indigenous critics and left political observers wondering if she had torpedoed her presidential campaign before it began. She apologized earlier this year, but Trump has gleefully continued to poke fun at Warren, including as recently as Thursday night in New Hampshire, where he repeatedly referred to her by the offensive nickname “Pocahontas.”
“I did the Pocahontas thing. I hit her really hard, and it looked like she was down and out, but that was too long ago,” Trump told the crowd at a rally in Manchester, N.H. “I should have waited. But don’t worry, we will revive it. It can be revived.”
Last year, Warren pledged to use Trump’s attacks to highlight issues of importance to Native Americans, but had said little since. Her new plan, released ahead of a forum on Native American issues she plans to attend early next week in Iowa, may signal a renewed willingness to engage on a touchy subject as she rises in the polls.
Warren calls for the federal government to do more to empower Native American tribes. She vowed to revoke permits for major pipelines that would run across or near reservations and have touched off extensive protests among indigenous groups. Tribes should also have representation at the highest levels of government, in the Cabinet, the White House Office of Management and Budget, and other government agencies, she wrote.
“The plan is really incredibly forward-leaning and would be transformative,” said Keith Harper, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who was an outside adviser to the Obama campaign on Native American outreach. “What exudes throughout the plan is the concept that tribal communities are themselves the best to address the challenges they face.”
Warren has touched on Native American issues in previous proposals, such as one on public lands and another on housing. But the plan released Friday included new measures altogether.
She would give tribes more jurisdiction over crimes committed on their land, which would allow them to prosecute non-Natives for more crimes than can currently. Warren also wants an “unprecedented initiative” to address the crisis of murdered and missing indigenous women.
Warren also proposed stabilizing funding for programs for Native Americans, citing a report in December by the US Commission on Civil Rights that found the federal government has failed to meet the needs of Indian country. She said they should be funded outside the standard appropriations process, which can be affected by government shutdowns and other political issues.
On Friday, she and Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico, one of the first Native American women in Congress and a supporter of Warren’s presidential campaign, released a legislative proposal on the matter that will be open for input from tribal stakeholders.
“The enormous resource gap between Native and white households and the underdevelopment of Indian Country are both the direct result of centuries of conscious government policy,” Warren wrote. “It is time for new government policies to allow Native families to thrive economically.”
In the Friday post, Warren also said she would revoke the permits for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil between Canada and the Gulf Coast, and the Dakota Access pipeline, in the upper Midwest. Both have prompted outcries from indigenous tribes.
“Washington must stop putting the interests of companies that want to exploit our environment ahead of the interests of Native people who seek to preserve their homelands and sacred sites,” Warren wrote.
Native Americans have long been wary of people who claim to share their ancestry in an effort to benefit from their status. Warren has apologized for not being more mindful of the distinction between tribal citizenship — which only tribes can determine —- and ancestry. But critics say that apology did not go far enough.
“She’s a candidate that is trying to be a good ally to Indian country, but part of being a good ally to Indian country is being accountable,” said Rebecca Nagle, a Cherokee activist who has long been critical of Warren’s claims. However, she added that Warren’s proposal was “excellent.”
But other Native Americans do see Warren as a strong ally. Chad Smith, the former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, said Warren had long ago closed the book on the issues surrounding her heritage, and praised her plan.
“Tribes really can’t build our nations in the long term if federal policy is unreliable,” Smith said, adding, “I think she has taken tribal concerns seriously, particularly since the controversy arose.”