Last week, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren delivered a surprise speech to the National Congress of American Indians promising to champion Native American rights, but did not apologize for her contested claims of Cherokee and Delaware heritage. On this issue, right-wing outlets claim I have “torched” her, and according to the left I am “applauding” her. I am not interested in praising Warren nor setting her on fire. I am interested in the truth.
Many people would place Warren’s identity at the center of this controversy, but, as a Cherokee woman, I would place Native identity at the center. America is having a very public debate about who gets to claim Native identity and heritage and who doesn’t. And lurking behind that question is one of even greater importance: who gets to decide.
What disturbs me more than what Warren says about her identity are all the things being said about native identity in the wake of her ignorance. From calls for DNA tests to criticism of tribal enrollment, its not good. Non-native people, who know little to nothing about contemporary Cherokee people and our history, are chiming in with a self-granted authority that is unsettling.
In online discussions, the Cherokee Nation’s system for enrollment has been described as “liberal because they don’t have any money” and as “flawed” because it excludes people whose “oral histories go back further than written records.” Meanwhile on the topic of blood quantum, Warren defenders have proclaimed she must be “Cherokee enough” because the ancestry she (falsely) claims would make her blood quantum the same as our principal chief (also not true), while her detractors state “even if she does have Cherokee ancestry from her mother’s family, it would make her a fraction Native American at most.”
If I could waive a magic wand and make non-Native America understand one thing about native identity it would be this: Native people are the authority on who is and who is not native. Period. In other words, your opinion doesn’t matter.
White people have inherited this entitlement from an extremely violent history of the US government’s not only dictating native identity for tribes, but changing those standards if and when it suited white interests. A necessary quality for white people who want to be effective allies to native communities is letting go of the myths and misconceptions they’ve been taught. Unfortunately, most white people hold onto these myths with a death grip that defies rational thinking. Including Warren.
During her Senate race, Warren defended her false claims by stating, “These are my family stories. This is what my brothers and I were told by my mom and my dad, my mammaw and my pappaw.” Last Wednesday, she sadly doubled down by stating that her “mother’s family was part Native American” and that “no one . . . will ever take that part of me away.”
I believe Warren that she grew up with stories of distant Cherokee relatives. I just don’t see how those stories could be true. Cherokee genealogists have researched Warren’s family tree to uncover a long and well-documented line of white people dating back to before the Trail of Tears. One inquiry not only cited 104 public records confirming Warren’s “part native” ancestors were white, but also looked for her family members in 45 records and rolls of Cherokee people to find nothing. It defies logic to say these facts are irrelevant because of “family stories.” Cherokees are real people, with living families and a well-documented history; stories don’t cut it.
Everyone in the United States grew up with stories about native people that are not true. From a Disney love story based on a Powhatan child who was kidnapped and raped by white settlers, to a racist mascot that “honors” Native Americans by using a term that originated in a cash bounty colonial governments paid for our scalps, to a holiday celebrating the Italian explorer who, aside from “discovering America,” was also known to feed indigenous babies to dogs for entertainment, most of what non-native America knows about us is complete fiction.
I want the policies that Warren advances to pass— and I want the reign of Trump to end. If Warren apologized for her false claims, I would publicly support her. I care more about having politicians that are honest and accountable than having politicians that never make mistakes. And while I agree with Warren that Trump is only interested in “shutting her up”, the dent her repeated false claims make in her credibility is real. How can a former law professor at the most prestigious university in the country examine the mountain of evidence about her own family and not come to the only logical conclusion?
With all the issues Native Americans fight for, from Columbus to wannabees, it feels like it doesn’t matter the mountain of evidence we produce to prove our point. We’re not debating people in reality. We’re debating people in the fictitious land of the mythical Indian.
Rebecca Nagle is a citizen of Cherokee Nation and a writer and advocate currently living in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.