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Mistaken identity

Elizabeth Warren's chance to do right by American Indians

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Elizabeth Warren has emerged on Hillary Clinton's short list for vice president. The U.S. senator from Massachusetts is unabashedly progressive and admired by many for her strong and vocal stance on economic and social issues.

She's also become the left's go-to foil for Donald Trump, calling the presumptive Republican nominee out on Twitter for his blatant racism and lack of substance. Yet in May, when Trump began referring to Warren as "Pocahontas," and his supporters coined the hashtag #elizabethwarrenindiannames, Warren's internet posse slammed Trump with his own hashtag: #trumpindiannames. And just last week, someone went so far as to register Pocahontas.com and use the page to redirect to Warren's own campaign website. It remains unclear if the senator's staff or an unrelated supporter claimed the address.

I'm not interested in discussing Trump's inexcusable, racially charged mocking. It's not worth the column inches. Trump is nothing but a troll.

On the other hand, leaders like Warren encourage our idealism. In doing so, she invites high expectations, and I will not apologize for my disappointment in her failure to meet them when it comes to discussing her heritage. Warren's refusal to adequately address the initial attacks on her identity in 2012, and her apparent complacency when her own supporters openly use the same as a running punch line to hit back at Trump, underscore a serious lack of understanding about the real impact false claims of Indian identity have on individual native people and tribal communities.

In spring 2012, I received an unexpected phone call. It was a reporter from the Boston Globe wanting to know if, during my time as president of Native Americans at Harvard College, I had any knowledge of Warren's claim to be Cherokee. I had recently moved home to Montana from Massachusetts, and was delighted to see Warren challenge Scott Brown for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. She seemed so smart and so progressive, and there she was in the national spotlight for playing Indian. I declined to return the Globe's call, awaiting her sharp and thoughtful response: a national teachable moment on Indian identity and tribal citizenship that I was sure Warren would use to explain and resolve the controversy.

Instead, Warren first demurred, then dug in. In May 2012, she defended herself by sharing family legends about Indian ancestry, and referring to a photo of her grandfather, who "had high cheek bones like all of the Indians do." She played into then-Sen. Brown's hand by addressing his accusations that she might've benefitted from her claims; there's no evidence to suggest she did, but the question is wholly beside the point. Meanwhile, Brown openly mocked her, at one point sending Senate staffers to Warren rallies, where they war whooped in turkey feather headdresses. That national teachable moment I'd hoped for was lost, distilled to base mythology and caricature, largely because Warren refused to admit that she lacked an understanding of modern Indian identity.

PHOTO COURTESY OF WARREN.SENATE.GOV
  • photo courtesy of warren.senate.gov

After Warren defeated Brown, most of the discussion of her Cherokee claim was relegated to the dark corners of the internet, where ad hominem attacks in the form of photos of Warren in photoshopped headdresses linger. They are attacks, in my mind, that denigrate native people more than they have ever hurt Warren.

But now, as national attention again focuses on her identity, Warren must do what she failed to do in 2012: listen and learn. Indian identity is not a mythical connection to a long romanticized (and assumed long dead) people. It's not a commodity, up for grabs and outside definition. Indian identity is alive. It's a conversation that native people are having right now about kinship, family, civic participation and nationhood.

Here are the facts: Elizabeth Warren is not a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians or the United Keetowah Band of Cherokee. She is not eligible for citizenship because she has no traceable Cherokee ancestors. The Cherokee are the most common target of specious claims to Indian ancestry, a fact some scholars attribute to early romanticism of the Cherokee struggle for sovereignty, developing as a justification for the anti-federalist sentiment in the antebellum south. Often these claims are traced to family lore and legend, sometimes of a "Cherokee princess" great- grandmother. I believe such claims are ultimately rooted in a natural desire to belong; it's understandably hard to stomach that we all live on stolen land, but that is the unpleasant truth of this nation's colonial roots.

It is also a fact that Warren's claims—and the thousands just like them—have a measurable impact on the lives of American Indians. By mythologizing Indian identity, one implicitly furthers assimilation by undercutting the legitimacy of resilient, strong and modern tribal communities. As a result, tribal governments struggle to exercise their sovereignty, which predates the U.S. Constitution. Tribal courts struggle to punish non-native offenders committing crimes within reservation borders. Native youth commit suicide at epidemic rates and experience tangible psychological trauma as a result of external consumption, definition and mockery of the identity they were born and raised with.

It's easy to lose sight of these consequences, especially in a highly polarized political context, where sound-bites survive above substance. But, for better or worse, progressive hero Elizabeth Warren is in a position to make a real, national impact, and to empower native people. All she has to do is make the effort to recognize and learn from the thriving, resilient communities she claims to belong to.

April Youpee-Roll is a third-year law student at the University of Montana and a member of the Fort Peck Tribes, originally from Poplar.

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