Allies Need to Demand Elizabeth Warren’s Apology to the Cherokee Nation

By Brian Oaster

Now that Elizabeth Warren is warming up for the 2020 presidential sprint, democrats are facing a problem.

Warren’s unfounded claim to Cherokee ancestry, which she’s neither rescinded nor apologized for, has left a lot of the Native community outraged, including the Cherokee Nation. With Native voices denouncing her claim, some non-Native democrats will support Native voices, while others will ignore them and stick by Warren.

Do you, like The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan, dismiss all this “Native stuff” as inconsequential to the importance of Warren’s campaign? Or do you hear Sioux scholar Nick Estes when he explains how “Warren’s appropriation of Native identity while simultaneously fetishizing and instrumentalizing it” hurts Native communities?

The Cherokee Great-Grandmother Blunder

Claiming to have a Cherokee great-grandmother is a blunder so classic in Indian Country there’s a virtual subgenre of memes devoted to it. And like most Americans who claim to have a Cherokee great grandmother, Warren is not Cherokee.

In response to taunting from President Trump, Warren took a DNA test to ‘prove’ her Cherokee heritage. No Native nation recognizes DNA tests for tribal enrollment. DNA tests cannot identify tribal connections. Blood quantum is a racist colonial construct invented by Europeans. And reducing Native identity to genetics is a technique of genocide. The whole thing is a racially hostile farce.

Warren has also refused to speak with the Cherokee Nation on the matter. And so far she’s ignored calls for an apology. Reading between the lines, there’s a political calculation going on here. Only 2 percent of American voters are Native. Why bother with them? If Warren can get all the non-Native democrats to vote for her, who cares if Natives are outraged and their communities damaged by the path she takes to the presidency?

Non-Native Liberals Still Supporting Warren

Warren’s calculation so far seems to be paying off. Huffpost’s Senior Politics Reporter Jennifer Bendery, a non-Native, spoke over Natives by declaring the outrage from Indian Country “incredibly overblown”. She says it’s more a fabrication of the media than something Natives actually care about. Her privileged perspective mistakes the widespread erasure of Native voices for Native silence. The Native American Journalists Association called her on it.

By asserting that Natives aren’t concerned with Warren’s identity appropriation, Benedery further erases Native voices. Apparently Benedery didn’t think it worthwhile to check in with #NativeTwitter about their very vocal opinions, some personal and some professional, or to even open the widely circulated syllabus on the topic curated by Cherokee citizens Rebecca Nagle, Dr. Adrienne Keene, and Joseph M. Pierce. A brief glance at either will reveal the outrage expressed by Natives as visceral, potent, exhaustive and original.

Natives Keep Speaking Out

Nagle in particular has been outward against the senator’s hijinks, denouncing Warren from the start when Trump bullied her with ‘Pocahontas’ taunts in 2017; Nagle stood firm with a devastating refutation of Warren’s false identity claims late last year after the politician’s ridiculous video; and Nagle followed it up with a fresh takedown of Warren’s ‘ugly political calculation’ and how it damages real Natives as Warren moves towards a presidential campaign trail.

Native voices have been clear: this is a matter of non-Natives brokering Native identity for the power to control the land that was stolen from Natives. Warren does not get to decide she’s Cherokee without consulting the Cherokee people, and to suggest otherwise is an attack on Native sovereignty. Warren is not hurt by Trump’s ‘Pocahontas’ taunts; Natives are. Trump is not hurt by Warren’s DNA test; Natives are.

An Apology Would Be a Great Start

Warren has some great policies. She promises strife to the banks, corporations, and insurance rackets who keep us sick and spending. She’s even cosponsored legislation specifically supporting Native welfare.

But if Warren’s more concerned with pissing off Trump than she is with protecting Native communities, respecting tribal sovereignty, or listening to indigenous voices, that shows a major character flaw for a candidate. It’s one that we should take seriously. She needs to set right her hostile blunder, or risk losing the support of Native allies across the nation.

In the meantime, we need allied voices. Nagle notes how the fallout from the DNA test has done some good in getting Native voices “heard and centered”. But if Warren herself is going to hear us, we need amplification. We’re only 2 percent of the population, after all. This is a time for allies to be supporting Native voices about Warren, educating non-Natives on why this matters, and calling for Warren to rescind her damaging claims.

The Cherokee Phoenix, Native America’s oldest newspaper, has even promised a front page spot for Warren’s apology, should it ever arrive.

Brian Oaster

Brian is a Choctaw writer in the Pacific Northwest.