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Elizabeth Warren, Cherokees and 'Pocahontas': Why it matters

Jerry Adler
Senior Editor
Pocahontas, 1595-1617, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. (Photos: Getty Images, Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

By now, most Americans have heard that Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator, scourge of Wall St. and liberal hero, falsely claimed to have French ancestry, leading President Trump to mock her as “Joan of Arc.”

Wait, that’s not right.

It was Native American ancestry, specifically Cherokee, that Warren claimed, and the nickname Trump bestowed on her, in a dozen tweets and numerous speeches, was “Pocahontas.”

In principle, the situations should be equivalent. But they’re not. Being mistaken about a French great-grandmother would barely rise to the level of a presidential tweet, even from Trump. But laying claim to Indian blood is taken very seriously in the United States, which tells us not much about Warren, but a great deal about how Native and non-Native Americans view their shared history, four centuries after their first fateful encounters.

Let’s leave aside Trump’s boorishness in bullying Warren over this obscure peccadillo, his utter lack of decorum and decency in bringing it up at a ceremony honoring Native American veterans, and even the fact that Trump himself claimed Swedish descent on his father’s side, when in fact his grandfather was German. If he wants to call her Pocahontas, she should be able to call him Olaf.

We can stipulate — as Warren herself admits, although without quite retracting the original claim — that there is no evidence to support it. Her ancestry has been researched thoroughly, including by Twila Barnes, a freelance genealogist specializing in the Cherokee tribe. Since Warren’s first Senate run in 2012, Barnes has been debunking her claims in dozens of blog posts under headlines like “Indian or Pretendian?” The usual media fact-checking websites have weighed in, and concluded that Warren’s claim appears based on little, or nothing, more than family legend.

Warren has rejected calls to submit to a DNA test that could, in theory, shed light on her lineage. “I know who I am,” Warren said recently in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “That’s the story that my brothers and I all learned from our mom and our dad, from our grandparents, from all of our aunts and uncles. It’s a part of me, and nobody’s going to take that part of me away.”

In fact, DNA is a blunt tool to determine Indian descent, especially going back more than four or five generations, by which time the genetic signature may be undetectable. Moreover, Indian ancestry is meaningful mostly insofar as it ties one to a specific tribe, but DNA tests don’t (yet) distinguish among tribes. The leading commercial DNA services generally treat “Native American” as a unitary category covering the entire Western Hemisphere. Indian tribes set their own criteria for membership, typically requiring a documented paper trail. DNA tests don’t qualify.

Warren never sought membership in the Cherokee tribe. Why would she? Politically, there wouldn’t have been much to gain even if she were a full-blood Cherokee; there are only around 350,000 enrolled Cherokees in the world, and not many of them live in Massachusetts. (Shiva Ayyadurai, the Mumbai-born tech entrepreneur who boasts of having invented email when he was in high school, is running against Warren for the Senate as the “real Indian” in the race.) Trump accused Warren of inventing an Indian background to gain an edge in her career. It’s true that in the 1990s, when she taught at Harvard Law School, the university cited her as a Native American to demonstrate the diversity of its faculty. This is information, or misinformation, that could only have come from Warren herself, who also, beginning in 1986, listed herself as a minority in a directory of law-school professors. But she was a recognized authority in her field when Harvard recruited her, and her heritage “simply played no role in the appointments process,” according to Charles Fried, who was Ronald Reagan’s solicitor general and sat on the law school committee that selected her. “Let me be clear,” Warren said in a campaign ad during her first Senate run. “I never asked for, never got any benefit because of my heritage.”

By contrast, when Trump claimed Swedish ancestry he was perpetuating a lie invented by his father for a very specific purpose. Trump’s biographers claim that Fred Trump, a New York City real estate developer, sought to hide his German background during and after World War II so as not to complicate his business relationships, especially with Jews.

And contrary to what some people seem to believe, tribal citizenship is not a quick way to get rich. A few, mostly small, tribes distribute casino profits to their members in impressive amounts, but on the whole Indians are the poorest ethnic group in the country, according to the Native American Rights Fund. The Cherokee Nation, by far the largest of the three bands comprising the Cherokee tribe, has a territory that covers 14 counties in northeastern Oklahoma. (Warren was born in Oklahoma City, which is outside the territory.) The tribe provides certain housing, health and educational benefits to members within those 14 counties, but Warren would have had to move there to take advantage of them. For the majority of Cherokees who live elsewhere, says Barnes, “the benefit is the acknowledgment of your ancestry, the kinship, the link to your history, your ancestors’ sacrifice.”

Of course, those are the same motivations that drive people to research ancestors from anywhere, including those who never moved more than 20 miles from Ellis Island after getting off the boat. But you don’t often hear about people inventing, or imagining, or repeating false family legends about, say, Russian ancestry, except for those trying to get their hands on the Romanov family’s crown jewels.

It’s different with Indians. The No. 1 question among clients of AncestryDNA is “where is my Native American ancestry,” according to genealogist Crista Cowan, who guesses that if all the Americans who claim to have Indian forebears were right, they would make up half the population. She mentions some of the ways such legends get started, including ancestors who happened to look Indian, or who lived in what was called “Indian territory” before it became the State of Oklahoma. In Cowan’s own family, the myth began with a photograph of a long-ago aunt dressed like an Indian; on investigation, it turned out to have been taken at a novelty booth in a fair. Barnes notes that over the years there have been promises, or actual payments, to compensate Cherokees for the seizure of their lands. This created an obvious incentive to apply to join the tribe. “People see records of those applications, they say, oh, great-grandpa wouldn’t have lied. But maybe he did.”

And the legends persist, because almost every American, whether or not he saw “Dances With Wolves,” wants to feel a kinship with Indians. “One of the top five genealogical myths is ‘My great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee princess,’” Barnes says. “There is no such thing.” Being able to claim Indian blood is a way of being rooted in the very soil of America, the stuff that lies beneath the grass of Trump’s golf courses. “Let’s face it, being part Native American is cool,” “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah remarked last fall, apropos of the Pocahontas controversy —  “but just part, enough that you’re interesting at a party, not so much that they build a pipeline through your house.” In progressive circles, to claim Indian blood is a form of one-upmanship, a way to show you’ve pre-checked your white privilege. It inoculates you against the charge of being a colonizer. When Europeans are accused of stealing the Indians’ land, you can say, not me.

But, of course, Europeans did steal the Indians’ land, which may help explain why Cherokees like Barnes are so outraged by what otherwise might be excused as a harmless retelling of a family legend. (“Yep, I’m full-blooded Russian. Want to see my Cossack dance?”) It adds the insult of cultural theft to the injury of ethnic cleansing under the Indian Removal Act, which displaced Cherokees and other tribes from their homes in Georgia and Alabama on a journey remembered as the Trail of Tears.  Rebecca Nagle, a Cherokee writer and activist, wrote a harsh takedown of Warren recently that was especially notable for where it appeared, on the left-leaning website Think Progress. She wrote, imagining the apology she would like to see from Warren: “I am deeply sorry to the Native American people who have been greatly harmed by my misappropriation of Cherokee identity. … Native Nations are not relics of the past, but active, contemporary, and distinct political groups who are still fighting for recognition and sovereignty within the United States. Those of us who claim false Native identity undermine this fight.”

Warren has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2020, although she recently announced she was not running. If she did run, Cherokee voters might face a difficult choice between the woman Republicans have been calling “Fauxcahontas,” and Donald Trump, who has adopted as his role model Andrew Jackson — the president who signed the Indian Removal Act.

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