The white supremacy of Elizabeth Warren
Twila Barnes and Cole DeLaune
If you’re confused by the controversy over Elizabeth Warren’s lack of documented Indigenous ancestry, it’s easy to understand why. The saga of Senator Warren’s long history of self-identification as a Native American has percolated in political media outlets for almost seven years, splashing into the news cycle at once sporadically and persistently in an awkward, jerky tempo that has yielded an abundance of misinformation and optical dissonance surrounding both the senator herself and her record of conduct toward tribal peoples. The serialized manner in which the most disturbing details about Warren have leaked into salient press coverage – coupled with conscious efforts by the senator to alternately dodge the flap and leverage it to her advantage – have obscured a wide-ranging pattern of dishonesty and contempt for Indigenous communities that disqualifies her candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Let’s start with some clarifications:
- Warren is white, both phenotypically and culturally. There is absolutely no genealogical evidence that she has ancestors from North American Indian nations. (Although Christopher Child of the New England Historic And Genealogical Society touted the discovery a “marriage certificate” in May 2012 that bolstered Warren’s claims, his find was quickly debunked – the document in question, it turned out, doesn’t exist and the Society made clear that it “has not expressed a position on whether Mrs. Warren has Native American ancestry, nor do we possess any primary sources to prove that she is.”) The results of the genetic testing she infamously released last October relied on comparisons to markers derived from Native populations in Latin America rather than the continental United States. And such testing remains a dubious enterprise at best – just several months before Warren, a dog in Canada tested positive for Indigenous DNA. 
- Warren did not just innocently share “family lore.” As the Boston Globe first reported, the senator identified herself as Native American in federally mandated diversity statistics for at least six years while a professor at Harvard Law School despite lacking the “tribal affiliation” outlined in those documents. Contemporaneously, Harvard repeatedly touted Warren as an example of ethnic diversity among Law School faculty to academic press outlets, championing her as the institution’s “only tenured minority woman” and “first woman of color.” The University of Pennsylvania – at which Warren taught prior to Harvard – likewise cited her in a “Minority Equity Report.” And Warren admitted that she had listed herself for a full decade as a “minority” in Association of American Law School Directories from 1986 until 1995, the year she secured tenure at Harvard.
- Warren never engaged with Indigenous cohorts on the campuses in question. Although the implicit purpose of diversity initiatives is to ensure representation of perspectives informed by a variety of cultures, the executive director of Harvard’s Native American Program could not recall Warren ever participating in any of its undertakings.
- Warren can’t keep her prevarications straight about how and why she identified as Native American. In the primary days of her 2012 Senate campaign, she professed to be wholly unaware that Harvard had been promoting her as a minority (“I think I read it on the front page of the Herald”). Then, she insisted that she had never formally declared herself a minority (“there was no, there is no reporting for this. It came up in lunch conversations once with faculty, after the fact.”) She maintained that she had never claimed distinction as a minority to any employers until after she was hired, those Association of American Law School directories – frequently used by law schools during the 1980s for recruiting – apparently notwithstanding. Now, after the emergence last week of a 1986 application to the Texas State Bar on which she described her race as “American Indian,” Warren offers a starkly different characterization than she did seven years ago of just how pervasively she identified herself as an indigenous woman: “All I know is, during this time period this is consistent with what I did.”
- Warren has trucked in reductive stereotypes about physical features to justify her ethnic posturing. When Indigenous lineage and tribal links are out of the picture, “high cheekbones” are all you’ve got.
Surreally, neither the extensive scope of Warren’s deceit nor her blithe ignorance about the heritage in which she continues to costume herself is even the most disquieting reflections of her clear disdain for Indigenous America. For those, one may refer to Warren’s years-long evasion of and attacks against Native voices who have expressed concerns about her background and behavior.
During the summer of 2012, in the company of fellow Cherokee women united by a desire to educate and invest tribal perspectives into the contemporary discourse, I traveled to Massachusetts to seek an audience with Warren’s team. The campaign agreed to the meeting via the Boston press only to renege upon our arrival and falsely malign us as the pawns of “right-wing extremists.” It stonewalled Indian Country Today, the largest Indigenous news platform in the country. It ignored Cherokee protestors at the state nominating event. It rebuffed overtures from Indigenous delegates at the Democratic National Convention.
In summary: when confronted with Indigenous perspectives that posed an obstacle to her personal advancement, Warren’s carefully calculated response was to pretend that we didn’t exist.
It was a strategy that would define the majority of Warren’s freshman term in Congress. With a comfortable electoral victory in her rearview, she shrugged off her ethnic “pride” as readily as she self-segregated from the tribe with which she claimed kinship on the stump. She remained largely quiet on the cares and galvanizing causes of Native peoples. She even called for the arrest of Greg Grey Cloud, a Crow Creek Sioux activist protesting the Keystone XL pipeline from the Senate gallery.
Eventually, of course, the DNA debacle of her own making forced Warren to deliver a qualified mea culpa. But she has never acknowledged – much less apologized for – her active hostility toward the Indigenous critics who first tried to reach out to her and then strived to hold her to account. She has unequivocally failed in the most foundational moral duties of her position: to listen, to engage, and to represent. For almost six years, she intentionally did what colonialism has always done to people of Indigenous origin: she has erased us from our own story.
And the fallout is real and concrete. Right now, left-leaning media reeks with the condescension of nominal white progressives – numerous prominent pundits and reporters among them – all too willing to dismiss and demean the insights of their Indigenous counterparts. Because of their Twitter commentary on the subject, Ryan Grim, DC bureau chief of The Intercept, accused Cherokees of “doing Trump’s work” and “enabling his abject racism.” Reporter Thor Benson of The Rolling Stone and The Daily Beast sneered at the “virtue signaling” of critiques about Warren by a Dine/Inhanktowan Dakota author. In an article denounced by the Native American Journalists Association, The Huffington Post’s Jennifer Bendery minimized the chorus of Native qualms on the matter (even from the Cherokee Nation Secretary of State) as “crickets.” Bill Maher lectured his television viewers, “If you think this stupid, blown-out-of-proportion Indian controversy makes her inauthentic, you’re the phony.”
What a perfect illustration of the evolution of white supremacy: first, Euro entitlement to Native territories; then, white entitlement to Native identity sans the cultural contexts that confer meaning on said identity; and, now, inevitability, the ascendancy of white presumption to literally dictate how Natives should think and feel. This is the malignant legacy of Elizabeth Warren – bringing out the chauvinistic worst in the ostensible best and normalizing scorn for perspectives of color.
Of course, the Senator has predicated her career on a second false identity: that of a warrior for the disenfranchised. Her animosity toward one of the most systematically oppressed demographics in the nation’s history emphatically underscores that she is not only an ethnic impostor but an ideological fraud as well. Black and Latinx voters in pivotal primary states should ask themselves how they can trust a politician who spent years determinedly avoiding the minority community to which she contends she belongs. And her competitors for the Democratic nod must roundly denounce the insidious racism of her actions and her cavalier marginalization of Indigenous points of view that challenge her pursuit of power.
“This is the fight of our lives,” Warren declared earlier this month at the launch of her 2020 run. Inconveniently for her, Indigenous Americans have been fighting for their lives for generations.
We’ve survived invasions and epidemics. We’ve endured occupations. We’ve outlasted efforts to annihilate and acculturate us out of existence.
We’re still here.
And we’re not going to be silent.
Twila Barnes, Cherokee, is a genealogist with over 10 years’ experience and is registered with the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She is also a writer, most widely known for her Cherokee history and genealogy site "Polly’s Granddaughter." Follow her on Twitter as @pollysgdaughter. Cole DeLaune, Kiowa, is a freelance writer, editor, and author. He is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma.