May 07, 2012

Is Elizabeth Warren Native?

Finally, we get to the core question in the Elizabeth Warren controversy: Is she really Native?

First, Warren explains herself, sort of:

Warren explains minority listing, talks of grandfather's "high cheekbones"

By Lucy MadisonWarren said she was "very proud" of her heritage and "very proud of the stories that my grandparents told me that my grandparents told my parents and my parents told my brothers and me."

"Being Native American is part of who our family is and I'm glad to tell anyone about that. I am just very proud of it," Warren said.

The candidate said Wednesday that she had never asked her relatives for documentation of her lineage, but when questioned by reporters if she regretted self-identifying as Native American, she recounted a story about her family's history with the culture.

"No, as I said, these are my family stories. I have lived in a family that has talked about Native Americans, talked about tribes since I had been a little girl," she said. "I still have a picture on my mantel and it is a picture my mother had before that--a picture of my grandfather. And my Aunt Bea has walked by that picture at least a 1,000 times remarked that he--her father, my Papaw--had high cheek bones like all of the Indians do. Because that is how she saw it and your mother got those same great cheek bones and I didn't. She that thought was the bad deal she had gotten in life."

"Being Native American has been part of my story, I guess, since the day I was born," Warren continued.
Is self-identification enough?

Since the controversy began, people have weighed in on the question of whether she's Native. Some key opinions:

Elizabeth Warren says she’s Native American. So she is.

By David TreuerAn Indian identity is something someone claims for oneself; it is a matter of choice. It is not legally defined and entails no legal benefits. Being an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe, however, is a legal status that has nothing to do with identity and everything to do with blood quantum. Members must meet requirements set by the tribe in consultation with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (Elizabeth Warren is not enrolled in a tribe and doesn’t seem to have sought such status. She doesn’t claim an Indian identity, just Indian ancestry.) Indians who are not enrolled in a tribe aren’t eligible for the aforementioned programs and benefits, including casino profits, education assistance, hunting privileges and housing.

Indians make up a spectrum—for some, not claiming an Indian identity would be positively strange; for others, the claim is hard to accept since there is so little blood and possibly no cultural connection behind it. Most Indians exist between these two poles. Claimed or not, to be Indian and to grow up in a tribal community often meant that what you inherited was a lack of adequate health care, education and opportunity.
Good news for millions of New Agers, wannabes, and other pretenders. They're Native because they say they are.

Like the British poseurs who dress up in ugly wigs and facepaint and call themselves Apache, I'm feeling like an Indian today. I think I'll declare myself one so I can get some government checks and a casino.

Actually, Treuer mostly provides background on being Native. Despite the bold headline, he admits she hasn't claimed an Indian identity. Nor did she grow up in a tribal community.

Therefore, the headline is misleading. Treuer doesn't give us a reason to label Warren Native.

Is one drop of blood enough?

Native Americans defend Warren over heritage issue

By Chris CamireTom "Eagle Rising" Libby, chief of the Greater Lowell Indian Cultural Association, said Warren is being treated unfairly by critics who think her blond hair, fair skin and blue eyes should disqualify her from labeling herself as a minority.

"When people look at me and see freckles, they think I'm Irish," said Libby, 38, of Lowell, who is a member of the Mi'kmaq tribe. "One of the things I stress is to ignore the stereotypes. When you hear Indian, the first thing you think of is big nose and dark, long hair. Well, that's not always the case."

Libby is a Republican and plans to vote for U.S. Sen. Scott Brown in the November election. He estimates his heritage to be about 10 perent to 15 percent Mi'kmaq and said he checks off "American Indian" on the U.S. Census and on job applications when given the opportunity do so.

"Our philosophy is, whether you're full-blooded or have one drop in your body, we consider you native," said Libby, who works in marketing. "It's not about the percentages. Our philosophies come from a way of life, a way of thinking, a spirituality. It's not about the amount of blood."
Libby might want to check his thinking. Actually, he's saying it is about the amount of blood. If your blood quantum is more than zero, you're Native.

It doesn't matter if you have the "way of life, a way of thinking, a spirituality"--none of which Warren had. According to Libby, a few DNA particles in her blood make her Native.

Again, millions of wannabes and New Agers will be glad to hear it. Suddenly the Native population in the US has increased from 5 million to perhaps 100 million. One of every couple of Americans is eligible for Native jobs, Native scholarships, etc.

For starters, practically every Latino has more Native "blood" than Warren. So move over, Indians. You're now a minority in your own minority. Latinos will take most of the opportunities you used to get...sorry.

A comment from someone on Facebook:That article could have been written by the Chief of the Wannabe Nation. Damn near said it's what is in your heart that counts. No one I know has this opinion. Most have called Warren out as a fraud.I think opinion on Warren is divided in Indian country. But I haven't seen anyone provide clearcut answers yet. Does the one-drop rule make you Native? (No.) Is it enough to self-identify as Native? (No.) Do secondhand stories you heard as a child make you Native? (No.)

Which also rules out Ward Churchill, Johnny Depp, and the Kardashian sisters. Sorry, peeps!

Note: The Kardashian sisters claim to have 3% Native DNA. That's about the same blood quantum as Elizabeth Warren (‎1/32 = 3.125%). If she's Native, so are they.

More on the subject:

Elizabeth Warren’s Native American roots no surprise in Oklahoma

Is 'one-drop' rule overruled?

Native or "of Native heritage"?

Elizabeth Warren and the Politics of Being Indian

By Lindsey Catherine CornumThe scam seems to lie in the fact that the amount of Cherokee blood Warren has coursing through her veins has been quantified as a mere 1/32nd. This constitutes “cheating” in many people’s minds because anyone who has only 1/32 Indian blood couldn’t possibly be a real Cherokee; they are obviously just a ruthless schemer using a flawed system to fuel their own twisted ambition. “CherokeeGate” has thus not only opened the old arguments against affirmative action, it has re-opened the even older debates about what makes a real Indian. As with most cases of Indians in the news, the loudest voices in this controversy have been patently misguided and often racist.

To begin with, anyone who still believes blood quantum is a true measure of identity is living in the 19th century. Blood quantum, the measure by which the government determines one’s degree of Indian ancestry, has got to be one of the most plainly hypocritical logics the American government has ever used to disenfranchise people. At the same time America was using the “one drop” rule to categorize as many people with African ancestry as slaves as possible, they were using a reverse “one drop” rule on Indians in order to categorize them as white in the hopes this would loosen ties to the communally held land settlers desperately wanted.

Yet, if Warren claimed 1/32nd Cherokee heritage and was dark-skinned, I bet the conversation would be a lot different. The problem is Warren just doesn’t look Cherokee enough. Because of her physical appearance, many believe she has not had a genuine minority experience and does not deserve to claim minority status. To some degree, that is correct. As a light-skinned woman whom most people read as of Western-European descent, Warren has probably never experienced outright racism first-hand. Because she is granted white privilege based on her white appearance, however, does not necessarily mean she is just white—this applies not only to Elizabeth Warren but to all light-skinned people with non-European heritage. Though they must be held accountable for their conditional privilege and to the communities they purport to belong to, their decision to connect to their heritage is theirs alone. Nobody gets to decide that for them but their ancestors.

Unfortunately, in defending herself and her choice to list herself as minority professor, Warren has relied on her own reductionist interpretations of Indianness. While she did give a sincere account about the family history she was told and raised on, she has also tried to confirm her Cherokee ancestry by pointing to the high cheekbones of her grandfather. I mean, a part of me gets it. For those of us who do not look Indian enough (which these days requires full-blown regalia or being dead) or those of us who are cut off from our tribal communities, there is a struggle to identify what exactly is Indian about us. That sometimes comes out in misguided generalizations that we know will be understood by the ignorant, Hollywood-fed American public. In many cases those ignorant, Hollywood-based images are some of the only ways we know ourselves what constitutes an authentic Indian.

For me, being Navajo is a political identity based on the fact that I have ancestors that inhabited this land with alternative systems of governance that were then completely destroyed by the settlement of Americans. For Warren, it seems, being Cherokee is not just about her grandfather’s handsome bone structure but a sense of place (from her Oklahoma upbringing) and a family tradition carried down through orally-transmitted stories. Though this is only conjecture on my part and though I do wish Warren had a history of serving and being accountable to the Cherokee people she is so proud to be tied to, I have few problems with somebody who self-identifies as part Indian based on oral history and a connection to land.
These are all good points, but Cornum avoids the key question. Being part Native and connecting to one's heritage isn't the same as being Native and getting a job because of it.

Cornum argues that Warren isn't "just white." Okay, but the question is whether she qualifies as "just Native." Do you count her as a minority rather than as a white person, as at least two universities did in their diversity reports? I say no.

Debating Warren's identity

A debate on the subject occurred after I posted the following on Facebook:

There's absolutely no truth to the rumor that Elizabeth Warren and Ward Churchill have the same great-grandparents. #wannabesinacademia

Being proud of your 1/32 Native heritage is one thing. But unless you're tribally enrolled, you have no business claiming to be Native on an application, in a directory, or anywhere. The subject never should come up except as background info.

On the other hand, there's no evidence (yet) that Warren used her heritage to get a job. And unlike Churchill, she isn't a professor of Native studies, where you'd expect to see a Native.Yeah, I think you're off track here. Heritage is heritage. We really don't want to be the "Who's an Indian?" Police, do we? Besides, Warren is awesome in every way and Scott Brown is a reprehensible piece of human crap. I hope she stomps his guts out his mouth, NDN or no.A little bit of heritage isn't the same as a lot of heritage. Ward Churchill, Johnny Depp, and others of their ilk are taking jobs from real Natives, and that's a problem.

Tribes and government agencies do police who's Native to help weed out frauds and wannabes. If they can do it, so can we.Sorry, but I think you're wrong. Blood Quantum is racist bullshit designed to destroy us a race of people. Does she tribally identify? Does she have any connection to the tribe? Were her parents or grandparents enrolled? If so, I'm not casting aspersions.Does she tribally identify? No. Does she have any connection to the tribe? No. Were her parents or grandparents enrolled? No.

Does that change your position any? Shouldn't you have known the answers before you said I was wrong? Yes, obviously.

Sounds like you're talking about people who are well-connected with their Native heritage, which does not include Warren. She didn't know anything more than the family rumors before a genealogist tracked down her great-great-great-grandmother. A tenuous oral history isn't much of a peg to hang an identity on.

I guess you're okay with Johnny Depp playing a Native, then. Indeed, you'd be okay if Elizabeth Warren took up a career in acting and played Pocahontas or Sacagawea. But most Hollywood Natives would not accept that outcome. And I'm with them.

For more on the subject, see Warren Explains Directory Listings and Did Warren Check "Native" to Get Job?

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