By Michael Patrick Leahy
Warren’s statements come as genealogists at the New England Historic Genealogical Society were unable to back up earlier accounts that her great great great grandmother is Cherokee. While Warren’s great great great grandmother, named O.C. Sarah Smith, is listed on a electronic transcript of a 1894 marriage application as Cherokee, the genealogists are unable to find the actual record or a photograhic copy of it, Society spokesman Tom Champoux said. A copy of the marriage license itself has been located, but unlike the application, it does not list Smith’s ethnicity.
Technically, Mr. Champoux’s statement the previous day was consistent with this new statement from an unnamed source at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. A 2006 family newsletter could well have included a report of “a[n] electronic transcript of [a]n 1894 marriage application,” but Mr. Champoux’s May 2 statement clearly gave the impression that the electronic transcript in question was copied from an original document dated in 1894, which appears not to be the source at all.
Instead of an actual official vital statistic document, the evidence that William J. Crawford said his mother was a Cherokee was now said to be a marriage license application (from a period in time and place where no marriage license applications were either created or stored) that was referenced as family lore in a 2006 family newsletter.
Leahy apparently thinks he's debunked Warren's claims. But no, he hasn't.
Elizabeth Warren’s Genealogical Challenge
Leahy doesn’t stop there. He says “it is more likely that O.C. Sarah Smith had no Cherokee heritage. Census records that listed O.C. Sarah Smith Crawford (her married name) as a resident of Tennessee in 1830, 1840, and 1860 classify her as white, not Indian.”
That’s not surprising though, considering that a reference to Indian on the Census form didn’t start until 1880. The 1850 Census gave options for white, black or mulatto.
“The U.S. Census records starting with 1880 included a reference to Indians, but may or may not be accurate. Earlier records sometimes regard Indians or mixed bloods as MU (mulatto) and again are not necessarily accurate,” said Myra Vanderpool Gormley, a certified genealogist specializing in Cherokee and Native American history. “There are various Indian rolls from about 1885 that identify Indians by tribe and name. Most of them pertain to Indians living on reservations and not in the general population.”
It wasn’t the only time American Indians were lumped into a group they didn’t belong in either. Walter Ashby Plecker, registrar of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912-1946, was instrumental in crafting the state’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. He argued that there were no full-blooded Indians left in Virginia, so everyone in the state should only be able to claim one of two racial backgrounds: Caucasian or “negro.”
And as David Treuer pointed out in his opinion piece in The Washington Post, many Indians have identified as whites to have access to more opportunities. “From the mid-19th century, the beginning of the reservation period, up through the early 20th century, regardless of how people identified themselves, being classified by the U.S. government as an American Indian automatically curtailed one’s rights,” he said.
You'd have to go back several more generations--perhaps all the way back to Europe--to rule out Warren's having Cherokee ancestors. No one's done that yet, so her claims remain unsubstantiated, not disproved.
The role of tribal citizenship
Even if OC Sarah Smith was a Cherokee who identified herself as white, that's not the whole story either. ICTMN continues:
According to Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton, deputy executive director for Cherokee Nation Communications, even if that marriage license said O.C. Sarah Smith was Cherokee, it alone would be insufficient. Warren would have to have an ancestor on the Dawes Rolls and then show state-certified documentation, like birth or death certificates, that she is related to that person, to be eligible for citizenship. Though Krehbiel-Burton admits, people are missed who should be citizens.
“Not every Cherokee was on the Dawes Rolls, so there are people who have legitimate Cherokee genealogy but are ineligible for citizenship,” she told ICTMN. “It isn’t a perfect system, but it’s the best we’ve got to by.”
What’s the Deal With Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee?
By Suzan Shown Harjo
When people legitimately claim particular Native nations, they are saying they are tribal citizens of one and eligible for citizenship and/or culturally tied to another. When people claim particular tribes and aren’t tribal citizens, they are promoting a false impression of tribal citizenship (and tribal experience and sanctioning), even if they never use the word citizen. People are Native American because Native nations they say they are; not because of the magic wand of self-declaration.
Native Americans are not the same as, for example, Irish-Americans, Japanese-Americans or Kenyan-Americans. Our nationalities are in our Native nations, which are more like Ireland, Japan or Kenya, with a political nation-to-nation relationship with the U.S. We are equivalent to the relatives of the hyphenated Americans in their old countries—more like the Irish, Japanese or Kenyans—still in our countries, only surrounded by the U.S. on our original lands.
Warren's claim of Native heritage is extremely tenuous. She may or may not be 1/32, 1/64, or less Cherokee. That's such a trivial amount it isn't worth mentioning except as a biographical footnote.
Should Warren have listed herself as "Native" in some professional directories? No, because she isn't Native. She was wrong to do that.
But with all those family stories and pictures, Warren may have thought she was 1/16 or more Native. It sounds like she exaggerated her Native heritage in her own mind, then compounded the problem by listing herself as Native. That's unfortunate but understandable.
I'd call her directory listings more of an innocent mistake than an attempt to deceive. Almost every politician has committed worse transgressions than these. Consider George W. Bush's Vietnam-dodging, DUI arrests, and abortion, for example.
Warren's employers touted her as a minority in their faculty reports. Should they have done that? No. Employers should document such claims before airing them publicly. They shouldn't take the word of employees who benefit from being considered minorities.
Warren says she didn't tell potential employers she was Native. Did they learn about her "Native" claim from the directories? Could be, although that's unclear. Warren may be fibbing about what she told them.
At the very least, she was naive to think the directory listings had no bearing on her employment. People don't use directories to find new friends. They use them to verify someone's work background.
In short, someone benefited from Warren's exaggerated claim of being Native. If not her, then the institutions who hired her. That shouldn't affect Warren's Senate campaign, but it's still not right.
For more on the subject, see Warren Didn't Claim Native Status and Warren's Cherokee Claim Unsubstantiated?