by Joseph Pierce
Cover photo by Lorie Shaull
The Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum drew people from across Indian Country, in person and online, to hear directly from the 2020 presidential hopefuls. The forum promised access to those in power, a way of getting our voices heard and our issues on the table. As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, I was cautiously optimistic. I wanted to see if Elizabeth Warren would finally take the opportunity to apologize in public for her decades of false claims to Cherokee heritage.
Warren identified as Native American while at Harvard in the 1990s, touted her grandfather’s “high cheek bones” as evidence of Native American ancestry, relied on unsubstantiated family lore, and, finally, released a DNA test and campaign video in October 2018 meant to prove she had a genetic link to a Native ancestor. This prompted the Cherokee Nation to put out a blistering statement clarifying, “a DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship.” While the campaign video has since been removed from Warren’s website, the harm she has caused the Cherokee nation has still not been addressed. In short, Warren has made a series of dangerous claims that undermine Cherokee sovereignty.
I didn’t expect her to be nuanced. But I hoped she might actually say, simply, that she is not and never has been Cherokee. That was my hope. And I was disappointed.
Warren’s recently unveiled policy platform for restoring treaty rights is a major step in the right direction. Her alliance with Congresswoman Deb Haaland speaks to her intent to involve Native voices in setting her agenda. She has often said the right things, and when it came down to it, Warren did utter the words, “I’m sorry.” But the apology rang hollow. It lacked the humility that would be required to rebuild trust with the community that she insistently claimed, but that never claimed her in return.
I knew the forum was being presented as a civil affair in which the specter of Warren’s identity theft lingered but should not be mentioned. There had been so much speculation prior to her arrival in Sioux City, Iowa as to whether she should or could actually make this appearance without exposing herself to the racist screed of Trump and his right-wing cronies. She was not in an easy position, to be sure. So, I didn’t expect Warren to spell out the complex history of Cherokee identity, the background of the allotment era and the theft of Indian land, identity, language, and culture by white settlers—including members of her own family. I didn’t expect her to be nuanced. But I hoped she might actually say, simply, that she is not and never has been Cherokee. That was my hope. And I was disappointed.
Warren vaguely admitted wrongdoing. But she did not say what she did or why, quickly pivoting to her strong suit, public policy. This is a good strategy for courting people who wanted to hear her admit something. However, it doesn’t address the central issue at stake—Cherokee sovereignty.
This is what I mean: she took it upon herself to claim that she was Cherokee, rather than upholding the sacred bonds of kinship we use to determine citizenship and belonging. What’s more, she shifted the conversation around Cherokee identity towards the dangerous terrain of DNA testing, biology, and family lore. In doing so, she emboldened self-identified Cherokees to follow suit, displacing our community members, diminishing our cultural heritage, and, as the LA Times reported in June 2019, swindling minority business owners out of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state contracts. Without naming those transgressions, how are we to know that she has listened, or that she is sincere in her desire to be an ally to Indian Country? Given the chance, I would have asked Warren: how will you repair the harm you have caused to Cherokee people?
Despite having put forward a broad structural plan for honoring trust and treaty obligations, she has yet to understand how she is situated within the structures of white supremacy from which she has benefited—and yet to demonstrate that she can be trusted. Trust comes with daring to put the ethical obligations of mutual respect before politics. This is what being in good relations means. As a Cherokee, that is what matters to me. I cannot help but ask if Elizabeth Warren is actually demonstrating that she is in good relations with us.
These are vital issues. And they are part of the broader legacy of settler colonialism through which Indigenous peoples are dispossessed of land, culture, and kinship.
But no one at the forum seemed interested in posing these types of questions. The panel was laudatory before bringing up rather straightforward issues: Do you intend to honor the treaties? “Yes, of course.” Will you fund housing for Native veterans? “Yes, certainly.” I’m not upset that these issues were brought up. Far from it. These issues are crucial to ensuring the health and wellbeing of Native peoples. What I am frustrated with, in this case, is that no one pushed Warren to engage with the ongoing confusion that she herself created by falsely claiming Cherokee heritage (for decades), rolling out a massive media package touting herself as Cherokee, and then presuming that the effects of her claims are somehow resolved by a private call to the Cherokee Nation to apologize.
While the organizers of the forum noted that they did not want to bring up Warren’s false claims in order to “move on,” I suspect that Warren’s team made sure—prior to committing to speak at the forum—that she would not be asked about her claims in an effort to control the narrative, rather than engage with Cherokee people. In truth, this is a form of censorship, a limitation of discourse. Indian Country should not be censuring tribes whose interests, and whose identity, are directly affected by Warren’s cultural theft. The fact that she has yet to sit down with Cherokees is telling in this regard.
I was also disappointed in how any critique of Warren was seen as coming from the Trumpian right, rather than from concerned Indigenous citizens. Senator Haaland’s introduction implicitly dismissed Cherokee people’s longstanding critiques of Elizabeth Warren. Haaland concluded, “I say that every time they ask about Elizabeth’s family instead of the issues of vital importance to Indian Country, they feed the president’s racism.” Who is the they of that statement? And who gets to determine what is vital to Cherokees? This is an issue of self-determination, of who belongs, of who makes up the “we” of our sovereign nation. Warren’s false claims—and their repercussions—will affect all tribal nations today, tomorrow, and the next day. These are vital issues. And they are part of the broader legacy of settler colonialism through which Indigenous peoples are dispossessed of land, culture, and kinship.
If Warren is truly invested in repairing the harm that she has caused, then she needs to sit down with Cherokee people, rather than putting the discussion off for another day. She needs to start building an ethical relationship with the Cherokee Nation by admitting precisely what she has done, explaining why it was wrong, and doing more than proposing a ‘plan’ to fix it. This requires action. Short of that, she is not demonstrating that she has the willingness or the capacity to make this right. She is not our relative, but she can be in good relations with us. That must begin with humility. She must ask how she can better relate to the Cherokees. Instead, right now, she is presuming that she has already done so.
Joseph M. Pierce is Associate Professor of Latin American studies at Stony Brook University. He is the author of Argentine Intimacies: Queer Kinship in an Age of Splendor, 1890-1910 (SUNY Press) and co-editor of Políticas del amor: Derechos sexuales y escrituras disidentes en el Cono Sur (Cuarto Propio, 2018). His work has been published recently in Critical Ethnic Studies, Hyperallergic, and Indian Country Today. He is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.