Open Letter to Elizabeth Warren From Cherokee Citizens

[Ed. note: With the permission of Cherokee academic Joseph M. Pierce (who has previously written on the topic for this magazine), we reprint here the full text of a letter he co-authored with citizens of the Cherokee Nation that makes clear the harm caused by Elizabeth Warren’s misrepresentations.]

February 26, 2020

Dear Senator Warren:

As concerned citizens of the Cherokee Nation, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, we recognize our responsibility to stand up for our communities: to those we claim and those who claim us.

Senator Warren, as you seek the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, your history of false claims to American Indian identity and the defense of these claims with a highly publicized DNA test continue to dog your political career. For Native Americans, this moment is more than an annoyance; it represents the most public debate about our identity in a generation. In a country where Indigenous people are mostly invisible, what Americans conclude from this debate will impact Native rights for years to come.

Whatever your intentions, your actions have normalized white people claiming to be Native, and perpetuated a dangerous misunderstanding of tribal sovereignty. Your actions do not exist in a vacuum but are part of a long and violent history. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that white members of fake “tribes” have been awarded over $800 million in no-bid federal contracts set aside for minority business owners. Rather than using evidence of Native ancestry, these fake tribes rely solely on family stories and commercial DNA tests. When you still defend yourself by stating you believed what you heard growing up, you set a harmful example for these white people stealing Native identity and resources with stories very similar to your own.

While the average American thinks of Native Americans as a racial category, we are actually political groups. Our rights are based on citizenship in sovereign Nations and those Nations’ treaty relationship to the United States. But that hasn’t stopped opponents to tribes from arguing that laws defending Native rights treat us differently based on race and therefore should be declared unconstitutional. If they win, it could be the end of tribes as we know them. By publicly equating race and biology with Native identity, your DNA test promoted the exact same logic the Right is currently using to try and destroy Native rights.

You have yet to fully address the harm you have caused. While your apologies are a step in the right direction, they have been vague and inadequate. Accountability is not just admitting you made a mistake, but working to correct the harm it caused. A recent collective statement by Cherokee scholars makes clear that any person who publicly identifies as Cherokee has initiated an open discussion about their identity. As a Harvard professor and U.S. Senator, you have the unique opportunity to turn this controversy into a needed learning moment.

As Native community members, academics, activists, scientists, writers, organizers, aunties, uncles, young people, and tribal citizens concerned about the future of Native rights, we call on you to make a clear public statement that includes the following:

  • Like many other white families, your family story of Cherokee and Delaware ancestry is false and it was wrong for you to repeat it as an adult. You have had the genealogical evidence since 2012. Stating you do not qualify for citizenship is not enough; the truth is you and your ancestors are white.
  • Equating Cherokee identity with the results of a DNA test was more than a misstep—it was dangerous. Your supporters and the public need to understand why. We ask that you explain that only tribal affiliation and kinship determine Native identity, and that equating Native identity with race and biology erodes the foundation of Indigenous sovereignty.
  • Claiming Native identity without citizenship, kinship ties, or recognition from Native communities undermines Indigenous self determination. As the most public example of this behavior, you need to clearly state that Native people are the sole authority on who is—and who is not—Native.

    Native Americans come from over 574 different nations, each with our own unique histories, languages, cultures, and politics. We do not think with one mind or speak with one voice on this issue—or any other. However, Cherokee citizens are the most impacted not only by your actions but by the growing epidemic of white people claiming to be us. If you truly want to listen and change, then you need to hear all Native voices on this issue—whether or not they serve you.

    You have done some good things for Indian Country during your time in political service. You have also done real harm. Right now you have the platform and the opportunity to stand firmly on the side of justice. This is not about politics or your career. This is about the well-being of our nations. The time has come for you to show true leadership and make this right.

    Signed:

    (Tribal affiliations listed for identification only)

    1. ᏥᏍᏆ, ᏣᎳᎩ, ᏥᏍᏆ ᏣᎳᎩ/ O-gah-pah/ Wa-zha-Zhe
    2. ᏩᏕ ᎦᎵᏍᎨᏫ Ryan Brandon Mackey, ᏣᎳᎩᎯ ᎠᏰᎵ Cherokee Nation
    3. ᎢᏯ ᏗᎯ Candessa Tehee, Cherokee Nation
    4. Adam Reese, Cherokee Nation
    5. Adrienne Keene, Cherokee Nation
    6. Ahyoka Youngdeer, Cherokee Nation
    7. Alan Harrover, Cherokee Nation
    8. Andrea L. Rogers, Cherokee Nation
    9. Angi Harrover, Cherokee Nation
    10. Austin Holt, Cherokee Nation
    11. Benjamin Holt, Cherokee Nation
    12. Betty Smoke, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians
    13. Bill Davis, Cherokee Nation
    14. Bill Mann, Cherokee Nation
    15. Billie Jo Rich, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
    16. Billy Jack Shotpouch, Cherokee Nation
    17. Brandon Morris, Cherokee Nation
    18. Brandon Scott, Cherokee Nation
    19. Brian K. Hudson, Cherokee Nation
    20. Brian Kelly Jackson, Cherokee Nation
    21. Bryan Pollard, Cherokee Nation
    22. Callie Benoit, Cherokee Nation
    23. Carabeth Muskrat Samuels, Cherokee Nation
    24. Cassandra Lynn Cariker, Cherokee Nation
    25. Cassie Snell, Cherokee Nation
    26. Catherine Foreman Gray, Cherokee Nation
    27. Charles Smith, Cherokee Nation
    28. Charmaine Mankiller, Cherokee Nation and Pomo
    29. Cheryl Nichols Brown, Cherokee Nation
    30. Chris Bacon, Cherokee Nation
    31. Christopher Whitmire, Cherokee Nation
    32. Clara McCown, Cherokee Nation
    33. Cole Hogner, Cherokee Nation
    34. Courtney Logan Green Espy, Cherokee Nation
    35. Courtney McCoy, Cherokee Nation
    36. Cynthia Thompson, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians
    37. Daniel Heath Justice, Cherokee Nation
    38. Daryll Mouse, Cherokee Nation
    39. David Cornsilk, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and Cherokee Nation
    40. David Montgomery, Cherokee Nation
    41. Deborah Fritts, Cherokee Nation
    42. Deboraugh Rogers, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians
    43. Dennis G. Dye, Cherokee Nation
    44. Dillard Pullium, Cherokee Nation
    45. Elissa Lyons, Cherokee Nation
    46. Forrest Stokes, Cherokee Nation
    47. Gayle Samuels, Cherokee Nation
    48. Geneva Brixey, Cherokee Nation
    49. Grant Linihan, Cherokee Nation
    50. Gunnar Hatfield, Cherokee Nation
    51. Harry Styron, Cherokee Nation
    52. Herb Wolf, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and Cherokee Nation
    53. Jade Day, Cherokee Nation
    54. James Armontrout, Cherokee Nation
    55. James Gilmartin, Cherokee Nation
    56. Janet Foreman-Green, Cherokee Nation
    57. Janet Kaye Backwater, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians
    58. Jared Edens, Cherokee Nation
    59. Jeff Corntassel, Cherokee Nation
    60. Jeffrey Girty, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians
    61. Jen Deerinwater, Cherokee Nation
    62. Jennie Wilson, Cherokee Nation
    63. Jennifer Anderson, Cherokee Nation
    64. Jennifer Barger Johnson, Cherokee Nation
    65. Jennifer Kate Thiessen, Cherokee Nation
    66. Jenny Flippo, Cherokee Nation
    67. Jeremie Fisher, Cherokee Nation
    68. Jeremy Hamilton, Cherokee Nation
    69. Jerid Miller, Cherokee Nation
    70. Jerrid Grimmett, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians
    71. Jesse Sexton, Cherokee Nation
    72. Jo Ann Tidwell, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians
    73. Jonathan Radocay, Cherokee Nation
    74. Joseph M. Pierce, Cherokee Nation
    75. Katie Jones, Cherokee Nation
    76. Kevin Sac, Cherokee Nation
    77. Kirby Brown, Cherokee Nation
    78. Kristie Bradley, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians
    79. Krystal Ann William, Cherokee Nation
    80. Kurt West, Cherokee Nation
    81. Lianna Costantino, Cherokee Nation
    82. Linda Easter, Cherokee Nation
    83. Linda Sacks, Cherokee Nation
    84. Mandy Adair, Cherokee Nation
    85. Marcus L. Thompson, Cherokee Nation
    86. Mariah Gary, Cherokee Nation
    87. Mariah Gladstone, Cherokee Nation
    88. Marissa Jane Cundiff, Cherokee Nation
    89. Mark DeMucha, Cherokee Nation
    90. Mark Downing, Cherokee Nation
    91. Mary Aboud, Cherokee Nation
    92. Mary Brown, Cherokee Nation
    93. Mason Hudson, Cherokee Nation
    94. Matthew Anderson, Cherokee Nation
    95. Melissa Duggins, Cherokee Nation
    96. Michael C. Lambert, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
    97. Michael Nephew, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
    98. Miranda Harris, Cherokee Nation
    99. Mitch McClain, Cherokee Nation
    100. Pam Coodey-York Fox, Cherokee Nation
    101. Patricia St. Peter, Cherokee Nation and Shawnee Tribe
    102. Patricia Wilson, Cherokee Nation
    103. Patsy Edgar, Cherokee Nation
    104. Paul Braun, Cherokee Nation
    105. Rachel Peters, Cherokee Nation
    106. Raymond Pettit, Cherokee Nation and Creek Nation
    107. Rebecca Nagle, Cherokee Nation
    108. Rhonda Lee Earp, Cherokee Nation
    109. Richard D. Teel, Cherokee Nation
    110. Robert Crossno, Cherokee Nation
    111. Robert Easter, Cherokee Nation
    112. Robin McLain Smith, Cherokee Nation
    113. Roldan Sack, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians
    114. Ron Collett, Cherokee Nation
    115. Ryley Bunch, Cherokee Nation
    116. Sandee Tidwell Lovado, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians
    117. Sasha Walker Hudson, Cherokee Nation
    118. Shanda Attika Secondi, Cherokee Nation
    119. Shauna Amezcua, Cherokee Nation
    120. Shea Vassar, Cherokee Nation
    121. Sheila Holmes, Cherokee Nation
    122. Shellie Shankle, Cherokee Nation
    123. Sherri Kay Hattori, Cherokee Nation
    124. Sherrie McElwee, Cherokee Nation
    125. Sky Babela Wildcat, Cherokee Nation
    126. Snow Matthews, Cherokee Nation and Delaware Tribe of Indians
    127. Ali Sacks, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians
    128. Taylor Keen, Cherokee Nation
    129. Thomasenia Johnson, Cherokee Nation
    130. Tracey M. Keith, Cherokee Nation
    131. Tricia Wickliffe, Cherokee Nation
    132. Tsianina Neel, Cherokee Nation
    133. Twila Barnes, Cherokee Nation
    134. Valerie Leann Kagan, Cherokee Nation
    135. Verna Bates, Cherokee Nation
    136. Vicki Creighton, Cherokee Nation
    137. Victoria M. O’Keefe, Cherokee Nation
    138. Virginia Drywater-Whitekiller, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians
    139. Wayne Divelbiss, Cherokee Nation
    140. William Curtis, Cherokee Nation
    141. William Lossiah-Bratt, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
    142. Wynona Burwell, Cherokee Nation
    143. Zac Russell, Cherokee Nation

    The undersigned Native citizens stand in solidarity with our Cherokee relatives, friends, and colleagues who face a unique epidemic of non-Natives claiming their identity. We recognize that while the problem most often targets Cherokee identity, the public misunderstanding of what it means to be Native American threatens all of our rights. We hope that this long controversy will end and Senator Warren will do the right thing and set the record straight that Indigenous self-determination comes before before unsubstantiated family stories and DNA testing.

    144. Ali Watson, Oglala Lakota
    145. Amanda Blackhorse, Diné (Navajo) Nation
    146. Amber Starks, Muscogee Creek Citizen
    147. Ashley Fairbanks, White Earth Anishinaabe
    148. Ashley McCray, Absentee Shawnee Tribe/Oglala Lakota
    149. Audra Simpson, Kahnawà:ke Mohawk
    150. Candi Brings Plenty, Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe
    151. Carole Lindstrom, Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe
    152. Charitie Ropati, Native Village of Kongiganak
    153. Christine Brown, Delaware Tribe of Indians
    154. Cole DeLaune, Kiowa Tribe
    155. Cori Taber, Muscogee (Creek) Nation
    156. Debbie Reese, Nambé Owingeh
    157. DeLesslin George-Warren, Catawba Nation
    158. Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear, Northern Cheyenne Nation
    159. Dina Gilio-Whitaker, Colville Confederated Tribes
    160. Emmy Scott, Spokane and Winnebego Nations
    161. Erica Tremblay, Seneca-Cayuga Nation
    162. Erin Thomas Anhalt, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
    163. Eryn Wise, Jicarilla Apache/Laguna Pueblo
    164. Eva Coyote, Delaware Tribe of Indians
    165. Iakowi:he’ne’ Oakes, Mohawk, Snipe Clan, Rotinoshonni
    166. J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Kanaka Maoli
    167. Jacqueline Keeler, Diné/Dakota
    168. Jean M. O’Brien, White Earth Ojibwe
    169. Jen Hubbard, Muscogee (Creek) Nation
    170. Jennifer Billie Chadwick, Seminole Tribe of Florida
    171. Jennina Rose Gorman/Katsistioasta , St. Reggis Mohawk Tribe
    172. Jesse Wente, Ojibwe, Serpent River First Nation
    173. Jessica Lambert, Choctaw Nation
    174. Jodi Byrd, Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma
    175. Jodi Voice Yellowfish, Creek Nation
    176. John Little, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
    177. Johnnie Jae, Otoe-Missouria/Choctaw
    178. Jordan Marie Daniel, Kul Wičasa Oyaté, federally known as the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe
    179. Joseph Clift, Cowlitz Indian Tribe
    180. Jukari Davis, Navajo Nation
    181. Julia Coyote, Delaware Tribe of Indians
    182. Kaitlin Curtice, Potawatomi Nation
    183. Kat Redding, Powhatan (Pamunkey) and Choctaw/Chickasaw
    184. Kawennakenre Shirley Meloche, Mohawk of Kahnawake Canada
    185. Keely Toledo, Navajo Nation
    186. Kim TallBear, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate
    187. Krystal Tsosie, Diné (Navajo) Nation
    188. Larissa Nez, Navajo Nation
    189. Lindsey Naegeli, Ottawa Tribe of Oklahoma
    190. Lucas Brown Eyes, Oglala Lakota
    191. Madeline Fernandez, Delaware Tribe of Indians
    192. Mahayla Perryman-Matthews, Seneca-Cayuga Nation
    193. Mariah Greenwood Adair, Chickasaw Nation
    194. Marla Striped Face-Collins, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
    195. Martie Simmons, Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin
    196. Mary Coyote, Delaware Tribe of Indians
    197. Megan Red Shirt-Shaw, Oglala Lakota
    198. Michelle Cook, Navajo Nation
    199. Natalie Diaz, Gila River (Akimel O’odham)
    200. Nicholas Galanin, Tlingit/Unangax̂
    201. Nick Courtney, Makah
    202. Nick Estes, Lower Brule Sioux Tribe
    203. Nick Martin, Sappony Tribe
    204. Renee’ Frerichs, Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska
    205. Sandy Grande, Quechua
    206. Shannon Speed, Chickasaw Nation
    207. Sheldon Beach, Chickasaw Nation
    208. Summer Wesley, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
    209. Tanaya Winder, Duckwater Shoshone
    210. Tara Houska, Couchiching First Nation Anishinaabe
    211. Tara Moses, Seminole Nation of Oklahoma
    212. Taté Walker, Mniconjou Lakota & citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe
    213. Tiffany Midge, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
    214. Trudie Jackson, Navajo Nation
    215. Twyla Baker, Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, & Arikara Nation)
    216. Valerie Lambert, Choctaw Nation
    217. Virginia Mouse, Osage/Quapaw
    218. Yvonne Perryman-Matthews, Seneca-Cayuga Nation


    The letter was organized by four citizens of the Cherokee Nation: Joseph M. Pierce, Daniel Heath Justice, Rebecca Nagle, and Twila Barnes. Media inquiries can be sent to the following email address: ewarrenisnotcherokee@gmail.com.

    If you are a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, or the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and would like to sign this letter, please fill out the following form: https://forms.gle/Vz2ofHxs2rEfdzZq6