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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:

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.


(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:

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: