Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), desperate to scrub away her problematic past, has finally apologised to the Cherokee Nation for her ancestry scandal she cultivated last year. As the progressive icon prepares to formally announce her bid for the presidency, facing off against her party’s establishment old-guard and populist-left renegades, can apologetic words shed away her insensitive racialised baggage before the primary votes?
For years, President Donald Trump has mocked Warren as “Pocahontas”, the nickname he’s used to routinely denigrate her abuse of affirmative action culture by identifying as Native American on her application forms to secure a faculty position at Harvard Law School. This lead to Warren taking a controversial DNA analysis conducted by Stanford University’s Professor Carlos Bustamante, which was later published through The Boston Globe.
The results, however, revealed Warren only has 1/1024th native ancestry across six to ten generations, meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of her lineage is European. It was an unmitigated disaster that alienated indigenous communities on multiple fronts — betrayal through stolen identity valour, tokenism through diversity hiring (underserved even on this basis) and a reliance on racial science to falsely claim tribal sovereignty.
The Cherokee and Delaware tribes, whom she claimed ancestry, demanded justice for these lies, claiming it takes a documented Cherokee ancestor, not genetics, to claim such membership. It was only until this week— almost five months since the controversy— that Warren issued an apology. This was made public by Julie Hubbard, a Cherokee Nation spokeswoman, who spoke with both The Intercept and The Washington Post to confirm a “brief and private” telephone conversation shared between Warren and the tribe’s principal chief Bill John Baker.
“Senator Warren has reached out to us and has apologized to the tribe,” Hubbard said in a statement. “We are encouraged by this dialogue and understanding that being a Cherokee Nation tribal citizen is rooted in centuries of culture and laws, not through DNA tests. We are encouraged by her action and hope that the slurs and mockery of tribal citizens and Indian history and heritage will now come to an end.”
“I understand that she apologized for causing confusion on tribal sovereignty and tribal citizenship and the harm that has resulted,” Hubbard elaborated in another statement provided to The New York Times. “The chief and secretary of state appreciates that she has reaffirmed that she is not a Cherokee Nation citizen or a citizen of any tribal nation.”
Or, at the very least, when speaking in isolated privacy.
As noted by the Times journalist Astead Herndon, the apology contradicts the entire political-racial narrative Warren has been spinning for months. There was no atonement tour to make amends following her results. In fact, her time was spent either ignoring the issue or doubling down on her faulty justifications by claiming victim status. “I put it out there,” Warren shrugged in October. “It’s on the internet for anybody to see. People can make of it what they will. I’m just going to continue fighting on the issues that brought me to Washington. There have been a lot of thoughtful conversations about this, and I appreciate that. I believe for everyone in public life that transparency is crucial.”
So why only apologise in private? Prominent Native American leaders, including those within the Cherokee nation, remain unsatisfied with the secrecy. “This still isn’t transparent,” said Twila Barnes, a Cherokee genealogist and critic Warren’s claims of native ancestry since 2012, who spoke with The Times. “She needs to go public and say she fully takes responsibility and that the DNA test was ridiculous. There is still something about this that feels off.”
Could it be Warren wants the political capital that comes with diverse ethnic origins without admitting to her fraudulent baggage? “My mother was born in eastern Oklahoma,” Warren said her narrated video, framing her family as discrimination survivors. “It had been Indian territory until just a few years earlier when it had become a state. My daddy always said he fell head over heels in love with my mother the first time he saw her. But my daddy’s parents, the Herrings, were bitterly opposed to their marrying because my mother’s family, the Reeds, was part Native American. This sort of discrimination was common at the time.”
Is there any doubt Warren was trying to build a profile of indigenous fame? As reported by Vox’s Dylan Matthews, there’s a consistent record of Warren trying to claim her mother was partially Cherokee, thus laying family claim to ethnic-fortitude, despite no enrollments in federally-registered tribes and no names listed on the Dawes Rolls, the official list of members of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole tribes across the 20th century. Both of which necessary for such a profile to work.
It was only when people of colour made their voices heard, delegitimising the words of a racial charlatan, did she give up the act. “I’m not a person of colour,” Warren admitted at a small Q&A event in late January. “I’m not a citizen of a tribe. Tribal citizenship is very different from ancestry. Tribes and only tribes determine tribal citizenship and I respect that difference.”
Perhaps this respect should extend to the public conversation instead of being locked behind the privacy of closed doors. It comes across as political exploitation when these loose ends are handled just before early nominating states, such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, are subjected to her tours for political seduction. It shouldn’t take constant ignoring of tribal leaders, political operatives and advisers to only give the hurt a half-measure response. Using and abusing the indigenous in their name can’t be wished away by a few phone calls.
As stated by Chuck Hoskin Jr., the Cherokee Nation’s secretary of state, “Senator Warren was undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage. [This scandal] makes a mockery out of both DNA tests and its legitimate uses. This concept of family is key to understanding why citizenship matters,” Hoskin continued. “That is why it offends us when some of our national leaders seek to ascribe inappropriately membership or citizenship to themselves. They would be welcome to our table as friends, but claiming to be family to gain a spot at the table is unwelcome.”
Thanks for reading! This article was originally published for TrigTent.com, a bipartisan media platform for political and social commentary, truly diverse viewpoints and facts that don’t kowtow to political correctness.
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