As Elizabeth Warren supporters, including Deval Patrick, throw out terms like racism and “birther” in this hotly contested race for the Senate in Massachusetts, it is clear such people miss the point. Their argument is Elizabeth Warren has family lore that says she has Indian ancestors so she has the right to claim it. No one has said Elizabeth Warren can’t share the family stories she has heard, but some people do take issue with her abusing the system and claiming it in order to benefit her career or to help her employers meet diversity goals.
The Warren supporters believe those who oppose what she has done are focusing on her race when it has nothing to do with race. This has to do with the sovereignty of Indian nations, their history of interaction with the United States government, the right to determine who is and is not a member of their nation, and the definition of Native American. Though many Americans assume that “Native American” is a racial or ethnic classification, it is actually a matter of citizenship in an Indian Nation.
In “What has become of all the Native American Law Students”, the writer explains,
“As a legal matter, these assumptions are completely without foundation. In Morton v. Mancari, 417 U.S. 535 (1974), the United States Supreme Court confirmed that Native-American status was not a purely racial matter, but was derived from membership in a tribe recognized by the federal government.”
They go on to further explain,
“Native American status is, therefore, a concrete matter of tribal citizenship and not an amorphous racial classification. Consequently, a law student without a Tribal Identification Number is technically not a Native American, no matter what her or his ancestry may be.”
Though they were talking about law students, I think most of us can see, this would also apply to law professors as well as anyone else who claims to be Native American without tribal affiliation.
This is further supported by the requirements of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to be counted as a Native American for diversity purposes. The definition for American Indian:
American Indian or Alaska Native (Not Hispanic or Latino) - A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America), and who maintain tribal affiliation or community attachment.
The use of “and” means there are two standards that must be met in order to be considered an American Indian. The second part, maintaining tribal affiliation or community attachment, is specifically in line with the ruling in Morton v. Mancari. It goes back to tribal affiliation.
In the book, “Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the Twenty-first Century” by Circe Sturm, anthropologist Michael Lambert, a citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians described Cherokee identity politics as a “battle over sovereignty”:
"One of the terrains on which this is being fought is that of how we define “Indian.” The current effort to define Indian as a racial/cultural group is an effort to extinguish Indian sovereignty. The only way for Indian nations to defend and expand their sovereignty is to make exclusive claim to defining who is Indian and what it means to be Indian. If Indians have sovereignty, then culture, behavior, and belief should have nothing to do with who is or is not Indian. After all, we wouldn’t deny someone’s Germanness because they hate sauerkraut, nor would we have the audacity to recognize someone as German simply because they love it. German is what German does. Indian is what Indian does…
What does this have to do with non-enrolled Cherokees identifying as such? I see the basis of claims to Indian identity to be political acts. This is, and has been, a battle over sovereignty. One who bases their claim to Indian identity on any basis other than sovereignty is not taking a pro-Indian position.”
How does this apply to the position Elizabeth Warren is taking? Let me repeat the words of Michael Lambert, “One who bases their claim to Indian identity on any basis other than sovereignty is not taking a pro-Indian position.”
It is important that any candidate for the United States Senate understand sovereignty and Indian citizenship issues and how those things play a role in the definition of who is or is not a Native American. Not only is it clear Warren does not understand this, it is also clear that she doesn’t care about it. She, along with her supporters, want to redefine who is entitled to claim the status of Native American, even if a person has no proof of American Indian ancestry. This is an anti-sovereignty stance and this way of thinking is a danger to our sovereignty.
Through her past behavior, Elizabeth Warren has shown she believes it is okay to use the status of Native American when she wants. While she claims being Native American played such an important part in the lives of her and her family, they seem to have never had any association with real Indians. She has never gotten involved in using her education or abilities to help Indians or tribes; never gotten involved in the Indian group activities at the various schools where she worked; and today she refuses to speak to American Indians.
As Elizabeth Warren continues to double and triple down on her family lore, claiming it is a huge part of her life and who she is, she leads people into confusing race for citizenship. She wants people to believe she really cares about her purported ancestry and that she is a Native American, but she doesn’t fool us real Cherokees.
To us, there is no doubt that, if today they were rounding up citizens of the Cherokee Nation, a sovereign nation, and forcing us on a long walk in the dead of winter, Elizabeth Warren would not be voluntarily walking with the real Cherokees. She would claim to be white.
Those are my thoughts for today.
Thanks for reading.
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