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Elizabeth Warren: Is she or isn't she Native American?
Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren's claims of Native American ancestry have drawn fire.
September 25th, 2012
04:59 PM ET

Elizabeth Warren: Is she or isn't she Native American?

By Moni Basu, CNN

(CNN) - Writer Mark Trahant guessed the situation was a first: campaign jabs that centered on a candidate's claim of Native American roots.

He was referring to the Senate race in Massachusetts that pits Harvard University law professor Elizabeth Warren against Republican Sen. Scott Brown.

There are many issues of contention in this hotly contested race, but one of them has become Warren's claim to Native American ancestry. After Brown accused her of taking advantage of minority status, Warren fired back in an ad that came out Monday.

"As a kid, I never asked my mom for documentation when she talked about our Native American heritage," Warren says in the spot. "What kid would? But I knew my father's family didn't like that she was part Cherokee and part Delaware, so they had to elope.

"Let me be clear: I never asked for or never got any benefit because of my heritage," she continues, addressing the central concern that Brown has brought up on the campaign trail and at the candidates' first debate last week. "The people who hired me have all said they didn't even know about it."

It's a bit more complicated, said Trahant, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.

"The usual standard is citizenship, being a member of a tribe. Elizabeth Warren does not meet that test," he said.

Who's Native American? It's complicated

"It's not right that she would use her self-recalled heritage for any academic advancement ... even if there are no academic standards that define who is legally a Native American (except the citizenship issue). On the other hand, when you see videos like this one, you cringe."

He was referring to a video that shows Brown staffers chanting war whoops and gesturing Tomahawk chops. It was posted Tuesday on YouTube by the liberal blog Blue Mass Group.

"I think Sen. Brown has some explaining to do about the nice guy, respectful tone that he sets in his office, and on his campaign," the blog said. "And maybe we can put this whole preposterous issue to bed once and for all."

Brown responded to CNN affiliate WCVB in Boston.

"It is certainly something that I don't condone," he said. "The real offense is that (Warren) said she was white and then checked the box saying she is Native American, and then she changed her profile in the law directory once she made her tenure."

The National Congress of American Indians said it was troublesome that Brown's staff members acted in such fashion. The rights organization urged Brown to take action.

It also blamed Warren was responsible for failing to speak up.

"She has every right to be proud of her family," the organization said. "However her campaign failed to educate a non-Native media and the public unfamiliar with federal tribal enrollment rules or about historic federal policies that make proving Native ancestry very difficult for some people."

Also at issue was Brown's reference during a televised debate to Warren's white skin color as proof that she was not Native American.

"Skin color or physical appearance has no bearing on one’s Native American heritage or status as an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe," the national congress said. "As a result, numerous national television programs and websites have irresponsibly echoed Senator Brown’s statements by referring to someone’s skin color as an indicator for Native American identity. These claims are false and Senator Brown should correct the record and retract his statement immediately."

Elizabeth Warren vs. Scott Brown: Priciest race this year

The debate about Warren has gone on since May, when Warren confirmed that she had described herself in faculty directories as having Native American blood. She said she did it to meet others like her.

But her explanation didn't sit well in some corners.

A website called Cherokees Demand Truth From Elizabeth Warren says Americans ought to care deeply about such claims.

"America should care because they care when someone falsely claims to be a decorated military veteran. They care when someone falsely claims to be a recovering drug addict in a book passed off as the truth. And they care when someone falsely claims to be a survivor of the Jewish Holocaust. America cares about these things because America cares about integrity, honesty and fair treatment.

"Elizabeth Warren has not just stolen an ethnic identity that does not belong to her, but she has also personally benefited from it and harmed the integrity of the American ethos of advancement based on quality of work, not color of skin."

The New England Historic Genealogical Society provided initial research that shows several members of Warren's maternal family claiming Cherokee heritage. Warren's great-great-great grandmother O.C. Sarah Smith, is said to be described as Cherokee in an 1894 marriage license application. The genealogical society gathered that information through a 2006 family newsletter and said the original application cannot be located.

Warren's critics were out in force Tuesday on Twitter, including the editor of the conservative Red Alerts Politics website.

Blogger Donny Furguson posted:

But Warren was not without her supporters.

Seroe Michaud commented on Native News Network's page:

"Good for you Elizabeth, I am 1/8 Blackfoot but am fair skinned and light haired, I am the only light one in the family. If like me your blood is part native on your mother's side and your heart is walking the red road, we will not be driven into the shadows. I hope that you win, you had my vote before I learned of your roots."

As Trahant said, it's complicated.

What makes someone "legitimately" Native American? And who gets to make the call? Our blog attempted to answer those questions when the Warren controversy erupted.

Julia Good Fox, professor of American Indian studies at Haskell Indian Nations University, said there's plenty of ignorance around Native American citizenship.

"It's all in past-tense, and we don’t get a sense of what an Indian today looks like," she said in May.

And that, she said, can be confusing.

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Filed under: 2012 Election • Ethnicity • Native Americans • Politics • Race • Who we are
soundoff (984 Responses)
  1. wellie

    Well, if Mitt Romney can classify himself and his family as "immigrants" then I guess this woman can be Native American. Romney's story? His family first fled the U.S. when they decided to take more than one wife (after it became illegal). They fled to Mexico. Then, when Mexico got to volatile – they moved BACK to the U.S. I guess that makes you an "immigrant." To me, it makes you and yours felons.

    September 29, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Report abuse |
  2. davecu

    I get the feeling that this woman, a politician, has never let the truth stand in the way of a good, self-serving lie.

    If the Blackfoot Nation wants here, they're welcome to her.

    September 29, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • dx2718

      She's not a politician. She's a Harvard professor.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:57 am | Report abuse |
      • GregM

        Ah,Ah,Ah.... Did you forget Obama's appointing her as head of the Consumer Protections Agency?

        September 30, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • GregM

      Please tell us what you personally know about Elizabeth Warren? Only three years ago you know she was an economics professor from Harvrad. What is YOUR educational level? Was it Ivy League? Do you think it is a common characteristic of those with massive amounts of education to lie? To me that sounds like someone that doesn't understand what character building education does as they themselves have never had much. But the more education you have the more humble towards other you become, the more self confident, the need to self project decreases, your bottom line beliefs and knowledge are so powerful there is absolutely no need to lie as your knowledge of truth and understanding cnanot really be debated. Those attacking others with this extreme educational level are almost always uneducated themselves.
      BUT...There is however the rare example fo those educated that are purely evil in intent and use their education and knowledge in self serving selfish ways.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
      • Atlas Mason

        Good Lord Greg, do you actually believe that? That is unbelievably naive.

        October 2, 2012 at 2:01 am | Report abuse |
  3. HM8432

    She's only claiming to be Native American so that she can claim SOME Politically Correct multicultural status for her own personal political gain. I'm 1/8 Cherokee, but I'm not going to be running around bragging about it anytime soon; I'm mostly White and proud, so should she.

    September 29, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • GregM

      She is not running around proclaiming anything of the sort. Where did you get that idea? That she is actually running around proclaiming this?????? You just now made a statement in regards to your own ethnic heritage. You know you actually spent more time in doing so than Elizabeth did of her own? All the rest has just been her response to attacks from the very short statement she made just once. Everything you are hearing about is all media hype. Are you a parrot and follow everything you hear or do you actually have your own mind?

      September 30, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Bubba

    Harvard University DID report her in their Federal Statistics reporting as a Native American as well which means they benefited in not only reporting compliance with Federal hiring quotas but they also received Federal dollars because of it, so this was a fraud all the way around if untrue..

    September 29, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • dan

      how do you know all of this information?
      and if she is native american, SO WHAT..
      all of us has some sort of background

      September 30, 2012 at 9:37 am | Report abuse |
  5. JJ

    After reading this, I still do not know whether Warren used her Indian heritage to get anything. If she did not, this is a non-issue.

    September 29, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • dx2718

      She says she did not.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:58 am | Report abuse |
  6. ForGoodOfAll

    The GOP, including Senator Brown is desperate. Desperate times makes for desperate measures = lying, deceiving & cheating. That is what the Republican Party is doing now. That is all they have left to fight. Very pitiful...

    September 29, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
  7. ll

    Scott Brown, Todd Akin, Allen West, Paul Ryan and the rest of the loony right wing tea party base are proving why they are the worst congress in history.

    September 29, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
  8. woody

    Fauxcahontas may not be 1/16th Cherokee but she is 1/1th Elitist Liberal Liar.

    September 29, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
  9. rp

    Senator Brown=1st class loser.

    September 29, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • NativeBornUSA

      Like you?

      October 1, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
  10. jay

    Scott Brown is an idiot for bringing up this ridiculous facade.

    September 29, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
  11. DNA

    She actually does have some of the Cherokee facial characteristics... higher cheekbones, deeper eye sockets, and slightly protruding round chin.
    And regardless, Sen. Brown is an ignorant racist.

    September 29, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Zo0tie

    The term 'native american' appears to be a legal or bureaucratic definition applied to a person for different reasons that have little to do with reality. Just shows where racial politics can take you. I once met a blond blue eyed woman who boasted of 1/10 Cherokee heritage and who absolutely bristled at my comment that "if you scratch a mexican you'll find an indian". All this despite the fact many of my family have the tan skin and straight black hair that defines the per-columbian natives of this land, who by the way were called indians in my old social studies textbook. We came from Texas since before the US border changed. Brown's attack on Warren confuses me. Are we not supposed to vote for her because she is part indian or not vote for her because she 'might' have gained financial advantage because she claimed to be one (she didn't)? If he means the former he's a racist and if the latter he'd better be able to prove it. Otherwise he's a liar.

    September 29, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • ram

      Well said.

      September 29, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
  13. ram

    Oh seriously. I have always "known" I am of Scotch/Irish genetic heritage, by my maiden name, my fair skin and auburn hair with freckles, and my family stories, along with a little research I did online. So if it turns out that my family was wrong and we came from somewhere else, so what, and why would that make me a liar? If her family told her she was part NA cool. For heaven's sake, look at what the article says. It says from what the researchers see she does have the heritage she thought she did, so how about you stop trying to make her out a liar and focus on the issues, Mr. Brown.

    Oh yeah, that is what this is all about. How hateful and nasty to look at someone and say that...wow. If she had said she had slaves in her background would he look at her and say he can tell by looking at her she is lying? How would that go over, you think? How about he stop with the magic, "I see your whole gene sequence" ability he thinks he has and debate the issues he is afraid of. What a bunch of diversionary tactics! This basically says to me that he is afraid that she will win on the issues. What if she had said he didn't look English or whatever he is? He needs to stop attacking her on this nonsense and campaign on issues. Why is anyone putting up with or buying this from him?

    September 29, 2012 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
  14. Really?

    Why don't they just do the Genealogical DNA test? Whole lotta fuss about nothing. As far as her skin color goes, my Godchildren are at least 1/8 Creek, and they are all pale as ghosts. So that skin color thing hold no weight the further down the line you go.

    September 29, 2012 at 11:33 am | Report abuse |
  15. altalks21

    I belive that it's up to the tribes themsevles to determine who is and who isn't Native American but I seem to remember when casinos came around & money started coming in, those who had been livlingwith the tribes were thrown out, if they weren't Native American or didn't have a determined amount of Native American heritage.

    September 29, 2012 at 11:01 am | Report abuse |
  16. corncop

    Does it really matter? The question people should be focusing on is "Which candidate will best represent my interests?" The mixing of nationalities is pervasive throught our population. Very few people can state with absolute certainty and proof that they are 100% anything! Except that when you become a citizen, whether born or by natuaralization, then you are 100% American! This attack in the press and in the campaign is merely a smokescreen to divert the voter's attention and cloud the issues. It is a commonly used political tactic, on both sides. So folks, focus on the issues and the murkiness will melt away. You will soon have a clear picture of what really matters and which candidate best meets your needs! I abhore dirty politics no matter who the mudslinger is.

    September 29, 2012 at 9:08 am | Report abuse |
    • ram

      Well said, corncop. He knows he is in trouble and she isn't backing down on the issues. Since when is it ok to base your campaign on a challenge whether your opponent looks NA enough or what blank she checked? How about running on the issues?

      September 29, 2012 at 11:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Jsmith (not a Republican)

      Yes, it matters. If the person you vote for to represent you is a fraud, who lied about her ancestry to get an advantage in hiring under Affirmative Action, then you have voted for someone without integrity. I would not want such a person to represent me.

      October 1, 2012 at 6:11 am | Report abuse |
      • Tom, Tom, the Other One (also not a Republican)

        Well said Jsmith.

        October 1, 2012 at 11:05 am | Report abuse |
  17. tom jackman

    funny how people can say they are 1/8 this or 1/8 that but if you are 1/8 black the same person calls them black.

    September 29, 2012 at 12:39 am | Report abuse |
  18. Hot Karl

    I read the comments on this article and I'm still amazed at the stupidity of people. Warren is another over paid Harvard loser. She was the one who claimed to be Indian and only brought out when she decided to run for office. Too me, I question her character and integrity because of that move alone. I'm white, but there are rumors in our family that their is some Indian in our blood. Its all hush hush, the older generation doesn't speak of it. That's fine and I don't go making a big deal out of it or would ever consider using such information for my own benefit, whether true or not. Warren deserves all the abuse and criticism she gets for her stupidity in making any claims of Native heritage. I will vote for Scott Brown, not because he's a Repub, but I find him to be more human and genuine then Ms Warren. She has no business being in public office representing me.

    September 28, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • danielwalldammit

      "or would ever consider using such information for my own benefit," No, but you would consider using it to bolster attacks on someone else. Isn't that special.

      September 29, 2012 at 2:09 am | Report abuse |
  19. Jen

    She seriously could have native american in her ancestry. I do. Like she, I don't try to get any benefits or anything. I just know my heratige. I'm an American mix. I call myself a mixican! French, Russian, German, Irish and Blackfoot Indian. My great great grandmother was full Blackfoot Indian. I am white as a ghost so most people would never guess that. I do have great high cheek bones! Thanks to my Native heritage!!

    September 28, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
  20. Sue Farmer

    We are mixed heritage also. I am supposedly 1/16 Shawnee but who knows. We all look more like our English Irish & Dutch ancestry but I am proud of all of my ancestors. They were mostly poor, hardworking folks with distinctive profiles. I don't mark the box but am glad to say I have some Native American blood in the veins! I don't fault Elizabeth for doing so and feel she has that right!

    September 28, 2012 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
    • eldono

      And, I'm about 8% Mayan. BFD.

      September 28, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
  21. Mike

    Scott Brown was an idiot for even bringing this up. I know a lot of people who have 1/8th or 1/16 Native American in them and they make the same claims as Elizabeth Warren. Is it silly? Yes. But on the other hand, who cares?

    September 28, 2012 at 11:22 am | Report abuse |
    • Ty

      as was the call for Mitt's tax returns

      September 28, 2012 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
    • kls817

      Apparently Warren cares. She tried to use her miniscule Indian heritage to get a better job via affirmative action.
      I guess we should all be able to claime some kind of minority status to get special treatment.

      September 28, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
  22. JeffB

    Why is this a campaign issue? How about where they stand on issues like, healthcare, budget, jobs, Medicare, Social Security, Military withdrawal.... Let's agree both Brown and Warren are Native American and get to some real issue for all Americans

    September 28, 2012 at 10:43 am | Report abuse |
  23. tired of lies

    Its called common sense Ms. Warren. My family had a similar rumor of indian blood. While it is actually true, I looked in the mirror and saw blonde hair and blue eyes and knew I could not call myself a Native American. My parents also told me I was the bestest athlete and mostest handsome boy too. I did not put any of that on my law school application.

    Get real, if you did not know it was not true shame on you. You wanted an advantage – just admit it.

    September 28, 2012 at 10:34 am | Report abuse |
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