The Slatest

Elizabeth Warren Addresses (but Doesn’t Apologize for) Contested Claims of Native Ancestry in Surprise Speech

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

Donald Trump’s inappropriate habit of referring to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” is a reference to the allegation, first raised during her 2012 Senate campaign, that Warren attested to a Native American heritage that doesn’t exist in order to advance herself through affirmative action. While there continues to be no evidence that Warren ever asked for or received any ethnicity-based preference in an admissions or hiring process, she has claimed partial Cherokee ancestry of which no genealogical documentation has ever been found in a variety of public forums throughout her life. (You can click here to read a 2015 Slate piece about why so many Americans believe, with no proof, that they have “Cherokee blood.”)

The issue is one of the only red flags on Warren’s résumé from the perspective of voters and activists on the left, and on Wednesday, she addressed it in more detail than she ever has before in a surprise speech at a National Congress of American Indians event in Washington, D.C. Warren didn’t apologize for or retract her past claims per se—in fact, she asserted that “my mother’s family was part Native American.” But she acknowledged implicitly that this belief is supported only by family lore and does not meet many others’ standards of what it means to be a member of a Native community:

I get why some people think there’s hay to be made here. You won’t find my family members on any rolls, and I’m not enrolled in a tribe.

And I want to make something clear. I respect that distinction. I understand that tribal membership is determined by tribes — and only by tribes.

The biographical section of her speech seemed to be an attempt to turn the issue of contested heritage into an opportunity to explain why the story her mother and father told about themselves (including the part of it that’s about ancestry) remains important to her:

But my mother’s family was part Native American. And my daddy’s parents were bitterly opposed to their relationship. So, in 1932, when Mother was 19 and Daddy had just turned 20, they eloped.

Together, they survived the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. They saved up to buy a home. They raised my three older brothers, and they watched as each one headed off to serve in the military. After Daddy had a heart attack and was out of work, after we lost the family station wagon and it looked like we would lose our house and everything would come crashing down, my mother put on her best dress and walked to the Sears and got a minimum-wage job. That minimum-wage job saved our house and saved our family.

My parents struggled. They sacrificed. They paid off medical debts for years. My daddy ended up as a janitor. … They’re gone, but the love they shared, the struggles they endured, the family they built, and the story they lived will always be a part of me. And no one — not even the president of the United States — will ever take that part of me away.

You’ll note that Warren interspersed references to personal and group identity with references to challenges like debt and low wages that she believes unite Americans across lines of race and gender. It’s the same technique she deployed in a high-profile August 2017 speech about social justice, and it’s one that we’ll presumably see used on the campaign trail if she decides to run in 2020. But Warren also promised to be active on issues of specific interest to Native Americans, saying that, “I’m here today to make a promise: Every time someone brings up my family’s story, I’m going to use it to lift up the story of your families and your communities” and naming goals related to land protection and the availability of credit and broadband access in Native population centers, among others.

As for whether any of this will be seen as meaningful by the people who have something at stake in the discussion, it’s obviously too early to say, but for what it’s worth Indian Country Today says Warren got a standing ovation, while political reporters, including those at her hometown Boston Globe, seem to think her remarks were A Big Deal. (Right-wing Twitter was, predictably, unimpressed.)