What’s Really at Stake in the Debate over Sen. Warren’s Claim to Native American Heritage

National Indian Gaming Association chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr. talks with Senator Elizabeth Warren prior to her speech before NCAI”s general assembly. Native News Online photo by Levi Rickert

Guest Commentary

Published February 25, 2018

On Wednesday, February 14, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren delivered a surprise address to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). While Warren has faced wide criticism for claiming contested Cherokee heritage, on Wednesday she promised to champion a policy agenda for Indian Country. In her speech, she stated, “Our stories are deeply woven into the fabric of who we are. The stories of immigrants and slaves, of explorers and refugees, have shaped and reshaped our country right up to the present day. For far too long, your [Native American’s] story has been pushed aside, to be trotted out only in cartoons and commercials.”

On that point, I couldn’t agree with Warren more. I strongly believe that the stories that are told about Native Americans (and not told) have a profound impact on our rights in this country. Which is why when I read the news articles and the comment threads about Warren’s contested Cherokee identity, I find cause for deep concern. If we take Warren out of the picture and just examine the content of the debate, what non-Native people are concluding about Native identity is deeply troubling.

As an example, on Thursday a Boston Globe reporter wrote this about her own family’s stories of Cherokee ancestry. “If the family stories are true, my mom would be 1/64th Cherokee, about 1.56 percent. That number is so small that it’s possible it would not show up in her genetic material at all… My mom also says her DNA test identified a small percentage of her blood as East Asian, which she believed could be a mismatch of the Cherokee.”

Rather than Americans learning about the importance of tribal sovereignty and community identification from this controversy, most non-Native Americans are walking away with the messy conclusion that Native identity is determined by things like self identification, family stories, and DNA tests. And, unfortunately these misconceptions about Native identity have a profound impact on Native rights. To make my point, I would like to focus on one issue that both the left and right have ignorantly used: blood quantum.

In the early 20th Century, the US government no longer wanted to fulfill its treaty obligations to Native Americans that included health services, education and land protection. Congress created a plan for American Indians to breed ourselves out, by not only inventing blood quantum but by forcing Tribes to include strict blood quantum minimums in their constitutions by “terminating” tribes that didn’t. At the time, US lawmakers estimated it would take three generations to “solve the Indian problem”.

Rebecca Nagle

While blood quantum minimums for enrollment are no longer mandated by the federal government (each of our tribes determines its own enrollment criteria), blood quantum remains an in-extractible part of contemporary Native life. Most Americans still believe that Native authenticity can be measured like slices of a pie.

In the Warren debate, conscious and unconscious invocations of blood quantum abound. Warren repeatedly claims (including in her speech to NCAI) she or her family are “part Native American.” Her critics echo her own words by saying she is only a “fraction Native American at most.”

The real harm is not to Warren. The harm is to legitimately Native people who are carelessly lumped with Warren in the ever growing category of not-Native-enough. While the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma was fighting the illegal adoption of an Indian child named Lexi by a White family, Co-Founder of Vice Magazine Gavin McInnes wrote, “Remember how outraged we were when Elizabeth Warren used her alleged 1/32nd Native American status to take advantage of affirmative-action laws? She’s about twice as Indian as Lexi.”

The Indian Child Welfare Act was created in the 1970s when one-in-three Native children were being raised by non-Native families through a racist and predatory child welfare system. Indian Country lost a generation of our children. Present day conservatives have mounted a full frontal legal attack in the attempt to get ICWA declared unconstitutional. They use arguments about blood quantum in the press to attack ICWA and because most Americans still believe the myths their government manufactured to get rid of us, its working.

I don’t need a law degree to know that blood quantum was legally and factually irrelevant to the Baby Veronica Supreme Court Case. And yet the first sentence of the majority decision that ruled against the rights of Native Nations is this: “This case is about a little girl (Baby Girl) who is classified as an Indian because she is 1.2 percent (3/256) Cherokee.”

What matters more to me in this public debate than the future of Senator Warren, is what the non-Native American public takes away about Native identity. Myths about Native Americans, such as blood quantum, need no grounding in reality to pass Congress, to rule the Supreme Court, and to limit our rights.

Beyond the policies Warren is rightfully promising to advance for Indian Country, she has a real opportunity to help change the public narrative. While she cannot control every ignorant comment that is made in her defense or her attack, she has power, more than anyone else, to stop it. She could be the teaching moment America desperately needs by simply and humbly admitting she was wrong.

Rebecca Nagle is a citizen of Cherokee Nation and a writer and organizer living in Tahlequah, OK. 

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