While tribal citizenry and membership are important they still aren’t enough to make one Indigenous.
By Jen Deerinwater
When I first heard that Senator Elizabeth Warren was Tsalagi (Cherokee) I was beyond excited. What a blessing it was to finally have a Native senator and one from my tribal nation at that. However, after looking further into her claims I realized that she simply wasn’t Tsalagi. She was merely another pretendian trying to spice up her white bread life through false claims to an experience she’s never had.
Sen. Warren’s claims to the Cherokee and Delaware nations first came to light during her 2012 race for Senate seat in Massachusetts. It brewed a storm of controversy and anti-Native hate speech from then Sen. Scott Brown that still has not ceased. Since running for office, President Trump and his followers have repeatedly used racial slurs such as “squaw” and “Pocahontas” to disparage Warren for her lies. While Trump’s comments are a slap in the face to all Indigenous women, so are Warren’s false claims of Indigeniety.
In 2010, Native People represented approximately 1.7% of the U.S. population. There are many non-Natives, particularly those of Oklahoma, who have been told stories of great-great-great-grandmas who were “Cherokee princesses.” My mom, who is white, has told me that we might have Native ancestry in her family, but thankfully she knows not to claim a nation and community that is not her own. My Tsalagi roots are through my father and I would never claim Indigeniety via my mom based off little more than family tales.
David Cornsilk (United Keetowah Band of Cherokee Indians and Cherokee Nation) is a Cherokee genealogist and historian who has reviewed the research by Twila Barnes on Warren’s family tree. According to Cornsilk, Warren is neither Cherokee nor Delaware. Between 1817 and 1909 there were 30 rolls taken of the Cherokee people by the federal, states, local, and tribal governments. “Cherokees are among the best documented people in the world, right up there with European royalty and Mormons.” If a genuinely Tsalagi person doesn’t have ancestors on the Dawes Roll their direct and collateral ancestors will still be in one and often more of the rolls.
None of Warren’s direct or collateral ancestors are on the rolls. “Either her family went POOF and every sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent, cousin, niece and nephew just disappeared from the Cherokee records or logic says they never were Cherokees and that (sic) why they aren’t there” said Cornsilk.
Cornsilk went on to say that Warren is not eligible for, nor has made an effort to receive, a certification that the Cherokee Nation offers to those who aren’t eligible for tribal enrollment, but whose family are listed on the rolls.
While tribal citizenry and membership are important they still aren’t enough to make one Indigenous. Participation in our tribal nations, clans, and communities are of vital importance to the survival of our people. Being Indigenous, specifically Tsalagi, is about who we are as a people-our language, food, ceremonies, and culture. It’s about our ancestors who survived the Trail Where We Cried, the colonization of our ancestral and Indian Territory (now present day Oklahoma) lands, boarding schools, prisons, rape as a tool of genocide, and many other indignities we still suffer from today.
“We have a saying in our tribe, It’s really hard to be Cherokee by yourself” Cornsilk told me. Warren hasn’t participated in ceremonies, visited the nation’s capital of Tahlequah, or “even written a single missive to our tribe.” Warren has no connection to the Tsalagi People.
Amber Hampton (Tsalagi), resident of Boston and a constituent of Warren’s, told me that she was “on the fence” about Warren because there are many Natives whose tribal ties were destroyed by the colonizer, but after hearing her speak at the 2017 Massachusetts State Democratic Convention, she knew better. Hampton was serving as an add-on delegate for the convention when Warren praised Massachusetts for being the home of the pilgrims. She said that it “made me feel hurt and upset. That’s when I accepted she is not one of us.”
I was once a constituent of Warren’s and have heard speak a number of times. I watched her at events for Democratic women only citing statistics of oppression for white women while ignoring the plight of Indigenous Women. I served as a Delegate for three Massachusetts State Democratic Conventions. At the 2014 convention I stood in the packed DCU Center in Worcester, MA and watched in disgust as she praised the founding fathers. Regardless of political party and beliefs, I have never heard an Indigenous Person with tribal ties praise the founding fathers.
This week, at the National Congress of the American Indian (NCAI) event Warren claimed that she never used her family to get ahead professionally. While this may be true, the fact remains that Harvard University — which only hired there first Native professor this year — claimed her as a Native law professor. This sets a dangerous precedent. When a non-Native, who has never experienced, survived, nor overcome the over 500 years of settler colonialism to earn an education and the social capital required to access a professorship, receives credit as an Indigenous hire, then all Native People suffer. The scant funding, services, education, and employment for Natives should only go to Natives. As Cornsilk pointed out, the false claims of Indigeniety also keeps white settlers from taking responsibility for their ancestors genocidal actions.
Until recently, she has not once used her privilege to support the Native community, nor explained the damage being done by Trump’s use of Pocahontas — an actual Indigenous girl who was kidnapped, raped, and sexually trafficked by white men — to insult her. In her speech this week, she finally held Trump responsible for his deplorable behavior and spoke about the myriad of issues Native People are still suffering to this day. While I appreciate some of her words and support of Savanna’s Act, she still claimed to be “Native American” despite there being no records of her lineage: “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,” stated Warren.
Despite this she doubled down on her claim: “But my mother’s family was part Native American. And my daddy’s parents were bitterly opposed to their relationship,” she said. “So, in 1932, when Mother was 19 and Daddy had just turned 20, they eloped.”
I have to wonder what her motivations were in this. Is she attempting to earn good press and support for a 2020 presidential bid? Is this simply the manipulative politics I so often witnessed from elected officials, including Democrats? Regardless of her motives and good doing, she still harmed Native People.
During the NCAI reception I approached Warren for questions and I asked her what she is doing about the violence Indigenous Women suffer, to which she responded that Savanna’s Act needs to be passed. “This is a plague that has hit our tribal communities and it is important that we put in strong and effective federal laws into place and that we put in the resources to reinforce them,” she stated.
The sad truth is that if Warren were actually Tsalagi she would understand that the violence our women are suffering isn’t new. Tsalagi women were raped by white settlers and members of the United States military were actively encouraged to rape us. This was part of an attempt to dilute our blood and ultimately our claims to land and resources. She would also have understand why the federal government is something to be feared, not lauded after for protection.
Despite being the darling of liberal Democrats, Warren stood silent during the fight to end the Dakota Access Pipeline and to the brutalities many of us faced at the hands of law enforcement. When asked about the connection to resource extraction and violence against women she replied “I think what we’ve got to do is put in the kind of attention and a kind of respect that it takes to hear from Native communities about what has gone wrong and where we can make a difference to ensure the safety of Native communities.”
So why wasn’t she listening to the Standing Rock Sioux, Cheyenne River Sioux, and other tribal nations within the path of the pipeline when they asked for help? Natives don’t turn our back on those in need. Despite the many pains they were suffering after their removal, the Choctaw Nation donated money to Ireland when they were experiencing the potato famine. These are the actions of true Natives.
For my final questions I asked Warren about her claims to the Cherokee Nation. “I know who my family is and no one is going to take that away from me” she replied with a smile. Senator Warren, I know who your family is too and they aren’t Tsalagi.
Author Bio: Jen Deerinwater is an out and proud Bisexual, Two Spirit, Hard Femme, multiply-Disabled, and is mixed race Tsalagi-a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. After several years spent in the trenches of American politics, you can now find her stirring the pot of radical discourse online. Follow her musings and soapbox rants on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.