More than 200 members of the Cherokee Nation and other Native American tribes have issued a sternly worded letter to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) presidential campaign, demanding that either she explain her comments about having Native American — and, specifically, Cherokee — ancestry or retract her claims altogether.
“Dubious” claims to Native American ancestry have haunted tribes for decades and, the Los Angeles Times reports, “more than $800 million in government contracts reserved for minorities instead went to companies set up by members of groups with dubious claims to being Cherokee and Creek Indian tribes.”
Many of those claims stem from false or faulty family lore that includes “evidence” of Native American ancestry and results from commercially available DNA tests, which, as in Warren’s case, often show scant amounts of “Native American DNA” that could come from native populations located anywhere in North or South America.
“Your history of false claims to American Indian identity and the defense of these claims with a highly publicized DNA test continue to dog your political career,” the group writes. “For Native Americans, this moment is more than an annoyance; it represents the most public debate about our identity in a generation. In a country where Indigenous people are mostly invisible, what Americans conclude from this debate will impact Native rights for years to come.”
They then go on to accuse Warren of normalizing the process of “stealing” Native American ancestry to gain some form of notoriety or access to benefits reserved for Native Americans — reserved as a form of restitution for the history of mistreatment at the hands of the United States government.
“When you still defend yourself by stating you believed what you heard growing up, you set a harmful example for these white people stealing Native identity and resources with stories very similar to your own,” the group says.
Warren says she did not benefit from claiming Native American ancestry, but that is in question. Harvard Law School listed Warren as a member of a minority group in official publications, and Warren listed “Native American” as her ethnicity on her application for the Bar. At various times, Warren has spoken about her family’s history with the Cherokee nation — often using racist stereotypes, like “high cheekbones,” associated with Cherokee ancestry — as evidence of her family’s Native American DNA. She also, often, pointed to a family cookbook called “Pow Wow Chow,” to which Warren contributed a definitely-not-indigeneous recipe for crab salad.
The claims — and a subsequent DNA test that revealed Warren to be no more than 1/64th indigenous — earned Warren the moniker “Fauxcahontas.”
Warren responded to the letter late Tuesday, apologizing for her past claims of Native American ancestry.
“I was wrong to have identified as a Native American, and, without qualification or excuse, I apologize,” Warren said, though she did not, as requested, explicitly retract her claims. She also distanced herself from contract abuse, saying that her “situation differs from these cases because I never benefited [from Native American ancestry] financially or professionally.”
Leaders of the group that issued the letter noticed that Warren’s apology did not include a retraction. They told the LA Times that it’s clear Warren has “made an effort” to address the injustice but that they “hope that after further dialogue with the campaign, Warren will bravely and publicly tell the truth about her family.”