Elizabeth Warren used her recent address at the National Congress of American Indians to address long-standing criticisms of her claims of Native American heritage.
“You won’t find my family members on any rolls, and I’m not enrolled in a tribe,” she said, conceding that there are no tribal records of her family belonging to the Cherokee. “And I want to make something clear. I respect that distinction. I understand that tribal membership is determined by tribes — and only by tribes. I never used my family tree to get a break or get ahead. I never used it to advance my career.”
But she also insisted that she does have part Native American lineage. “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.”
She used the rest of the speech to highlight issues important to Native populations, such as economic deprivation, environmental degradation, and stopping interpersonal violence against Native peoples.
Her speech was applauded by at least two critics of Warren’s claim of Native heritage.
Rebecca Nagle is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who works on domestic violence issues, as well as other activism. Last year, she wrote an op-ed for ThinkProgress that was critical of the Massachusetts senator. “She is not a hero because, despite claiming to be the only Native woman in the U.S. Senate, she has done nothing to advance our rights,” she wrote.
In an interview with The Intercept, Nagle gave Warren credit for addressing issues important to Native Americans. “I would say overall I think that this speech was a step in the right direction,” she said, “and I hope that she continues to walk in that direction. I also hope that people [will] hold her accountable in that direction.”
The activist appreciated how Warren focused on the underlying issues in the community, rather than simply focusing on herself. “I think her reframing the conversation and instead of centering herself, centering Native people, was a really good step in the right direction. I also think that the other thing she did that was positive was making a clear commitment to prioritize Native issues,” she said. “I think we’ll have to watch and see if she makes good on that promise. But I think that commitment is a good step in the right direction. And also clearly building relationships with Native leaders.”
Nagle would, however, encourage Warren to simply withdraw her claim of being of Native heritage. “I think that’s an area where she has more steps to take,” she said. “I think [her remarks were] a step in the right direction, and it almost seems like she is saving the hardest part for last, which was admitting that she was wrong. … I actually think there’s a lot of opportunity for Warren to be a public example of that. I would totally have nothing but respect for her if she was able to publicly come out and say, ‘I was told these stories as a child, I grew up with them, I believed them most of my life, but I’ve learned more, not only about Native identity, but also my family, and have learned that they’re not based in reality. And that I can’t claim these things.’ I would have a lot of respect for her. And I have a little bit of hope that that might happen.”
Tom Bonier, meanwhile, had been quoted in a Boston Globe article, predating her speech, suggesting Warren apologize for her claim. Bonier had been asked specifically to respond to Nagle’s column. Bonier is the CEO of TargetSmart, a data firm that does the bulk of its political work with the Democratic National Committee, having been paid $1.05 million just this cycle.
Xochitl Hinojosa, communications director for the DNC, distanced the organization from the comments when they first appeared. “TargetSmart does not do polling for the DNC, they do not lead strategy for the DNC, and they do not speak for the DNC,” she told The Intercept. “Elizabeth Warren has been a tireless champion in the Senate for the American people and any suggestion otherwise is ludicrous.”
Now that Warren is leaning into her heritage, Bonier applauded the approach. “I loved her speech. I loved how she addressed it all head-on. I’m interested to see how leaders in various Native American communities respond,” he told The Intercept. “And to be clear, when I spoke with the reporter, she told me that it had been proven that Warren had no Native American heritage. So I appreciate that Warren addressed that head-on as well.”
On the night of Warren’s speech, she also mingled with conference-goers at a private cocktail reception, and delivered a truncated version of the message, which was well received, said Deb Haaland, an enrolled member of Laguna Pueblo, who is running in a New Mexico district.
Update: Feb. 16, 2018
This story was updated to include Warren’s speech at a private event following her speech.