Her claims set off a controversy in the campaign, one of the most closely watched races in the country. A Boston Globe poll released Sunday showed Warren leading Brown by 43 percent to 38 percent. Eighteen percent were undecided.
Brown brought Warren’s lineage back into the spotlight with his remarks in a Sept. 20 debate and in an ad using old news accounts to renew skepticism about his opponent’s ancestral claims. The two politicians will meet for their second debate Monday.
Warren responded with an ad of her own, saying: “As a kid I never asked my mom for documentation when she talked about our Native American heritage. What kid would?”
Brown has apologized for staff members doing the “tomahawk chop” outside a political rally. And Warren has aired a campaign ad explaining that she never benefited personally from her claim of Cherokee and Delaware heritage.
This political soap opera playing out on the East Coast has triggered a robust conversation among Native Americans across the country — some of whom feel that their culture has become a political football.
“Nationally, it just looks ridiculous,” said Weahkee, who has been following the race with interest and more than a little chagrin.
Warren’s assertion of her family’s history has tapped into a larger issue for Native Americans around the murky understanding of ancestry. They have watched a growing number of people embrace Native American heritage in a steady demographic trend.
From 1960 to 1990, the number of Americans claiming to be American Indians more than tripled to 1.8 million, according to census figures. In the 2000 Census, which for the first time allowed people to mark more than one race, 4.1 million Americans said they were at least partly Native American.
In Oklahoma, where Warren is from, her story came as no surprise, said Amanda Clinton, spokeswoman for the Cherokee Nation.
“This is a very common claim,” said Clinton, who noted that Cherokee citizens must be directly descended from tribal members listed on the Dawes Rolls between 1898 and 1914. Warren’s family is not found there.
“However, we do not feel it is the tribe’s place to second-guess someone’s family tree,” she said. “There is a big difference between citizenship and heritage.”
Tribes have differing criteria for membership, some with “blood quantum” requirements specifying minimum degrees of ancestry. Others, such as the Cherokees, do not — but tribal members must trace their direct lineage to someone on an earlier tribal membership roll. Tribes issue their members identification cards, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs issues Certificates of Degree of Indian Blood.