— Trump, campaign rally in Virginia, June 10, 2016
This article has been updated
Donald Trump likes to give nicknames to his critics, and one of his favorite nicknames for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is “Pocahontas,” which he has been using on and off in recent weeks. On June 27, the first time Warren and Hillary Clinton spoke together at a campaign rally since Warren endorsed Clinton earlier this month, Trump re-upped this nickname.
Trump is referring to Warren’s self-proclaimed Native American heritage, which we and many other news outlets covered extensively when it came up during Warren’s 2012 run for Senate. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s supporters have already caught on to the nickname:
Since this issue is resurfacing and likely will continue doing so as Warren stumps for Clinton, we wanted to provide for our readers a refresher of this issue from four years ago. Our goal is not to relitigate the matter, but to compile major findings from some of the most extensive reporting done on the issue.
Warren faced intense scrutiny of her purported Native American heritage after her Republican opponent and then-Senate incumbent Scott Brown used her claims to question her integrity. Brown aired ads questioning Warren’s background and attacked her during a debate over this issue.
Warren has claimed Cherokee and Delaware Indian heritage, citing family stories. She did not have any documentation of her Native American ancestry to prove it, even though Cherokee groups demanded it.
For weeks, Warren struggled to own the narrative, giving more fodder to her opponents. Our colleagues on The Fix wrote in detail the twists and turns of her response, including a reference to a relative’s “high cheekbones” at one point. Warren explained that “being Native American has been a part of my story, I guess since the day I was born, I don’t know any other way to describe it.”
A genealogist at the New England Historic Genealogical Society initially had said there was documented evidence that Warren was 1/32 American Indian, alluding to a family newsletter that had indicated her great-great-great grandmother was Cherokee, the Boston Globe reported early in the controversy. But this point was later corrected, as neither the Globe nor the genealogical society had proven the existence of that document.
Exhaustive reporting by several different outlets surfaced no official documentation that Warren was Cherokee. But whether Warren is fractionally of Native American descent — especially if the fraction is something like 1/32 — is hard to prove without a DNA test. And even positive DNA results would not be useful for tribal affiliation or to obtain a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood, according to a report in the Atlantic:
“None of this to say that a Cherokee citizen couldn’t look like Warren. Though it confounds many people’s expectations, the Cherokee Nation considers being Cherokee as much an ethnicity as anything racial, and given the tribe’s centuries-long history of intermarriage there are many Cherokee citizens today who do not look stereotypically Native American. As well, “there are a lot of folks who are legitimately Cherokee who are not eligible for citizenship,” said [Lenzy] Krehbiel-Burton, [spokeswoman for the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma] because, for example, their ancestors lived in distant states or territories when the rolls were drawn up, or because they are direct descendants of people left off the rolls for other reasons.“
[Update, Oct. 15, 2018: In response to a challenge by President Trump that she take a DNA test proving her heritage, Warren released a DNA test that suggests she has a distant Native American ancestor. A report distributed by Warren concludes that there is “strong evidence” that the senator had Native American ancestry in her family tree dating back six to 10 generations. Much of the media reporting on the test was wrong so please also read our fact check on the test results.]
Brown had accused Warren of using distant Native American ties to gain an unfair advantage in getting hired to coveted faculty jobs at Harvard Law School and University of Pennsylvania Law School. He said in a debate during the 2012 campaign: “[Warren] checked the box. She had an opportunity, actually, to make a decision throughout her career. When she applied to Penn and Harvard, she checked the box claiming she was Native American, and, you know, clearly she’s not.”
The Fact Checker dug deeply into Brown’s claim from the September 2012 debate, and awarded Two Pinocchios. We found no proof that she ever marked a form to tell the schools about her heritage, nor any public evidence that the universities knew about her lineage before hiring her. (Update: In August, 2018, Warren made her personnel files available to the Boston Globe, in an effort to show that ethnicity was not a factor in her rise as a law professor.)
Still, we found that Warren’s relying on family lore rather than official documentation to make an ethnic claim raised serious concerns about Warren’s judgment. Indeed, she even submitted recipes to a Native American cookbook called “Pow Wow Chow,” published in 1984 by the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee, Okla. She signed her entries “Elizabeth Warren — Cherokee.”In September 2012, the Boston Globe tracked down members of Warren’s family to corroborate her claim. But family members offered mixed opinions. The Globe wrote: “In the absence of documentation, the family’s link to any Native American tribe is a matter of narrative inheritance or folklore, as Warren puts it. Even if Warren has some degree of Native American blood, it is unclear if it would meet conventional standards of what constitutes a minority.”
In her 2014 book, “A Fighting Chance,” Warren wrote about the controversy over her heritage:
“I never questioned my family’s stories or asked my parents for proof or documentation. What kid would? … I was stunned by the attacks. How do you prove who you are? My brothers and I knew who we were. We knew our family stories. But the Republicans demanded documentation and, back at the turn of the century, nobody in my family had registered any tribal affiliation. In Oklahoma, that was pretty common. But knowing who you are is one thing, and proving who you are is another.”
This explanation is consistent with her response in her 2012 campaign ad responding to Brown’s attacks.
There is no indication Warren has provided any new documentation or explanation after the release of her 2014 book that changes earlier reporting, and there was no new information provided to The Fact Checker from her staff for an update. But Warren did respond to Trump’s comments in May 2016 on Twitter:
The Bottom Line
Trump is resurfacing an issue that has been researched extensively by The Fact Checker and many other news outlets, who all came to the same conclusion: There is no documented proof of Warren’s self-proclaimed, partial Native American heritage, which experts have noted is difficult to prove to begin with. Warren has maintained since 2012 that this is an issue of family lore.
While some of Trump’s claims are perplexing from a fact-checking standpoint because there is little factual evidence, this is an issue that has been written about to great extent since 2012. We actually know what Trump is referring to in this case, and through our refresher have compiled the main findings. We will not rate Trump’s claim, but urge readers to look into it on their own and decide whether Trump’s attacks over Warren’s background have merit.
Editor’s Note, Nov. 30, 2017: In light of a critical article in The Federalist, we wanted to further explain why we decided not to offer a rating. Ultimately, we found that family members had mixed opinions and Warren has said she was citing family lore, which made it hard to rule one way or the other that Trump was justified in calling her a liar. We did note that the issue raised “serious questions about Warren’s judgment.” Moreover, given that The Fact Checker had already delved deeply into the issue during her 2012 campaign, this article was intended more to explain to the public the origin of Trump’s attacks.
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