Sen. Elizabeth Warren directly addressed her Native American heritage in a speech to the National Congress of American Indians on Wednesday in Washington — dealing head-on with claims that have frequently been ridiculed by President Trump and his supporters.
In her speech, the Massachusetts Democrat rebuked Trump’s persistent mockery of her as “Pocahontas” and spoke in greater detail about her family’s history.
“I’ve noticed that every time my name comes up, President Trump likes to talk about Pocahontas,” she told the crowd, according to the prepared text of her speech. “So I figured, let’s talk about Pocahontas.”
Warren spoke first, at length, about the real Pocahontas and how the Native American woman’s life story — particularly her marriage to a Jamestown settler — was twisted into a “fable . . . used to bleach away the stain of genocide.”
Trump’s use of “Pocahontas,” Warren said, was another example of the country’s long history of disrespect toward Native Americans. During the presidential campaign, Trump frequently referred to Warren as “Pocahontas,” a nickname he began using in 2016 to mock her claims to Native American heritage.
Since May 2016, Trump has referred to Warren as “Pocahontas” in at least nine tweets. In November, he invoked the derisive nickname again at a White House event honoring Navajo code talkers who helped the Marines during World War II.
“Now we have a president who can’t make it through a ceremony honoring Native American war heroes without reducing native history, native culture, native people to the butt of a joke,” Warren said Wednesday. “The joke, I guess, is supposed to be on me.”
Warren added that she understood why “some people think there’s hay to be made” with regards to her background, because she wasn’t enrolled in a tribe — a distinction she said she respected.
“I understand that tribal membership is determined by tribes — and only by tribes,” Warren said. “I never used my family tree to get a break or get ahead. I never used it to advance my career.”
Warren has cited family stories to claim Cherokee and Delaware Indian heritage, and her background has been publicly questioned since at least 2012.
In 2016, The Washington Post’s Fact Checker declined to assign a rating to Trump calling Warren a liar for claiming Native American ancestry, saying:
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. 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.
On Wednesday, Warren did not shy away from again stating that she was partly of Native American descent.
She said her paternal grandparents had been “bitterly opposed” to her parents’ relationship because her mother’s family was part Native American, though Warren did not provide further details about their background. She said her parents eloped in 1932 and remained married for 63 years.
“They’re gone, but the love they shared, the struggles they endured, the family they built and the story they lived will always be a part of me,” Warren said. “And no one — not even the president of the United States — will ever take that part of me away.”
Warren told the gathering of Native American leaders that she would fight against “our country’s mistreatment of your communities.”
In the second half of her speech, she again took aim at Trump, for hanging a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office — and, in doing so, “honoring a man who did his best to wipe out native people.”
“For far too long, your story has been pushed aside, to be trotted out only in cartoons and commercials,” Warren said. “Every time someone brings up my family’s story, I’m going to use it to lift up the story of your families and your communities.”
Founded in 1944, the National Congress of American Indians represents American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and advocates for indigenous rights. Warren was speaking at the group’s policy summit in Washington, which also included appearances by several other members of Congress.
Warren’s speech, however, did not appear to be listed in the summit’s published agenda.
Her remarks were immediately criticized by the Republican Party, which issued a response Wednesday in an official GOP email with the subject line, “Fauxcahontas Keeps Digging.”
“She failed to apologize to the actual Native Americans in the audience and continued to insist that she really is a Native American, despite the long list of evidence that indicates otherwise,” the GOP email stated.
The email also questioned why Warren “stopped claiming minority status once she made it to the Ivy League in the 1990s,” referring to a directory of law professors that listed her as a minority from 1986 to 1995, just before she joined Harvard Law School.
Warren was recruited to the Harvard position, according to her spokeswoman, Kristen Orthman.
Charles Fried, a Harvard law professor who helped hire Warren to the school’s faculty, told the Associated Press in 2012 that any idea that Warren got her position there because of a minority status was “totally stupid, ignorant, uninformed and simply wrong.”
“I presented her case to the faculty,” Fried told the AP then. “I did not mention her Native American connection, because I did not know about it.”