The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Warren is not a mere pretender to Indian ancestry

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks during a town-hall gathering in Woburn, Mass., on Aug. 8. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Identity is complex, and Native American identity is especially so. There are at least six distinct, if overlapping, ways in which someone might “be” an American Indian. Three of these stand out. Indian identity can be a political matter, as with other forms of citizenship, limited to people officially enrolled as members of a recognized sovereign Indian tribe. Indian identity can also be ethnic — a form of belonging marked by some combination of culture, solidarity and ancestry. Or Indian identity might be a matter of family lore. Vine Deloria Jr., the Native American scholar and activist, wrote trenchantly almost 50 years ago about how many white Americans proudly proclaim their Indian ancestry — usually via a grandmother. He thought it had something to do with the myth of the “Indian princess” and the scarcity of actual royal lineage among European settlers in America.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) does not claim to “be” an Indian politically or (at least now) ethnically. But her family passed down traditions about an Indian ancestor, as many families do. In her case, though, a DNA test suggested there was truth to the story. That’s not profound, but it does mean that she’s not a mere pretender.

Perry Dane, Wynnewood, Pa.

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