The revelation that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass.) previously identified as Native American is troublesome, and not just because she misrepresented who she is.
A Washington Post investigation found that Warren listed her race as American Indian on her registration for the Texas bar. That information was used for statistical purposes, not to receive an opportunity or benefit designated for Native Americans. As The Washington Post reported:
Warren has been trying for the past year to get past the lingering controversy over her past assertion that she is Native American.
In addition to the DNA test, she released employment documents over the summer to show she didn’t use ethnicity to further her career. And in a speech a year ago she addressed her decision to call herself a Native American, though she didn’t offer the apology that some wanted at the time.
But as Warren undergoes increased scrutiny as a presidential candidate, additional documents could surface to keep the issue alive.
Warren previously said she identified as Native American because of family lore passed down to her from Oklahoma relatives. But after repeated taunts from President Trump — and pushback from the Native American community — Warren tried to prove her ethnicity late last year by releasing a DNA report claiming Native American heritage.
The effort was poorly received. It displayed her ignorance about how membership in Native American communities is determined. And the statement raised larger concerns among people of color about using science and DNA tests to determine racial and ethnic identity.
Warren apologized to a leader of the Cherokee Nation last year for the test. After The Post article, she also told reporters she was "sorry for furthering confusion on tribal sovereignty and tribal citizenship and harm that resulted.”
But some activists are demanding a more public approach. “Senator Warren caused a great deal of confusion with a republic that already doesn’t know a lot about tribal sovereignty and how our tribes function," Rebecca Nagle, an activist and writer, said on CNN on Wednesday. "Private apologies do nothing to clear up that public confusion. And because of the harm she’s caused, she owes us a public apology and clear statement of why she’s not Cherokee and why that difference matters.”
David Cornsilk, a historian and genealogist who is also a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, told The Post: “I want to see it in writing. I want her to go on national TV. I want her to do a video like she did to announce her DNA results. It just seemed very lacking.”
Activists say, too, that the Warren story points to a bigger issue: that the story about Native Americans that has attracted the most attention over the past year appears to be centered on a white woman.
Issues such as Native American voter suppression, environmental crises on reservations, opioid addiction within Native communities, and the prevalence of sexual assault and violence against Native women have all made headlines. But they have not received the sustained attention that Warren’s ancestry has.
Rep. Deb Haaland (D.-N.M.), one of the first Native American woman elected to Congress, previously told me that the attention on Warren’s past is a distraction from issues that are more concerning to Native Americans communities, such as their lower-than-average graduation rates and concerns about college affordability.
“We need to be talking about the need for more scholarships in Indian country and education opportunities," she told The Fix. "There are so many things we could be talking about to move our country forward.”
Now that Warren has apologized, she will have to make the case that her grasp of issues affecting Americans of color is deeper than it was when she identified as a Native American. Given the last couple of months, that may to be a very hard sell.