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After new document is revealed, Warren struggles with questions of identity

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) apologized for "not being more sensitive" to the distinction between Native American ancestry and tribal membership. (Video: Reuters)

Elizabeth Warren was a law professor at the University of Texas when she filled out a form from the state bar that asked her to list her race. Her answer, printed in careful block letters: “American Indian.”

Thirty-three years later — and days before the official launch of her presidential run — that newly disclosed document has emerged as a political flash point, forcing Warren to reckon with a question that has been dogging her for years and that she has never put to rest: why, through much of her life and legal career, she claimed to be Native American despite being white.

By Wednesday, after the bar registration card was published by The Washington Post, Warren faced new doubts about her viability in the presidential race, as activists and strategists evaluated how much damage the issue might do — especially given Democrats’ focus on finding a candidate who can defeat President Trump — and what she might do to move past it.

Liberal activists have long described cultural appropriation as hurtful, since someone is assuming the identity of a group without having faced the suffering or discrimination that group endured. The question is whether Democratic primary voters will punish Warren for actions for which she has apologized.

“This was about 30 years ago,” said Warren, when asked Wednesday why she filled out the bar form. She explained that as a girl in Oklahoma she’d learned stories about her family history from her parents and siblings, leading her to believe the family was Native American. “But that said, there really is an important distinction of tribal citizenship,”

For Democrats, the issue was long eclipsed by anger at Trump’s ridicule of Warren, especially his use of the nickname “Pocahontas.” But Warren’s presidential run, coming as she has struggled to explain her past claims of Native American identity, has prompted some Democrats to take a harder look at her own actions.

The matter now threatens to overshadow the image Warren has sought to foster of a truth-telling consumer advocate who would campaign for the White House as a champion for the working class. Instead, she is now seeking to combat the portrait of someone who for years was insufficiently sensitive to a long-oppressed minority. The matter also is arising at a time when issues of racial and cultural identity are increasingly sensitive in the Democratic Party.

Adding to Warren’s troubles are her fumbling efforts in recent months to get ahead of the issue. Many activists complained when she released the results of a DNA test showing she had a distant ancestor who was Native American. Warren apologized by phone last week to Bill John Baker, principal chief of the Cherokee tribe, though members of the tribe had mixed reactions.

“I’m not a member of a tribe,” she told reporters Wednesday. “I have apologized for not being more sensitive to that distinction.”

Reporters and politicians rushed to say her DNA test shows she was only 1/1024th Native American. But that's a huge misinterpretation of the data. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

Republicans have sought to take advantage. Trump last week told the New York Times, “I do think Elizabeth Warren’s been hurt very badly with the Pocahontas trap,” noting that the controversy had undermined her credibility.

The Republican National Committee on Wednesday filed a grievance with the State Bar of Texas asking for “disciplinary action” against Warren for “lying and failing to correct a misrepresentation.”

The more immediate problem Warren faces is within her own party.

“To claim native identity — clearly it wasn’t the appropriate thing to do,” said Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, a group focused on electing women of color. “Was she trying to indicate her solidarity with the group? Why was it like that for her in the 1980s? I think she has more to say on that.”

There’s a long history in America of people making unsubstantiated claims to Native American heritage, a practice objected to strongly by tribal members as diluting their culture and shared experience.

“Everyone who cares about us as natives are welcome, but at critical moments those who have legal and cultural standing have a unique place with specific rights and responsibilities,” Chuck Hoskin Jr., secretary of state for the Cherokee Nation, wrote last week in the Tulsa World. “That is why it offends us when some of our national leaders seek to ascribe inappropriately membership or citizenship to themselves.”

The first known instance of Warren being identified as having Native American ancestry was in 1984, when her name appeared in a cookbook called “Pow Wow Chow,” compiled by a cousin to be sold at a fundraiser.

Warren listed herself as a “minority” in the Association of American Law Schools directory starting in 1986, and presented herself that way in the directory for nine years. That same year, she filled out the bar card, which The Post obtained via an open-records request to the State Bar of Texas.

There’s no indication that Warren gained professionally by reporting herself as Native American on the card. Above the lines for race, national origin and handicap status, the card says, “The following information is for statistical purposes only and will not be disclosed to any person or organization without the express written consent of the attorney.”

The AALS directories were used by law schools when searching for new professors, prompting some Republicans to charge that she was claiming Native identity to get ahead.

Warren moved from the University of Texas to the University of Pennsylvania in 1987. After she worked at Penn for about two years, the university changed her recorded race from white to Native American, school records show. Warren has told the Boston Globe that she requested the change, saying it was important for her to reflect what she believed to be her family heritage.

Several months after Warren started working at Harvard Law School in late 1995, Harvard recorded her ethnicity as Native American, according to university records reported by the Globe. The records include a memo showing that Warren signed off on the change.

Harvard continued reporting Warren as a Native American until 2004, the records show. Warren has never explained what happened that year to prompt the change.

Warren declined to say Wednesday whether there might be other documents that could surface in which she identified herself as Native American.

“All I know is during this time period, this is consistent with what I did because it was based on my understanding from my family stories,” Warren said. “But family stories are not the same as tribal citizens, and that is why I have apologized.”

Warren has previously acknowledged that she claimed Cherokee and Delaware heritage despite having only a distant ancestor who was Native American. But the Texas bar registration card provides the first visual evidence that she, rather than a staffer or other associate, claimed that ethnicity in a formal, professional context.

As she prepared for a seven-state presidential announcement blitz, it was not clear that Warren had a significant plan to confront the issue beyond continuing to apologize.

“There is no visible strategy for this,” said Joel Benenson, a leading Democratic pollster who advised the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. “When you’re in the eye of the storm, you don’t want things to drip, drip, drip.”

He added, “There is probably time for them to develop a better, more coherent and powerful story to deal with this. But they have to do it in short order.”

Warren, referring to her recent apology to the Cherokee chief, said it was deeply felt.

“This is from the heart,” she said. “This is about my family, my brothers, and it is about an apology from the heart, and apology for not being more sensitive to tribal citizenship and tribal sovereignty and for harm caused.”

Warren’s apology has been met with mixed reactions. “This closes the matter,” tweeted Keith Harper, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council. “Onward.”

But not all were pleased.

“I want to see it in writing,” said David Cornsilk, a historian and genealogist who is also a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. “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.”

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), one of two Native American women serving in Congress, said she did not fault Warren.

“I’ve lived my whole life with people self-identifying as Native American. I never questioned their identity,” said Haaland in an interview. “It’s not up to me.” She called Warren “a tremendous ally for Native Americans.”

For Warren, putting this chapter behind her is key to calming the nerves of Democrats who want a nominee who can present a strong challenge to Trump.

“I think she’s going to continue to be asked questions about that,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).

Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.