The previously unreported meeting will focus on Warren’s agenda for Native Americans and is part of a broader effort to highlight issues important to them. Warren is also trying to blunt the criticism she has faced over the years for appropriating Native American culture by identifying as such, according to three people familiar with the meeting who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it.
Beyond upsetting tribes with that claim, Warren further alienated some leaders for doing little of consequence to assist them during her early years in the Senate. She tripped up again when she released a DNA test intended to bolster her family stories of Native American heritage, angering tribal leaders who say that is not the measure of tribal identity.
“It’ll be very heavy,” said NickyKay Michael, a member of the tribal council for the Delaware Tribe of Indians. “I don’t think they’ll be jumping up and down like they’d be for someone who was in their corner for a long time.”
Michael added that her tribal leaders will meet Saturday to determine whether to send a representative to the Warren event. The leadership, she said, is torn. “You don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot just because you’ve had a bad taste in your mouth for a long time,” Michael said.
Warren’s meeting with Native Americans and her trip to Oklahoma reflect the challenges she has faced in broadening voters’ knowledge of her personal biography. Her campaign speeches are marked by descriptions of her hardscrabble childhood. She regularly poses a question to her audiences, asking whether there are any “Okies” in the room. It represents an effort to cast her less as a wealthy academic who worked at Harvard Law School and more as a woman with varied life experiences who can understand the plight of economically insecure voters.
The dispute about Warren’s heritage marked her initial run for the Senate in 2012, her 2018 reelection campaign and the early months of her presidential campaign.
Warren identified herself professionally as a Native American at various points in her life. In April 1986, she listed her race as “American Indian” on her registration card for the State Bar of Texas, according to a copy of that document obtained by The Washington Post. She also listed herself as a minority from 1986 to 1994 in the Association of American Law Schools directory.
While teaching at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Warren had her race changed to Native American from white, university records show. Later, she requested that Harvard Law School list her as Native American after she was hired in 1995, according to the Boston Globe, which reviewed her personnel records.
Warren has said that she didn’t receive preferential hiring treatment because of her Native American claims, and an investigation by the Boston Globe confirmed that she was never viewed as a minority when hired at various law schools, despite being counted as a minority in diversity reports filed to the federal government by Penn and Harvard law schools as recently as 2004.
Her past claims have given Republicans openings to attack her character and honesty. To draw attention to the controversy, President Trump frequently refers to Warren as “Pocahontas,” which Warren and others say is a slur.
On the campaign trail, Warren is rarely asked about the issue. But those who attend her events occasionally say they worry she had become an easy target for Trump and the Republicans, who could pound her relentlessly over the past. During her 2012 campaign, Republicans at one point mocked her by making war whoops and tomahawk chops.
Forging relations with the tribes could give her additional defenders as her candidacy moves forward, but past efforts to do that have been fraught. After making some inroads with Native American leaders in 2017 and early 2018, Warren damaged relations in October 2018 when she released a DNA test.
Those efforts coincided with her Senate reelection and her first moves toward her presidential campaign.
“There’s been significant outreach efforts, not only with the Cherokee but with other tribes,” said former Oklahoma governor David Walters, a Democrat who is neutral in the presidential race. “I think she has effectively explained any of the issues associated with that incident. Beyond that, I think people are looking forward to knowing where does she stand on important issues to tribal governments?”
Still, the attendance at the meeting may offer a hint that there is more smoothing over to be done. Absent from the gathering will be Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., according to Julie Hubbard, a spokeswoman for the tribe, who said he had a scheduling conflict. No representative from the tribe was planning to attend, she said in an email Thursday.
Hoskin became the unofficial face of the opposition to Warren last year when he blasted her for releasing a DNA test, saying that it was “inappropriate and wrong.” At the time, Hoskin was the secretary of the Cherokee Nation. He was elected principal chief last summer.
David Cornsilk, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a frequent Warren critic, said he feels the tribal leaders are being pragmatic in meeting with Warren. “We don’t know who the nominee will be, so we have to play the game,” said Cornsilk.
“She does have unfinished business with us,” he said. “I hope the leadership of the tribes are asking her to be accountable for what she did.”
Over the past year, Warren has met privately with Native American groups, hammering home a message that she earnestly wants to focus on their issues and use her position to help them. Over the past year, she has met with tribal leaders in Minnesota, Washington state, California, Iowa, Michigan and Arizona, according to a person familiar with the meetings who was not authorized to talk about them.
The meeting Sunday was organized by Paawee Rivera, Warren’s Colorado state director and a citizen of the Pueblo of Pojoaque. Before Warren’s later town hall meeting in Oklahoma City, she may meet privately with some tribes unable to attend the Tulsa gathering, according to a person familiar with the planning.
“Elizabeth is looking forward to meeting with tribal leaders to discuss ways they can continue to work together on many important issues facing Indian Country. She believes in working on a Nation-to-Nation basis to uphold the United States’ solemn trust and treaty obligations to Tribal Nations and to build a brighter future for Indian Country,” Warren spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said in a statement.
In the past year, Warren has sponsored or introduced a number of bills important to native communities, including legislation that would revoke the Medal of Honor awarded to U.S. soldiers who killed Native Americans in the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre.
Other key moves include her decision to name one of the first Native American women elected to Congress, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), as a campaign co-chair and releasing a lengthy plan to close income and health disparities suffered by Native Americans and honor long-standing promises and treaties.
In August, Warren appeared at a Native American forum in Iowa and apologized for “harm I have caused” by once referring to herself as a person of color.
Around the same time, Warren also removed from her campaign website a letter about the DNA test and a video about it.
Some tribes have forged relations with Warren, including the Choctaw Nation, which is headquartered in eastern Oklahoma.
“She does truly understand sovereignty and the tribes’ right to decide for themselves who are citizens,” said Josh Riley, a Choctaw Nation citizen who plans on attending the Sunday meeting. “I think folks are willing to give her a chance.”
Riley said he met with Warren for the first time when he was in Washington in February 2018 for the National Congress of American Indians, a gathering at which she publicly addressed her heritage in depth for the first time as a senator.
During their meeting, Riley invited her to visit the Choctaw’s land. “She said, ‘Sure, I’ll take you up on that,’ ” he recalled, and several months later Warren toured their headquarters.
Riley said that despite the past, he thinks tribes will rally around her if she becomes the nominee, in part because of the work she has done to improve relations.
“I expect a lot of tribes to endorse her,” he said.