SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Sen. Elizabeth Warren opened her remarks at a Native American presidential forum Monday with a more straightforward version of the apology she has offered in the past for identifying as a Native American for two decades while she was a law professor.
The comments marked Warren’s latest effort to navigate what has been a politically fraught subject dating back to her first run for Senate in 2012 and one that is likely to be used against her by Republicans if she wins the Democratic presidential nomination. In the Senate race, her Republican opponent criticized her for identifying as a Native American during her law career.
Warren has said she did so because of family stories that she had Cherokee and Delaware ancestry, but critics accused her of lying to advance her prospects, even though there has been no evidence she benefited professionally. President Trump has seized on the controversy, regularly referring to Warren with an incendiary slur — Pocahontas”— and vowing even more intense attacks.
“Like, Elizabeth Warren — I did the Pocahontas thing,” Trump said at a rally in New Hampshire on Thursday. “I hit her really hard, and it looked like she was down and out, but that was too long ago. I should’ve waited. But don’t worry, we will revive it.”
That has raised concerns among some Democrats about Warren’s ability to take on Trump at a time when electability is emerging as a decisive factor for many voters still traumatized by the outcome of the 2016 election.
One Iowa Democratic activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more candidly, said while she “loves Warren,” the “Pocahontas thing” had given her pause because of the playbook that Trump ran against Hillary Clinton in 2016. “He’s just going to be uglier and more ruthless and more bullying this time,” the activist said. “And as good as she is, it makes me nervous that she’s an easier target.”
Last fall, Warren angered many in the Native American community months before announcing her presidential bid when she released a DNA test that she said proved she had a distant Native American ancestor. The test, aimed at rebutting attacks from Trump and other critics, upset leaders of tribal nations who set their own affiliation rules based on culture and proven heritage, not DNA.
Warren apologized months later, but that version was more legalistic. “I am sorry for furthering confusion on tribal sovereignty and tribal citizenship and harm that resulted,” Warren said in a February interview with The Washington Post.
But activists complained that apology didn’t go far enough and pointed to the continued existence of videos on Warren’s campaign website that defended her claims on ancestry and her DNA test. On Monday, the campaign removed two videos — one set in Norman, Okla., where Warren discussed her family heritage with her older brothers, including a story of how her father’s family looked down on her mother because of her family’s Native American ancestry. Also removed was a memo by geneticist Carlos Bustamante, who analyzed the results of the DNA test she took.
Organizers of the multicandidate forum pointed to an estimated 1 million Native Americans in key voting states such as Arizona, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin that if activated could make the difference for the Democratic nominee in reclaiming the White House.
Warren used her appearance Monday to try to pivot toward policy — she recently released a lengthy proposal about how she would try to help close health, income and wealth disparities in Native American communities. The bulk of her appearance focused on parts of that plan, which would provide tribal leaders with far more influence than they now have over federal policy that affects their land.
But the appearance also showed how Warren has been able to build relationships among native activists.
She was introduced by Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), one of the first two Native American women to be elected to Congress and a lawmaker who has worked with Warren on part of her proposal. Haaland called it the “boldest” plan yet to “address the promises that have been broken and the need in our communities.”
“Some media folks have asked me whether the president’s criticisms of her regarding her ancestral background will hamper her ability to convey a clear campaign message,” said Haaland, who has endorsed Warren. “I say that every time they asked about Elizabeth’s family instead of the issues of vital importance to Indian country, they feed the president’s racism.”
As Haaland spoke, Warren was backstage, where she met privately with tribal leaders and apologized for how she had handled questions about her ancestry. As she did later onstage, Warren told the group she wanted to be viewed as a partner to indigenous people. “She really won us over,” said Frank White, chairman of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.
Aaron A. Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said he and Warren had spoken about her ancestry on “a very personal level.”
“I urged you to tell your story, and I appreciate that you did,” Payment said. “And what I would say is, from here forward, because now we’re in a presidential election, that we take Michelle Obama’s advice, and when . . . [Trump] goes low, you go high.”
O.J. Semans, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota and co-executive director of the voting rights group Four Directions, which hosted the multicandidate forum, called the controversy over Warren’s ancestry a “nonissue” and said it was “trivial” compared with more-pressing issues facing Native Americans, including health care and voter suppression. “When you are dealing with issues of pipelines poisoning our water or issues of equality, what your DNA test says does not concern me,” Semans said. “What does concern me is how you are going to help us.”
David Cornsilk, managing editor of the Cherokee Observer and a genealogist who has been critical of Warren’s ancestry claims, said some key tribal leaders and activists have thawed on the senator in recent months. He said she had earned “street cred” for being among the handful of presidential candidates willing to speak at the Iowa forum and for at least trying to win support among Native Americans.
While Cornsilk remains skeptical of Warren, saying she has not fully walked back her claims or apologized more directly to the Cherokees, he said he would vote for he if she’s the nominee. “A lot of people are now to the point where Indian country has suffered a lot of abuses from the administration, so they’re looking for a friend,” said Cornsilk. “And she’s made enough noise that she’s looking like a friend.”
Still, there are mixed opinions among Democrats more broadly on whether Warren has weathered the controversy or if it could still prove to be a serious vulnerability in her presidential bid.
She has not faced extensive questions from voters on the issue, and in interviews, many Democrats fixated on the idea of electability say they are more worried that Warren’s policies are too far to the left or that a female candidate cannot defeat Trump in a country that has never elected a female president.
“No one has raised any concerns with me about her past claims of Native American ancestry,” said Peter Leo, chairman of the Carroll County Democratic Party in western Iowa. “To the extent any local Dems still have concerns about Warren as the nominee, they are what I have begun to call ‘voter as pundit’ concerns. We should nominate a moderate . . . the safest choice. . . . It doesn’t really have to do with her at all.”
But the issue has occasionally reared its head in other places, including a tense interview in May with “The Breakfast Club,” a popular morning radio show where co-host Charlamagne tha God told Warren she was “kind of like the original Rachel Dolezal” — a white woman who claimed to be black. “This is what I learned from my family,” Warren replied.
It’s that kind of exchange that has some Democrats on edge. While Warren has bounced back in the polls, thanks in part to her litany of meaty policy proposals, some voters remain anxious that she doesn’t have a good comeback to Trump’s slur.
“Coming here was one step in responding to it and owning her past statements,” said Linda Santi of Sioux City, an undecided Democrat who came to the forum in part to see how Warren would answer questions about the controversy. “The panel clearly had her back, and part of me thought, okay, that’s one issue put to bed,” said Santi, who is white. “But I still want to see how she addresses the president when he brings this up. And you know he will.”