“I spent a lot of hours in this gymnasium,” the Democratic senator from Massachusetts said early in her speech, adding that she watched games from the bleachers. “I never thought I’d be down on the floor doing something like this,” she added before pivoting to her larger message: “You know, you don’t get what you don’t fight for.”
Warren has rooted much of her stump speech and campaign message in her experience in the state. It’s where her father got sick. Where her mother put on her finest dress and got a job to keep the family afloat. Where, as she puts it, she learned words such as “mortgage” and “foreclosure.”
But for Warren, coming home, even to a place that’s at the core of her political image and her presidential campaign, can be complicated. The focus on her background is also a reminder that it was here that she says she heard stories that her family had Cherokee and Delaware tribal connections, the basis for nearly two decades of inaccurately claiming to be a Native American.
That topic hovered in the background on the recent trip, which included a private meeting with about a dozen tribal leaders Sunday morning in Tulsa. Protesters outside the high school held up signs saying “Welcome to Oklahoma, Pocahontas,” a reference to the nickname President Trump has bestowed to mock Warren’s claims of Native American heritage.
And the first question at her town hall was from a woman who recounted her own native ancestry, which she said includes Creek and Muscogee Creek, as the room listened with rapt attention. The woman dispelled any tension, however, by saying, “I agree with everything you say.”
“Good. Let’s stop there,” Warren said jokingly.
Before the rally, Warren huddled with leaders from about a dozen Oklahoma tribes at an upscale hotel in Tulsa, a meeting intended to build and in some cases improve relationships with Native American leaders.
“She’s a U.S. senator, so she was treated like a U.S. senator,” said Ben Barnes, a Shawnee Tribe leader who attended the meeting.
He said she went through her plan to help Native Americans. “Senator Warren was very engaged with tribes, and was very concerned with the issues that tribal nations have,” Barnes said.
Warren herself described the meeting as “great,” saying the topics covered included education, health services and tribal sovereignty.
“It was a free-ranging discussion of whatever the tribal leaders wanted to talk about,” Warren said. After the meeting, a group of nine leaders posed for a photo with Warren.
Then she drove to Oklahoma City, where her town hall at Northwest Classen High School was far more personal than usual. A 1965 debate trophy inscribed with “Liz Herring” is still displayed in a case at the school. Audience members held up signs with large blue letters that spelled “OKC 4 WARREN.” She walked through the crowd, a departure from her typical jogging entrance, hugging and waving to people.
Her nephew Mark Herring introduced her, referring to her connection to her extended family.
“She’s worked her tail off to get where she is. And even when she left Oklahoma, she still worked her tail off for our family,” Herring said. “Our family is part Republican and part Democrat, and we all love her and support her 100 percent. She’ll fight for your family just like she’ll fight for hers, if you elect her.”
And in a folksy final flourish that Warren’s communications director blasted out over social media, he added: “She’ll always be Aunt Betsy to me. And when she’s elected, I’ll call her President Aunt Betsy.”
The audience also included John and David Herring, two of her three brothers. She frequently talks about them on the campaign trail, but they do not appear with her at events and decline to talk to the press.
At one point, her brother David smiled and laughed as she retold a favorite story that David, as a former Army medic, believes he can perform an emergency tracheotomy.
“It makes for some exciting Thanksgivings,” Warren said.
And he laughed when she talked about the success of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency she helped create to impose more oversight on banks.
“For my brother, who cannot believe that he would ever applaud for a government agency, I will just point out, it has forced those banks to return more than $12 billion directly to people they cheated,” Warren said.