The Curious Case of Why We Give a Shit Whether Elizabeth Warren Is a Native American

Illustration for article titled The Curious Case of Why We Give a Shit Whether Elizabeth Warren Is a Native American

Things in the tight race for Massachusetts Senate between incumbent Republican Senator Scott Brown and his likely challenger, Democratic folk hero Elizabeth Warren, have taken a turn for the bizarre. Scott Brown has found himself in the unusual position of attacking Elizabeth Warren for claiming to be a Native American to gain an unfair advantage. Yeah, you know those Native Americans, always handed everything on a silver platter... So what gives? Is he sowing the seeds for some kind of low-rent birther movement or did Warren actually do something wrong?

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The allegations, such as they are, center around whether Warren used her supposed Native American heritage to gain some sort of favor in pursuit of her academic career. Warren, who grew up in Oklahoma, has said she has family ties to the Cherokee and Delaware tribes, and that she's proud of this heritage, but she's certainly not claiming she grew up on a reservation or something. In fact, she hasn't ever mentioned that part of her family history while campaigning until Brown brought it up.

The issue came to light when the Boston Herald last week uncovered that back in 1996, a Harvard Crimson article quoted a Harvard Law spokesman as saying Warren was a Native American in an effort to prove that the school wasn't just filled with a bunch of white males. So, in other words, it's extremely relevant to what's happening now, 16 years later, and whether or not Warren is fit to be a Senator.

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The main concern is that by claiming to be a minority, Warren had an unfair advantage when she was being considered for a position at Harvard. Harvard Law School Professor Charles Fried, the man who recruited Warren for the job, insists that is insane. He said yesterday,

That's totally stupid, ignorant, uninformed and simply wrong. I presented her case to the faculty. I did not mention her Native American connection because I did not know about it.

Wait, are you trying to tell us that a lady lawyer was hired based on her qualifications for the job alone? Next thing you know, you're going to try to convince us we've figured out how to make fire. Pshht.

Anyway, Warren also said at the end of last week that she was completely unaware that Harvard had ever publicly mentioned her as a minority professor, and she said she did not recall ever claiming minority status when seeking a job. Though her campaign did confirm that she had listed herself as a "minority law teacher" while she was teaching at University of Texas and University of Pennsylvania back in the late 80s and early 90s. See? What further proof do you need that this woman is a unethical fraud?

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Of course, none of this is an issue if Warren is a Native American, since she'd be well within her rights to claim minority status. So is she? Umm, it's not entirely clear. Her campaign doesn't have any official documentation, but they said they're trying to find some. Warren's main claim is that she's been told by older members of her family that her grandparents on her mother's side could link themselves back to Cherokee and Delaware tribes. Hardly definitive proof, but also WHO CARES?

So, for the sake of argument, let's assume that Warren can never prove her connection to a Native American heritage. Does that mean her nicely tailored pantsuit is on fire because she's such a big fat liar? Absolutely, according to Scott Brown's campaign manager, Jim Barnett. He said this claim "raises serious questions about Elizabeth Warren's credibility." Really? Are we seriously going to do this, you guys? Uh, yep, it looks like we are because he added, "Prof. Warren needs to come clean about her motivations for making these claims and explain the contradictions between her rhetoric and the record." Oh, and he also politely mentioned that she should "should apologize for participating in this hypocritical sham." Whoa, buddy, be careful when lobbing those kinds of terms around, since "hypocritical sham" is phrase that could pretty easily boomerang right back into your Republican face.

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First of all, if she genuinely believed she was Native American then there's nothing suspect about her motivations. Plus, it's not like she was applying for scholarships left and right and taking government money away from actual, card-carrying Native Americans. Her ancestral status, one way or another, doesn't appear to have played any role in getting her where she is today. So why exactly is this even an issue?

Warren's campaign has accused Brown of using this to cast doubt on "the qualifications and ability of a woman." Her campaign manager, Mindy Myers, said:

If Scott Brown has questions about Elizabeth Warren's well-known qualifications ... he ought to ask them directly instead of hiding behind the nasty insinuations of his campaign and trying to score political points.

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For his part Brown, perhaps sensing his campaign is veering into circus-like territory, said last night, "I haven't accused her of anything." Accused, insinuated, whatevs. You say "mention in the media repeatedly," I say "tomahto." Of course, Scott Brown said previously that it's Warren's job to answer these questions that just happened to pop up out of the blue. He's pushed the transparency factor, saying,

If there are questions, she should answer them just like we've been asking and answering questions about our taxes. If you're in this position and you're asked to be transparent, then you should do so.

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Except unlike releasing one's income tax returns, it's not like you can roll out some kind of detailed accounting of the racial makeup of everyone in your family tree. Ooooh, perhaps there's some kind of DNA test that all candidates for political office should now be subjected to, just to make sure, you know, that they're exactly who they're claiming to be. Or maybe Elizabeth Warren should go on that show where Skip Gates discovers that various celebrities are actually long-lost cousins whose ancestors had scandalous sex during the Civil War. Either way, we've got to get to the bottom of this, because we won't be convinced that Elizabeth Warren is fit to hold the office of Senator until we can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt she is a lying, unethical monster who will do whatever it takes to get ahead in life.

Elizabeth Warren's Native American Heritage Comes Into Question In Massachusetts Senate Race [AP]
Candidate for Senate Defends Past Hiring [New York Times]

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DISCUSSION

adah
Jane, you ignorant slut.

My husband's from Oklahoma, and we visit there quite often. My experience there is that almost half the people I meet in that state claim some sort of Native American heritage. Most look like Ms. Warren. Most rely on family lore, not documented proof. Most get no benefits from that claimed heritage, and don't try to. So as far as that goes, I don't blame Ms. Warren. If it is ever proven that she improperly claimed benefits she was not eligible for or did not have proper documentation for, then yes, I'd say she acted unethically. So far that hasn't been proven, but exploring whether she did isn't completely out of line. Since Harvard at some point claimed her as Native American, it's clear that she at least told people the story fairly often, which makes it legitimate, I believe, to explore whether she ever used the story improperly.

Now, I also think that it's fairly common for white Americans to explain a missing member of their family tree as being probably from a minority group. It was always lore in my family that an ancestor way back when in the 1600s might have married a Native American. The woman was missing from the family tree, and the family speculated that there weren't many women around at the time, and that racism might have caused her to be left off. It wasn't until years later when I was exploring [ancestry.com] that I found the woman was in fact an immigrant from the U.K. who had been on her third marriage, having been made a widow twice before. We'll never know why she was left off the tree - perhaps the record was just lost. In any case, I don't think that my family's story is unusual. A lot of our ancestors tend to record just the father's name. The women are often lost to history and people tend to speculate.