Elizabeth Warren: slurs against her reveal confused US attitudes to Native American ancestry

Elizabeth Warren: slurs against her reveal confused US attitudes to Native American ancestry

Donald Trump has for years referred to his presumptive 2020 presidential opponent, Elizabeth Warren, as “Pocahontas”, a mocking reference to the Democrat senator’s claims that she is part Cherokee. Rising to these attacks in late 2018, Warren released the results of a DNA test which she hoped would settle the issue in her favour.

The test, which has since been called into question, appears to show a Native American ancestor in her family tree, perhaps six to ten generations removed. Trump has only been further emboldened in his attacks since Warren released the results, and on January 3 he tweeted a mock campaign banner for Warren, the year of the election corrupted to read “1/2020”.

As the public sniping continues, Warren’s troubled Cherokee identity has taken political centre stage. But the spat over her heritage almost entirely ignores the complex reality of identity in a country currently plagued by racial categorisation and denigration.

When Warren made claims to a Cherokee ancestry, she was almost certainly acting in good faith. Indeed, among many American families unsubstantiated stories about Native American progenitors exist. This is a phenomena with which many historians of the US are familiar. Colleagues who have worked in US historical societies tell stories about frequent enquiries from the public asking for such familial connections to be confirmed.

But according to these colleagues, follow up studies rarely reveal the expected aboriginal ancestral ties. Indeed, they often find African American ancestors where Native Americans were anticipated.

For many families, ancestors even a few generations removed are poorly understood if not completely anonymous. Such an information vacuum, combined with changing social mores and values, is a breeding ground from which myths and stories can emerge.

The flag of the Cherokee Nation. Shutterstock

Many white Americans surely must possess indigenous ancestry. But in many instances family stories about largely anonymous indigenous progenitors are instead a reflection of the country’s complex relationship with race and discrimination. As a senior colleague once put it to me (off the record) during a conference: “When a southerner says they have an Indian ancestor, what they really mean is that they have a slave ancestor.”

Who am I?

Race often demands that individuals think in absolutes where nuance is instead required: when can (or should) a person of mixed racial heritage identify as a member of one ethnicity over another? As I have highlighted before, Johnny Depp, who famously played Tonto in the 2013 version of The Lone Ranger, often spoke of his own indigenous ancestry. A study by Ancestry.com, however, revealed that Depp’s non-white ancestry was African, rather than Native American, in nature – the likelihood is that, at some point in the past, one of Depp’s ancestors began to “pass” for non-black.

To complicate matters further, the Cherokee Nation has been criticised for attempting to strip citizenship from the descendants of their black slaves. The stripping of citizenship of the Cherokee Nation is an unwelcome shock to those black Cherokee who consider themselves (and their ancestors) vital parts of that nation and its history. As one black Cherokee protester put it, they were “Indian by the blood we shed”. This matter was only resolved in August 2017 when a Federal District Court sided with the descendants of the Cherokee’s slaves over the Cherokee Nation itself.

Cherokee and indigenous peoples have spoken out about the Warren case, though they have largely been ignored in the larger media narrative which has been created by it. For example, Brandon Scott, the editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, the first indigenous newspaper to be published in the US, recently asked that Warren apologise and explain her position. As he put it: “I like her. I like her policies. I like her politics. But like many powerful people she refuses to admit that she was wrong or to see how were actions are harmful.”

For many, Warren’s claims to a Cherokee identity continue to sideline indigenous peoples; they are being talked about, not talked to. This is an attitude which appears to be validated by a media narrative more focused on Trump or Warren than it is on listening to indigenous American voices.

Despite being at the centre of discussion, little attention has been paid to the Cherokee with even less to those individuals and groups whose identities sit awkwardly in a system which encourages binary thinking about race.

Warren’s contested identity, then, touches on a number of intersecting issues that help to fuel America’s problematic racial politics. Indigenous and mixed-heritage voices continue to be ignored while the complexities of fringe identities remain misunderstood. The concept of race encourages reductive thinking about identity. Despite being seen by many as a cultural melting pot, a significant proportion of the identities contained within the US are expected to lend themselves to categorisation. Mixed racial and cultural heritages, however, by their very nature, defy such expectations.

Relationships of different kinds have crossed racial boundaries at all points in US history and, as a result, it is difficult to fully grasp the complexities of the country’s plurality of multi-ethnic heritages. For Warren and Trump, this has created an opportunity to attack each other over an issue that is harder to define than might appear at first glance. At the same time, it further marginalises minority voices and oversimplifies the need for a complex public discussion about the nature of identity and racial politics in the country.