April Youpee-Roll: Elizabeth Warren owes more to Indian Country

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts). Photo from Facebook

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) is not an enrolled member of any of the three federally-recognized Cherokee tribes despite her claims of Cherokee ancestry. But the prominent Democrat can still do something for Indian Country, argues April Youpee-Roll, a member of the Fort Peck Tribes:
Indian identity is not a mythical connection to a long romanticized (and assumed long dead) people. It's not a commodity, up for grabs and outside definition. Indian identity is alive. It's a conversation that native people are having right now about kinship, family, civic participation and nationhood.

Here are the facts: Elizabeth Warren is not a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians or the United Keetowah Band of Cherokee. She is not eligible for citizenship because she has no traceable Cherokee ancestors. The Cherokee are the most common target of specious claims to Indian ancestry, a fact some scholars attribute to early romanticism of the Cherokee struggle for sovereignty, developing as a justification for the anti-federalist sentiment in the antebellum south. Often these claims are traced to family lore and legend, sometimes of a "Cherokee princess" great- grandmother. I believe such claims are ultimately rooted in a natural desire to belong; it's understandably hard to stomach that we all live on stolen land, but that is the unpleasant truth of this nation's colonial roots.

It is also a fact that Warren's claims—and the thousands just like them—have a measurable impact on the lives of American Indians. By mythologizing Indian identity, one implicitly furthers assimilation by undercutting the legitimacy of resilient, strong and modern tribal communities. As a result, tribal governments struggle to exercise their sovereignty, which predates the U.S. Constitution. Tribal courts struggle to punish non-native offenders committing crimes within reservation borders. Native youth commit suicide at epidemic rates and experience tangible psychological trauma as a result of external consumption, definition and mockery of the identity they were born and raised with.

It's easy to lose sight of these consequences, especially in a highly polarized political context, where sound-bites survive above substance. But, for better or worse, progressive hero Elizabeth Warren is in a position to make a real, national impact, and to empower native people. All she has to do is make the effort to recognize and learn from the thriving, resilient communities she claims to belong to.

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April Youpee-Roll: Mistaken identity (The Missoula Independent 6/23)

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