Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) addresses the winter session of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., on February 14, 2018. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren still facing Indian heritage questions and jokes

Despite a well-publicized attempt to put the issue to rest, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) continues to face doubts, and demeaning jokes, about her claims of Indian heritage.

In her first-ever speaking engagement before the National Congress of American Indians last month, Warren acknowledged that neither she, nor others in her family, are enrolled in any tribe. She said she was "part Native American" but wasn't as specific about her ancestry as she has been in the past.

The popular Democrat shared that same story in an appearance on Fox News on Sunday. She was asked by guest host John Roberts whether she would "take a DNA test" to address lingering questions about her background.

Though experts say a DNA test cannot conclusively prove someone's Native genetic makeup, Warren did not outright answer the query. And while she insisted she was "not running for president," her history will be a huge issue if she ends up jumping in the ring in 2020.

"I know who I am because of what my mother and my father told me, what my grandmother and my grandfather told me, what all my aunts and uncles told me and my brothers," Warren said of her family.

"It's a part of who I am and no one's ever going to take that away," she said on Fox News, repeating a line that drew loud applause at NCAI's winter session in Washington, D.C., on February 14.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) on YouTube: Floor Speech on the Director for the Indian Health Service

Warren got a standing ovation from tribal leaders after her speech and she has been following up on pledges to use her stature to highlight Indian issues. In remarks on the Senate floor a couple of weeks later, she used the lack of leadership at the Indian Health Service to draw attention to health disparities affecting the first Americans.

"An American Indian or Alaska Native baby born today has a life expectancy that is almost four and a half years shorter than the U.S. average. These little babies are also more likely to die before they ever reach their first birthday -- Native infant mortality is about 25% higher than for the U.S. as a whole," Warren said on February 27. "Chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease hit Native Americans harder too. For instance, American Indians and Alaska Natives die from diabetes at a rate that is 3 times higher than that of the entire American population."

Warren is also pushing for passage of S.1942, also known as Savanna's Act. The bill is named for Savanna Marie Greywind, a young citizen of the Spirit Lake Nation who was abducted and brutally murdered in North Dakota in August 2017.

"More than half of all Native women in this country have been the victims of sexual violence and more than half of them are attacked by non-Natives," Warren said on CNN's State of the Union on Sunday. "And the American government is doing nothing about this. This is an issue that's happening right here in America. "

But with 2020 in sight, political detractors aren't going to let Warren get away with becoming one of Indian Country's biggest advocates. Earlier this month, she was the butt of a "powwow" and indigenous foods joke at the Gridiron Club Dinner, an elite event in D.C. that featured President Donald Trump who himself has repeatedly derided the lawmaker as "Pocahontas," even trotting out the insult in front of Native war heroes.

"She was my first professor in law school, and she was a good one," Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), who attended Harvard Law School, where Warren was once part of the faculty, said on March 3. "She would even host dinner for students at her place — a hearty family recipe of stone-ground corn and freshly slaughtered buffalo. Liz calls it 'powwow chow' and I just couldn’t get enough."

And just a few hours after Warren's debut on Fox News Sunday, the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., was weighing in. "Why not simply 'identify' as Native American," he wrote in a sarcastic post on Twitter that has drawn more than 18,000 engagements.

"Problem solved," he wrote.


Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) discusses family background with John in response to questions about her Native American heritage, calls to take a DNA test. Watch the full interview at 5P/7P on Fox News Channel.

Posted by Fox News Sunday on Sunday, March 11, 2018
Fox News Sunday on Facebook: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and DNA

In the past, Warren has claimed "Cherokee" and "Delaware" ancestry but she stopped bringing up specific affiliations as her popularity has grown. She was born and raised in Oklahoma, where claims of Indian heritage are common in a state where Native Americans represent more than 9 percent of the population, a figure that increases to more than 13 percent when people identify as Native plus another race.

Questions about DNA aside, scholars and citizens from the Cherokee Nation have already looked into Warren's background and haven't found any Cherokee ancestors, or any Indian ones for that matter. Genealogist Twila Barnes has offered the most definitive account of the lawmaker's family tree on her blog, Thought's From Polly's Grandmother.

But while Harvard Law School's directory once described Warren as belonging to a "minority" group when she worked at Harvard Law School, she told NCAI last month that she "never used my family tree to get a break or get ahead."

"I never used it to advance my career," Warren told tribal leaders.

Warren is running for re-election to the Senate this year. Her campaign website does not currently include a section on Indian issues, though that's not uncommon in a state where Native Americans represent barely 0.5 percent of the population. Tribal citizens have long been neglected and, in some instances, were punished simply for being Native.

The state is home to two federally recognized Indians nations: the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. Leaders from both have praised Warren for reaching out to Indian Country.

“We welcome Senator Warren’s remarks and value her support and involvement, especially at this critical time as our tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag, works to secure our reservation lands now and for future generations,” Chairman Cedric Cromwell said in a statement last month.

Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, who introduced Warren last month at NCAI, said she has been in regular contact with the lawmaker on issues affecting her people.

Were Warren to run for president in 2020, she would not be the first person with Native heritage, claimed or documented, on a major party's ticket. Charles Curtis, who was a citizen of the Kaw Nation, served as vice president from 1929 through 1933 after Republican Herbert Hoover won the election in 1928 by what was called a landslide at the time.

More recently, Winona LaDuke, an activist from the White Earth Nation, ran for vice president on the Green Party's ticket in 1996 and 2000.

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Tribal leaders cheer surprise speaker as meeting in D.C. winds down (February 14, 2018)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren at the National Congress of American Indians (February 14, 2018)
Jacqueline Keeler: Pocahontas is a reminder of our missing and murdered sisters (December 4, 2017)
President Trump stuns Indian Country with 'Pocahontas' slur in front of Navajo war heroes (November 27, 2017)
Native youth pressure Hillary Clinton to take a #NoDAPL stand (October 26, 2016)Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation slams Donald Trump for 'bigoted' attacks (July 7, 2016)
Donald Trump rehashes 'Pocahontas' slur as Elizabeth Warren hits road for Hillary Clinton (June 28, 2016)
Trending in News
More Headlines