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The Story of America: Warren’s Family Stories in an America Built on Trumpian Triumphalism

Senator Warren (far right) and her family from her campaign website: FACTSQUAD
By Jacqueline Keeler

Voters are divided on party lines as Republicans revel and Democrats react in disgust at President Trump’s latest tweet referencing the Cherokee Trail of Tears, a tribe from which the senator has claimed descent. Despite Warren’s punchy response that Trump will probably not even been in the 2020 race because “he won’t be even a free man,” his base has not abandoned yet. The answer is in U.S. history.

On the night of the State of the Union, as the nation watched the fireworks between Trump and the women of Congress dressed in white. The Washington Post quietly dropped a story under the rather bland headline “Elizabeth Warren apologizes for calling herself Native American.” The most remarkable disclosure in the article wasn’t Warren’s mea culpa, but a document the Post had procured through an open records request. On her 1986 registration card for the State Bar of Texas, Warren identified herself in her handwriting as “Native American,” a discovery that could mean this issue will continue to hamper her presidential campaign, which officially launched on Feb. 9. Warren has always denied claiming Native identity to take advantage of Affirmative Action opportunities meant for Native Americans. She says she filled out the card after admission to the bar in Texas.

In what is perhaps, to most Americans, an inexplicable sideshow of identity politics which threatens to overwhelm Warren’s political aspirations as she prepares to face off against a sea of Democratic candidates for the nomination in 2020. Headlines trumpet the story every time Trump calls her “Pocahontas” to sneer at her claims to Native identity and send his base to their keyboards and phones to dredge up yet more hoary old stereotypes. Including his son, Donald Jr. who instagrammed his dad’s Trail of Tears tweet with the comment “Savage.”
The President’s thinly-veiled racism makes his attacks on Warren means little to Democrats, but polling still finds her falling behind former V. P. Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker. A month after launching her “exploratory committee,” the senator was still polling in single digits—neck and neck with failed yet charismatic Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke from Texas.

Whether she knew the Post’s story was about to break or was attempting to make right earlier missteps, Warren, without telling the press, privately apologized on Feb. 1 for releasing her DNA results in a phone call with Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker. News of the apology was announced by the Cherokee Nation.

“While Principal Chief Baker and Senator Warren have been in contact on occasion over the past three to four years,” Amanda Clinton, Senior Advisor of Communications for the Cherokee Nation said via email, “the Cherokee Nation was not notified of Senator Warren’s intent to undergo or release a DNA test.”

The elaborately produced video featured geneticist Carlos Bustamante telling an excited Warren she had some genetic markers that indicate Indigenous ancestry between 6 to 10 generations back.

“And it is about an apology from the heart,” Warren maintained when questioned by reporters in the Senate hallway after the Post story broke, “An apology for not being more sensitive to tribal citizenship and tribal sovereignty and for harm caused.”

It is evident she expected her video and proof of distant Native ancestry to silence her critics and embarrass Trump. However, her DNA testing was widely considered a mistake. The Cherokee Nation Secretary of State issued a stern rebuke. Trump dismissed the findings with “who cares?” And Kate McKinnon portraying the senator on SNL’s Weekend Update played it as a punchline revealing much about America’s relationship to a racially-troubling past:

"Colin Jost: What about releasing the results of your DNA test. Do you think that will come back to haunt you? 

Warren (Kate McKinnon): It came back 100% bad idea. Who knew race science was not a good PR strategy? Lost that fight.”

Warren has accused those questioning her family story of Native identity of calling her “mamaw and papaw” liars. However, even if the DNA findings confirm an ancestral tie, the shame her mother’s family is hard to square with it being 6-10 generations ago. Six generations ago, Warren would have 64 great-great-great-great grandparents. Ten generations ago she would have 1,024 many-greats grandparents. When 63 or 1,023 of her ancestors in a generation were white, how would local white Oklahomans know to discriminate against her family 150 to 250 years later? Especially, if they kept it a secret and had not lived in tribal communities for several generations?

The only context this has any viability is within the context of genocide. If all Europeans were extinct and anyone with minute quantities of European DNA several generations back could be understood to be say French? Native nations are not gone they are still very much in existence (there are 573 federally-recognized tribes). It is only to non-Native Americans that they are invisible and that is the result of hundreds of years of U.S. policy to disappear the political reality of Indigenous nations that pre-existed the United States and persist to this day.

Consumer DNA tests have been taking the heat in the media after a pair of identical twins got varying and inconsistent results from each other with several DNA kits. Despite what ads may promise, the fine print on these DNA sites confirm the accuracy cannot be guaranteed only at the continental level. Human DNA is largely similar, and the genetic markers that contain variation around the world comparatively few. Analyzing them and assigning ethnic or national identities to them is still both a science and an art. Tribes use DNA to ascertain a close family relationship like between an enrolled parent and a child. They do not accept DNA genetic markers as proof of citizenship and neither does any country in the world.

Despite the apology, Warren still has up on her “Facts Squad” website a page titled “The Story of an American Family” that asserts her family’s claims to being of Cherokee and Delaware descent.

Her website also contains the statement: “She never used her family tree to get a break or get ahead.” The phrase invariable casts Affirmative Action and Native Americans who are beneficiaries of it in a negative light. By attempting to prove Trump wrong, Warren haplessly gives credence to anti-Affirmative Action biases. The statement also scuttles evidence revealed in a Boston Globe investigation that Harvard postponed searching for minority women faculty for a few years and cited Warren’s hire to show they had minorities on staff. The senator says she was unaware of this.

Nowhere on the “Fact Squad” site is Warren’s family tree compiled by Cherokee Nation genealogists David Cornsilk and Twila Barnes. The genealogy compiled by Barnes & Cornsilk is of a white family with no ties to the Cherokee or Delaware nations. Not even with cousins or second cousins of Warren’s ancestors. Typically, Native ancestors, are found to be living in at some point over the past 300 years in communities, and their neighbors or cousins have been flagged as Indian in paperwork. The Cherokee people are amongst the most documented in the world according to Cornsilk, second only to royalty. The genealogists were unable to document any ties between the Cherokee Nation through several generations of Warren’s family.

In stark contrast to Warren’s claims, when Native children are taken from Native families and nations, low “blood quantum” is often used to question if a child, even a tribal citizen, is “Indian enough” to be protected by the Indian Child Welfare Act. ICWA, a federal law passed in 1978 to prevent the wholesale removal of Native children from Native nations is under attack. Conservative think tanks like the Goldwater Institute have been seeking to overturn ICWA so more white parents, particularly Christians, can adopt and raise Native children at will. Congressional hearings conducted in the 1970s found 25-35 percent of all Native children were being removed from Native homes and placed with white families. Taking children in this way is an ethnic cleansing tactic often used against unwanted ethnic minorities and falls under the Geneva Conventions on Genocide. No nation would allow a wholesale kidnapping of their next generation of citizens.

However, a federal court in Texas ruled in October that the term ‘Indian” was race-based and unconstitutional. If the case makes it to the Supreme Court, it could scuttle any federal law or treaty where the term appears, leaving Native people and nations vulnerable to further depredations and erasure. Warren’s DNA announcement that same month served to validate the Goldwater Institute’s claims that to be Native American or ‘Indian' is racial, and not implying citizenship.

Warren, a one-time registered Republican in the 1990s, has become in the 21st century one of the most influential voices in the Democratic party for corporate accountability. When her supporters rail at Native Americans criticizing the senator and hold up her record on taking on Wall Street, they fail to see the connections between that fight and the fight for Indigenous sovereignty. Throughout American history, the spread of modern capitalism across this continent has been incumbent on the obliteration of Native nations. America’s origin story begun at Jamestown, an English colony in what was the Powhatan Confederacy. The Virginia Company of Adventurers funded the settlement in London, an early joint-stock company that was the forerunner of modern corporations. Both Virginia and the senator's state of Massachusetts began as entities owned by these early corporations which were given governmental powers by the English crown.

This model persists today as seen at Standing Rock when a Texas corporation was given governmental powers of eminent domain to build the Dakota Access Pipeline across unceded treaty land guaranteed to the Great Sioux Nation by the 1868 Fort Laramie treaty ratified by the Senate. Taking on bad corporate actors must include the deconstruction of self-serving mythologies that embolden such predatory institutions. Otherwise, the will to hold them accountable through regulations and laws Warren champions cannot take place. The recognition of tribal sovereignty and a full understanding of what it means is a necessary part of that process.

If Sen. Warren is serious about helping Native peoples (much less being a Native person) she cannot slide into old colonial habits of appropriation of Indigenous identity which has gone hand in hand with assuming the rights to the land and resources of those Native nations and peoples. It is also within this context that her mother’s story of Native identity must be understood. Not as a conscious lie, or one that makes her mother a liar, but one that has been passed down in European families and which is part of the DNA of colonialism in this country. It is an expression of the colonial prerogative to split the spoils of war and subjugation of Native nations and people between those of European descent, even fairly recent immigrants like the Trump family. And it is the triumphalism of that victory that Trump and his followers truly seek to embrace when they wear red MAGA hats and march in the streets chanting “you will not replace us.” Warren and Trump are on a continuum of European colonial experience.

It does not help Native people or their nations when media commentators describe expressions of preening colonial prerogative as “tribalism”—an intrinsically pejorative description of tribal identity.

The recent spate of revelations of white politicians in blackface, even liberal ones, demonstrates how out of step white Americans are and how ill-equipped they are to lead a pluralistic nation of which they are only another minority group. Trump’s rise to power using the dog whistle mantra of ‘Make America Great Again’ harkens back to a pre-Civil Rights era America of a white “Father Knows Best” and a post-War period when Trump’s father built a real estate empire and enforced redlining and discrimination of non-white Americans—all underwritten by federal contracts and tax dollars. And those gains are still reflected in studies that show the average accumulated wealth of white families is ten times that of black families.

Despite Warren’s struggles in those years, as recounted on her “The Story of an American Family” webpage, they as a white family benefited from the protections and cushion afforded by the system of white supremacy. She attended an all-white high school; her parents had moved to Oklahoma City for the express purpose of obtaining for her the best public education available in their state. The public education she extolls would not have been possible were her family not white. The neighborhood they lived in, the mortgage on their house, the job her mother got that saved their mortgage, even the minimum wage her mother got for that job (which would have been less if she was not white), all possible because of their white identity. Warren’s story would have been very different if her family had endured the racism and racist system a brown or black family was subjected to for the several generations they lived in the United States as white people. As a Native American family, her family’s brush with insolvency and medical issues would have most likely led to her placement in a white foster home where she would have faced the prospect of years of abuse by strangers.

It is not clear if in the period she was identifying as Native American while teaching law school, she has ever given back in any meaningful way to the Native American community. Until last year, in Feb. 2018 when she spoke to the National Congress of American Indians in her preparations to challenge Trump in 2020, her Senate record had no evidence of support for legislation that would help Native people

Where are the initiatives to help Cherokee people that she conducted in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s? While at Harvard did she ever speak to the Native American Law Students Association or mentor Native law students? Has she ever taken or taught an Indian Federal Law class? Did she speak out in 2013, after the Supreme Court ruled against a Cherokee family in Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl and a Cherokee citizen Veronica Brown was taken from her Cherokee family from a Cherokee Nation-owned house at by federal marshals? Cherokees have a long and noble tradition in the legal profession, and the Cherokee Nation has been arguing cases before the Supreme Court since the 1820s when they were fighting removal before Jackson’s Trail of Tears. What cases has Warren argued or done pro bono (as so many Native American attorneys do) to fight for her people? Where did she do for Cherokee or Delaware people in the years she was identifying in employment paperwork as Native American?

In 2012, a delegation of Cherokee women traveled to Massachusetts to present Warren’s genealogy to her and to discuss with her not only the senator’s (very white) family tree but the culturally-specific ways in which Cherokee people’s national identity is traditionally and legally understood.

Their hopes were dashed when a Warren spokesperson speaking to The Boston Herald labeled them an “out-of-state group … being promoted and supported by a right-wing extremist.” The Senate race between Warren and Brown, the incumbent, was close. And Brown, despite running as a moderate Republican, had no scruples about making use of former Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s right-wing website Breitbart’s inflammatory coverage of the visit. Brown staffers insultingly performed tomahawk chops to mock Warren.

In the more than six years since Warren has never responded to the women’s inquiries to speak with her.
“If you had told me this would still be going on six years later,” Twila Barnes, the genealogist who did Warren’s family tree and was a part of the delegation says, “I would never have believed you.”

Warren made memes and headlines by refusing to stop speaking out against the confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General and drew a rebuke from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who complained, “Nonetheless she persisted.” This persistence represents the best of the strengths of what she has to offer America, but when utilized blindly in a fight against a political opponent that leaves Native nations vulnerable it is her greatest weakness. She persisted too long in this. The most we can hope now is for an Obama-inspired speech that drives the discussion above the slings and arrows of Trumpian sneering to a message of unity, admission of mistakes of a past that preferences some American families over others and their stories and how we can become more than that. The American family story can become one of all American families, black, immigrant, refugee and even those of dual tribal and US citizenship. Recognizing Native nations’ sovereignty is the only route open to Americans and American leaders to ever come to terms morally with an immoral past and to make a better present.

“We are at a unique time in history where the national conversation around tribal issues can be leveraged as a tool for tearing one another down, or as a tool for learning more about the First Americans,” says Cherokee Nation official Clinton, “We hope public discourse moves in the direction of the latter.”
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Native Women Rule: The 'Town Destroyer' vs. the Clan Mother

Reps. Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo-NM) and Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk-WI) at an event celebrating their swearing-in to Congress (Creative Commons non-commercial license)
Historian Colin G. Calloway, author of “Indian World of George Washington The First President the First Americans & the Birth of the Nation,” writes, “Washington knew what history has forgotten: Indian nations still dominated large areas of the North American continent.” And consequently, “Washington’s entire Indian policy and his vision for the nation depended on the acquisition of Indian lands.” He was himself a land speculator, trained as a surveyor and “he looked on Indian lands with a surveyor’s eye for the rest of his life.”

The dismemberment of Native nations’ lands for the acquisition of resources, and the erasure of thousands of years of lived human history they once contained, is still active U.S.policy today. One of President Trump’s first acts in office was to sign an executive order reauthorizing the hard-fought Dakota Access pipeline that had brought more than ten thousand Native Americans and their allies to the northern border of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota to stand off against a heavily militarized response by the state of North Dakota and the pipeline builder Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners. He was declaring that Native lands and concerns would not stand in the way of money-making ventures that sought America’s “energy dominance” of the world that would “make American great again.” Trump’s obsession with rolling back hard-fought protections of Native lands won during his predecessor’s administration was once again emphasized in December 2017 when he signed another executive order reducing the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah by 85 percent. The reduction of the monument, proposed by the five tribes and meant to be co-managed with them, puts at risk over 100,000 archaeological sites documenting 10,000-years of human history on the land. These sites include cliff dwellings, kivas, graves, villages, stone towers and more.

“It's all about power, greed, and money and how much oil can we extract from Mother Earth,” said Rebecca Ortega of Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico who was in Washington DC to see the January 3 swearing-in of the very first two Native American congresswomen in U.S. history, Reps. Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Sharice Davids (D-Kansas). “And I really think that you know Pueblo women, as well as Native American women, you know we all know what we need. And we need our lands protected, we need our families to feel secure.”

In their newly minted offices crammed with Native people and in the city named for “father of his country” George Washington, it is instructive to look at the road that grew out of Washington’s decision to pursue total war against unarmed Native American women and children to secure a win in the Revolutionary War. This resulted in the deaths of thousands of defenseless Native women, children, and elders in some 40 villages whose were allied with the British and whose men were away, engaged in raids on the borders of their lands. Their alliance with the British was spurred on by the colonists themselves who had been streaming into their lands for decades, squatting on their lands to turn into private property. Washington sent several American regiments under the command of Major General Sullivan to lay waste to these villages throughout western New York destroying their foods and homes including 1,600,000 bushels of corn. Washington already had a reputation of resorting to his kind of “warfare” considered a war crime today. The Iroquois or Haudenosaunee “the people of the Longhouse,” as they called themselves, had given him the sobriquet Conotocarious or “Town Destroyer” in 1753, a name also given to his great-grandfather John Washington after the murder of five Algonquin chiefs under a flag of truce. In 1755, the future U.S. president even signed a letter to Oneida leaders (one of the six nations that comprise the Iroquois Confederacy) using the name.

An 18th c. portrait of a Mohawk woman (Getty Images)
On the National Endowment for the Humanities website, historian Sarah Pearsall vividly describes a solitary Iroquois elder confronting the Continental Army laying waste to her village, “Madam Sacho must have emerged from the smoke like a ghost: startling, uncanny, and with a tale to tell.” The NEH’s website presently has a “Shutdown Notice” banner across the top warning that during the shutdown, their website will not be maintained while the president holds the government hostage for a wall that will keep out migrants and refugees from south of the border, many of whom are Indigenous people.

Madam Sacho, or as the soldiers variously called her “a very old Squaw,” “helpless, impotent wretch,” “antediluvian hag,” was utterly alone, everyone else had fled and the corn was still standing tall in the fields. The Continental Army was “taking the war home to the enemy to break their morale,” as Washington described what would today brand him as a war criminal.

The Haudenosaunee are composed of six nations (Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Tuscarora), ruled by the Great Law of Peace, and the leaders were chosen not by white men of property as would be the case in the new republic, but by clan mothers, women who were leaders of their respective clans from which descent was traced matrilineally. Perhaps this “antediluvian hag,” as the soldiers called Sacho was just such a clan mother. It seems unlikely the people would have left her behind lightly, it must have been her choice — her choice to face the town destroyers alone.

My father’s Dakota people have stories of warriors of the Kit Fox Society who would stake themselves into the ground and fight refusing to budge even onto death. And yet, she did not fight; the elder addressed the enemy, she took advantage of their dismissal of her as a "helpless, impotent wretch” and gave them false intel, misdirecting their search, and possibly gaining time for younger women and children to escape.

“Sharice [Davids] and Deb [Haaland] coming to the Congress makes me think about our past,” Wilfred Cleveland, Ho-chunk Tribal Chairman says standing next to Ho-chunk tribal member Rep. Davids’ desk, “our relationship with the Mother Earth. And how in the home, the mother is the one that keeps the home fires burning, so to speak, and that in this day and age, the way the government is — although the government is a non-Native type of governing — it's still through the years they realize that because of dealings with Mother Earth it goes back to the relationship of woman… of the woman in the home.”

In the Declaration of Independence, King George III is accused of having “excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes, and Conditions.” Knowing Washington also engaged in this tactic the declaration can be more clearly seen as not entirely immune to the use of selective facts for propaganda purposes. The King did enforce the terms of the treaty that ended what Americans call the French and Indian War, and what in Europe is called the Seven Years’ War. A war begun by the colonists’ incursions into Indian land, and which triggers the first world war, what historians call World War Zero, doubled Britains national debt, and which the hated taxes were meant to pay for. And it was begun when a Virginia raiding party under the command of a very young George Washington led to the death of a French diplomat in western Pennsylvania. The “taxation without representation” was to pay for that debt and British force to prevent further colonists’ incursions into Indian land that could further beggar the British treasury.

Today, the U.S. maintains a military budget that dwarfs that of most of the world. And the response as seen at Standing Rock to Native nations demanding consultation on development that might harm their people’s drinking water and attempts to invoke treaties signed with the U.S. provoked a substantial military response. It is clear the land is still held by military force and to extract profit and nothing else.

“I stand with the tribes on the Chaco Canyon issue. They want a buffer around the monument,” newly sworn-in Rep. Deb Haaland told me in an interview her first full day on the job, “I will do whatever I can to stop drilling and fracking in Chaco Canyon before they sign leases with fossil fuel industries. That’s my ancestral homeland. It’s not unlike what the folks at Standing Rock did to protect their water. That’s their ancestral homeland. I hope I bring a new voice to that issue. I traveled to Bears Ears in September before my election and because I felt like I needed to be there and know what I would be fighting for. It’s apparent that in those areas there are so many treasures we do need to protect.”

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