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Warren and native identity

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UNITED STATES – FEBRUARY 26: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., listens during the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

We’re in one of those exceedingly rare moments when national media outlets are seeking out and elevating Native American voices, with respect to Elizabeth Warren. Much of what they’re sharing is quite critical of Warren, for reasons I find not wholly uncompelling. Without pretending to resolve any of the fraught questions here, I want to give a signal boost to a Native perspective that I doubt our national media will end up picking up: specifically, from the anti-disenrollment movement:

I was among those who thought Sen. Elizabeth Warren was an ethnic fraud—more specifically a “box checker” who claimed Cherokee ancestry to ascend to the Harvard Law School faculty.

But the Boston Globe, in its feature, “Ethnicity not a factor in Elizabeth Warren’s rise in law,” convinced me otherwise. While I wish she would not have waited six years to turn over her teaching records, I am persuaded by the Globe that Sen. Warren never checked any “Native American” box for professional gain—especially not at Penn and not at Harvard.

So I forgive Sen. Warren for claiming tribal ancestry, and am now anxious to forget the entire “Cherokee grandma” controversy that surrounds her. It’s time we all forgive and forget.

The criticism I have about the continued critiques of Sen. Warren’s ancestry is that they cite a void of genealogical documentation for her great-great-great grandma from the late 19th Century—the types of documentation that either never existed for grandma’s in the late 1800s; or are demonstrably incomplete as to Indians who endured that genocidal time in American history.
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External issues surrounding our identity and imagery are important. Misappropriated tribal ancestry does have negative psychological impacts on Natives today, particularly our youth. But tribal cultural misappropriation is hardly the biggest existential threat to Indian Country.

The single biggest existential threat is now . . . us. By that I mean our continued internal reliance on colonial-turned-federal modes of tribal termination and assimilation—most notably, blood quantum, residential criteria, and federal censuses/rolls—as measures of tribal belonging.

If we continue to self-define ourselves by using the colonizer’s genocidal tools, we will eventually “kill the Indian” ourselves. Disenrollment—with 80 tribes now engaged in the practice—is a glaring example, with greed-addled tribal politicians wielding those tools to self-terminate their own kin.

The logic of the case against Warren’s ancestry claim–the dubious scientific validity of genetic testing, privileging of family lore over formal documentation, etc–can and are easily turned against tribal members themselves. The use of dubious methods of proving people *are* Native is politically fraught, but so, too, is the use of similar methods to prove people *aren’t* Native. The threat of the latter is more existential–it is currently being deployed to strip vulnerable people of their identities, as well as rights, jobs, income, homes, access to health care, etc. In the world we live in, there’s no approach to determining Native ancestry that can simultaneously avoid the dangers of over-inclusiveness (which risks giving aid and comfort to white people with no meaningful connection to Native communities claiming Native heritage) and under-inclusiveness (which places non-elite Native Americans in danger of of being stripped of their identity by venal or corrupt local governments). Galanda, the author of the piece, is represents the “Nooksack 306”–a group of (now, technically, former) Nooksack tribal members who have been purged of their membership and identity in an undemocratic power-play by another faction. The story of the Nooksack 306 fight, and Galanda’s role in it, was described in a thoughtful long piece in the NYT Magazine last year, well worth reading.) The “forgetting Warren” in his title here is an effort to get us to see beyond our evaluation of Warren–for Native communities, there’s much more at stake. It’s understandable that white liberals might get hung up on that question, but it’s a mistake.

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