The Boston Herald drumbeating investigation of Elizabeth Warren’s claim to having Cherokee blood keeps on. In yesterday’s installment, the paper published excerpts from a 1984 cookbook called Pow Wow Chow, edited by Warren’s cousin, who compiled recipes from “Five Tribes families.” The story has gone viral on right wing websites. But so what?
The Five Tribes included Cherokee, which is how Warren identified herself. Responsible genealogists are quick to point out that proving one’s Native American heritage is complex, that most of those claiming a “Cherokee heritage” actually come from other tribes initially, and there are more people with legitimate indigenous roots than those who can provide clear and convincing documentation.
Forced west to Oklahoma in the 1830s Trail of Tears displacement, “Cherokee” women often intermarried with settlers of European descent who couldn’t afford to bring brides from back East.
For more than a century, being classified anything other than white was not chic but more to be whispered about. If possible, Native Americans tried to pass, lest they be subject to legal and social discrimination. They couldn’t vote, own land or go to school with white children. Then much of the U.S. realized that we were a stew, not a melting pot. The nation saw strength in diversity, a desire to right past discrimination, and affirmative action.
In Oklahoma, among those who trace their roots back more than a century, some Native American blood is expected, and even celebrated. This ranges from Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole, a Chickasaw Indian and the only Native American in Congress, to former Sooner GOP Congressman Mickey Edwards, who was born in Cleveland and was made an honorary Osage Indian.
That Oklahoma-born Elizabeth Warren heard this part of her heritage passed down from one family to another is not surprising. That she had no documentation is also not surprising.
My husband’s grandfather was said to have been a member of the cavalry in the czar’s army. It’s part of family lore but there is no paper trail. My grandfather was said to been a cigarette factory owner in Russia in the late 19th century, before he fled conscription in the czar’s army and came to America. Again, no documentation of that factory. Children are told about their forebears and, in turn, tell it to their own children.
All the brouhaha stems not from the fact that Elizabeth Warren listed herself years ago as a minority in a national directory of law professors but how she handled the question today. It’s pretty clear that Harvard hired her not because of affirmative action but because she’s a smart lady and a good professor, with an expertise in bankruptcy law that they were looking for. What we don’t know is to what extent Harvard made her 1/32 Cherokee blood work for the university at a time when it was under fire for lack of diversity, or whether they got any benefit from the designation. But that’s an issue for Harvard.
Thankfully, most people understand that there are bigger issues in this campaign, not the least of which is Scott Brown’s efforts to gut strong regulatory support of the Volcker Rule. He may be heeding his heavy level of financial backing from Wall Street at a time when the nation needs to stand firm on financial regulation, rather than watering it down.
The Cherokee story has staying power because its gives Brown an opportunity to pander to white male independents. It’s easier for reporters, columnists and bloggers to write about because it doesn’t require explaining the significance of procedural votes or delving into complex (sometimes boring) substance.
If the Cherokee story drags on, perhaps Warren should say, “Look, I am proud of my identity and what I’ve always been told … that I am part Native American, but I shouldn’t have listed myself as a minority because, practically speaking, I’m not. Now let’s look at what the real issues are and get focused on the clearcut differences between Scott Brown and me.”
I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.