For 72 hours this week, news headlines focused on President Donald Trump’s offensive usage of the name “Pocahontas” when he referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) at an event to honor Navajo Code Talkers on Monday.
As a young Cherokee woman, one would assume that I would take Warren’s side in standing up against Trump’s racist remark. Following the incident, Warren lambasted the president, telling MSNBC that Trump has done “this over and over thinking somehow he’s going to shut me up with it. It hadn’t worked in the past, it is not going to work in the future.”
A real Native American hero, right?
She was not a hero to me when she failed to foster a haven of support for Native students within Harvard University’s alienating Ivy League culture. She is not a hero for spending years awkwardly avoiding Native leaders. She is not a hero because, despite claiming to be the only Native woman in the U.S. Senate, she has done nothing to advance our rights.
She is not from us. She does not represent us. She is not Cherokee.
The controversy over Warren’s identity stems from the 1990s, when Warren was a professor at Harvard Law School. The university promoted her and celebrated her as the first minority woman to receive tenure. When the Boston press dug up these reports during Warren’s campaign for Senate in 2012, she stated she didn’t know why Harvard had promoted her as Native American. It appears that Warren categorized herself as “Native American” during a time when the minority status served her career and later dropped the marker after gaining tenure.
“…as Native people, we are relegated to being invisible, while Warren is not.”
In defending her supposed Native identity, Warren has drawn from both racist stereotypes and easily refutable stories about her family. At a 2012 press conference Warren stated that her family knew her grandfather was “part” Cherokee because “he had high cheekbones like all of the Indians.” Cherokee genealogists have pored through her family history to find that “None of her direct line ancestors are ever shown to be anything other than white, dating back to long before the Trail of Tears.” To add insult to injury, despite Warren’s public claims of Native American heritage, she has decidedly avoided talking with Native leaders and, in 2012, refused to meet with a group of Cherokee women at the Democratic National Convention.
As Cherokee Nation citizen and community activist David Cornsilk told me, “We don’t get to celebrate her, because we don’t know her. She is not related to us, she does not live in our community. She is not our conduit to the Senate. We are not celebrating her in the Tribal newspaper. Elizabeth Warren is nothing to us, so we have no inroad to that powerful operation that affects our daily lives.”
Warren’s misrepresentation of her heritage has major consequences for Native Americans, who have little visibility not only in politics, but in American culture at large. Warren’s claims of Cherokee identity make her the only representation of Cherokees that the average American will likely ever see. I challenge non-Native readers to name another Cherokee leader in elected office. Or any Native American holding elected office in the United States. Or a contemporary Native American author. A Native American movie star. A Native American athlete. Or any famous Native people who are alive today. What is beyond maddening is that, as Native people, we are relegated to being invisible, while Warren is not.
As a mixed Native woman, I have to relive the racist stereotypes Warren spits out to defend her alleged Native identity everyday. People constantly ask me, what part Cherokee are you? Who in your family was Cherokee? That’s so nice that you embrace your Native heritage.
I am not part Cherokee. There is not one member of my family who was Cherokee. I am Cherokee. I am an enrolled citizen of Cherokee Nation and a member of my home and urban Indian communities. We are living, real, and whole people; not fractions of Indians who used to be real.
“We are living, real, and whole people; not fractions of Indians who used to be real.”
“Non-Native people need to recognize their own limitations and that we, native people, are experts on our own communities. When they argue against us from a place of ignorance, they are actually dismissing us and disappearing us,” Cornsilk said.
As contemporary Native Americans, we live in the space between Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren, between the stereotypes that were created to excuse the wholesale slaughter of our people and the stereotypes that were created to excuse the wholesale appropriation of our identity and cultures. The Trumps and Warrens of the world leave very little space for us to exist — which, when you understand the history of the United States, makes perfect sense.
Trump casually throws around the word “Pocahontas,” but few are aware of the traumatic history it evokes — one that mirrors the grim reality that Native women face everyday. The fictional Disney character Pocahontas is based on a real Powhatan teenager named Matoaka, who was actually kidnapped and held hostage by White settlers. She died in England at the age of 21. Today, four in five Native women will be raped, stalked or abused in our lifetime and nine out of 10 of the perpetrators are non-Native. If Warren wanted to be true to her supposed Native identity, she would have done well to do more than just stand up for herself — she would have stood up for her people.
As one of the statistics — a Cherokee woman and a survivor — Elizabeth Warren does not speak for me.
Sen. Warren needs to accept responsibility for misappropriating Native identity for her own economic and political gain. To help her, I have drafted an apology, which she has my full permission to appropriate. Every last word:
I am deeply sorry to the Native American people who have been greatly harmed by my misappropriation of Cherokee identity. I want to especially apologize to the over 350,000 citizens of Cherokee Nation, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the United Keetoowah Band. In my family, there is an oral history of being Cherokee, however, research on my genealogy going back over 150 years does not reveal a single Native ancestor. Like many Americans who grew up with family members claiming to be Cherokee, I now know that my family’s stories were based on myth rather than fact. I am not enrolled in any of the three Federally recognized Cherokee Tribes, nor am I an active member of any Cherokee or Native American community. Native Nations are not relics of the past, but active, contemporary, and distinct political groups who are still fighting for recognition and sovereignty within the United States. Those of us who claim false Native identity undermine this fight.
I am sorry for the real damage that Native Americans have experienced as the debate about my false identity has revived the worst stereotypes and offensive racist remarks, all while Native people have been silenced. I will do my part as a Senator to push for the United States to fully recognize tribal nations’ inherent sovereignty and uphold our treaty obligations to Native Nations. I will use my national platform to advance the rights of Native Americans and I commit to building real relationships in Indian Country as an ally and supporter.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that Warren checked a “Native American” box on job applications. In fact, Warren listed herself as a minority in an Association of American Law Schools directory.
Rebecca Nagle is a Citizen of Cherokee Nation and a two spirit (queer) woman. She is currently a writer and organizer living in Baltimore, MD.