May 4, 2012, 12:33 am
Elizabeth Warren’s Birther Moment
By KEVIN NOBLE MAILLARD, New York Times
If you are 1/32 Cherokee and your grandfather has high cheekbones, does that make you Native American? It depends. Last Friday, Republicans in Massachusetts questioned the racial ancestry of Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Senate candidate. Her opponent, Senator Scott Brown, has accused her of using minority status as an American Indian to advance her career as a law professor at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas. The Brown campaign calls her ties to the Cherokee and Delaware nations a “hypocritical sham.”
In a press conference on Wednesday, Warren defended herself, saying, “Native American has been a part of my story, I guess since the day I was born, I don’t know any other way to describe it.” Despite her personal belief in her origins, her opponents have seized this moment in an unnecessary fire drill that guarantees media attention and forestalls real debate.
This tactic is straight from the Republican cookbook of fake controversy. First, you need a rarefied elected office typically occupied by a certain breed of privileged men. Both the Presidency and the Senate fit this bill. Second, add a bit of interracial intrigue. It could be Kenyan economists eloping with Midwestern anthropologists, or white frontiersmen pairing with indigenous women. Third, throw in some suspicion about their qualifications and ambitions. Last but not least, demand documentation of ancestry and be dissatisfied upon its receipt. Voila! You have a genuine birther movement.
The Republican approach to race is to feign that it is irrelevant — until it becomes politically advantageous to bring it up. Birthers question Obama’s state of origin (and implicitly his multiracial heritage) in efforts to disqualify him from the presidency. They characterize him as “other.” For Warren, Massachusetts Republicans place doubts on her racial claims to portray her as an opportunistic academic seeking special treatment. In both birther camps, opponents look to ancestral origins as the smoking gun, and ride the ambiguity for the duration.
Proving Native American ancestry is a complex, bureaucratic process. It’s more than showing up at the tribal enrollment office with a family bible and some black and white pictures. Many people are rejected, even when family lore tells them otherwise. Tribal citizenship depends on descent from an enrolled ancestor, and every tribe has its own requirements.
In the Cherokee Nation, there is no minimum blood requirement, which would allow someone with as little as 1/128 Cherokee blood to enroll (that would be a great-great-great-great-great grandparent). Finding that remote relative is not conclusive, however. The ancestor may not have enrolled himself. Or he could have favored assimilation and counted himself as white. Or her application was rejected or she became ineligible for citizenship.
Like Elizabeth Warren, I am a law professor who was born in Oklahoma. I am enrolled as a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, which, along with the Cherokee Nation, has recently experienced great strife in defining what it means to be Native. In the past year, the arguments have escalated nationwide. Some members say that tribes should be composed only of members with high degrees of Indian blood. Others say it should be geographically based. And some others say citizenship should be based on history and culture, regardless of blood or residence. In my personal opinion, it’s whether you have a fry bread chef-lady as a relative. (In my family, I’m that “lady.”)
Even within Indian Country, the meaning of race and citizenship is contested. And now the Brown campaign wants to dictate Warren’s own belief in her identity. According to the Brown campaign, Warren could not be Indian because she is blonde, rich and most of all, a Harvard law professor. Her 1/32 Cherokee ancestry, sufficient for tribal citizenship, is not enough for the Republican party. To most people, she appears as white as, well, Betty White, but to the Scott Brown campaign, she is just Dancing With Wolves.
The Brown campaign asserts that Warren knowingly classified herself as Native American in the 1990s when Harvard weathered sharp criticism for its lack of faculty diversity. During this time, they argue, Warren relied upon this classification to enhance her employment opportunities and to improve Harvard’s numbers. Her faculty mentors at Harvard deny this and assert that the law school hired Warren without any knowledge of her ancestry.
Admittedly, news of Elizabeth Warren’s Cherokee and Delaware ancestry comes as a surprise. There simply are not enough places in legal academia for Native American professors to hide. The community is tight and small. It’s like “Peyton Place,” but with academic arguments over subject matter jurisdiction. According to the Association of American Law Schools, Native law professors are only .5% of all law faculty — about fifty people out of 11,000.
Native faculty are familiar with “box checkers”: those students and faculty who become Native for the temporary moment of admissions or employment. As soon as the application is mailed or the interview completed, the candidate returns to life as usual. The Cherokee Princess Grandmother served her purpose, and her memory is revived at convenient times.
This merits a reexamination of the difficult question of what it means to be Native. Does that make the Chickasaw kid from Buckhead in Atlanta any less Native than the Navajo faculty candidate from Windy Gap? What does a Native even look like? It’s more than long black hair, feathers and beads. At the same time, it is more than checking a box.
Someone’s subjective opinion about her heritage may conflict with tribal requirements for membership. The standards are not constant, and they may change with new tribal governments. This happened in my tribe in 2002, when the new chief decided that some members were not “Indian enough.” Even at home, the tribal government falls into stereotypes.
For the Cherokee Nation, Warren is “Indian enough”; she has the same blood quantum as Cherokee Nation Chief Bill John Baker. For non-Natives, this may be surprising. They expect to see “high cheekbones,” as Warren described her grandfather as having, or tan skin. They want to know of pow wows, dusty reservations, sweat lodges, peyote and cheap cigarettes. When outsiders look at these ostensibly white people as members of Native America, they don’t see minorities. As a result, Warren feels she must satisfy these new birthers and justify her existence.
Looked at from the inside, however, the Warren controversy is all new. When the Brown campaign accused Elizabeth Warren of touting herself as American Indian to advance her career, this was news to Native law professors. We have a good eye for welcoming faculty to the community and identifying promising scholars. We know where people teach, what they have published and we honor them when they die. Harvard Law School named its first Native American tenured professor? Really? In our small indigenous faculty town, we would have heard about it already.
Kevin Noble Maillard is a law professor at Syracuse University and a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. He is the co-editor of “Loving v. Virginia in a Post Racial World: Rethinking Race, Sex, and Marriage,” which will be published later this month.