Elizabeth Warren became a household name on June 10th, 2016, when Trump called her Pocahontas. That was her first impression, and it’s stuck. Talk about her debate performance, her climate change policies, anything, and you can guarantee that someone’s going to bring this up. “Didn’t Warren pretend to be Native American?” Yeah, she did. “Has she apologized?” Eventually, imperfectly. “How can you still support her?” Let’s get into that.
Brief recap—Warren started identifying as Native American in 1986, after becoming a full-time professor at the University of Pennsylvania. The Boston Globe has an exhaustive investigation on whether Warren has benefited professionally from calling herself Native American; she hasn’t. This was about as good as the situation was going to get for Warren. A month later, however, she mucked everything up by releasing a DNA test and a video calling her Cherokee heritage a “fact”. No one liked this. The Cherokee Nation was especially offended: “being a Cherokee Nation tribal citizen is rooted in centuries of culture and laws, not through DNA tests,” said the Cherokee Nation’s communications director. Warren initially defended her actions, stating that “tribal citizenship is very different from ancestry” at an Iowa campaign rally. This, of course, sucked—she only bothered to make the distinction between citizenship and ancestry once she’d been criticized for ignoring it. She still hadn’t apologized.
If Warren’s story ended here, she’d be well and truly cancelled. But it doesn’t.
About a year after her speech on the “nuance” of Native American heritage, she reached out to the Cherokee Nation, privately, to apologize. It wasn’t perfect. Warren said it was about “furthering confusion about tribal citizenship, and for not being more mindful about this decades ago.” It wasn’t, according to Rebecca Nagle, Cherokee activist, about “saying without qualification that she is not Cherokee and that she is not Native.”
But four days later, Warren spoke at a Native American Conference and promised action in areas the Trump administration has ignored (the rising murder rate for indigenous women, the rising drug addiction rate in indigenous communities, and the massive funding gaps that have contributed to both of these) and then ceded the floor. Deb Haaland, one of the first two Native women elected to Congress, called Warren “a dear friend”, and a “strong ally to Indian Country”, and someone with an “unwavering commitment to Native communities and Native American women and children”. At no point was Warren referred to as Native; at no point did Warren object to this. She’s an ally, now, and I’m not alone in thinking that her spotty track record forced her towards doing good. Julian Noisecat, a Native American Journalist and previous critic of Warren’s, has said that “of the Democratic presidential candidates, Ms. Warren has caused the most upset among Native American communities, but has also probably done the most outreach and is more vocal on issues that affect tribal citizens than other presidential candidates.”
Mr. Noisecat— “She’s one of the strongest allies of Indian country in Congress. She has good relationships with tribes across the board. And I think that’s relevant.”