If you need proof to confirm campaign silly season is already in full flower, look no further than the Massachusetts Senate race.
Incumbent Scott Brown has jumped with glee on a Boston Herald report last week that his Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren, had listed herself as “Native American” in a legal directory for a period of years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Harvard Law School administrators apparently used this designation to boost the institution’s diversity profile after Warren joined the faculty in 1992.
Warren, born and raised in Oklahoma, says that she had been told of her Cherokee roots through family tradition and told reporters that she added the listing to a professional directory “in the hopes that it might mean that I would be invited to a luncheon, a group something that might happen with people who are like I am. Nothing like that every happened, that was clearly not the use for it and so I stopped checking it off.”
While Warren was unable to provide proof for her claims of Cherokee ancestry, genealogist Christopher Child of the New England Historic and Geological Society quickly located a copy of a 1894 document that indicated her great-great-great-grandmother was, in fact, identified as a Cherokee. And despite the Brown campaign’s claims, no evidence has emerged that Warren ever tried to use Native American “minority” status as a way to advance her academic career.
“Great-Grandma Was Cherokee”
While a lot of people reflexively find the idea of a blue-eyed Harvard professor claiming Native American roots absurd, any professional genealogist will tell you that Warren is hardly unique in claiming a partial Cherokee ancestry. Thousands of American families, particularly those whose roots stretch back to the Carolinas and the Western Plains, have a strong oral tradition of mixed heritage. The industry shorthand is: “Great-grandma was a Cherokee princess.”
In his Cherokee Proud: Tracing Honored Ancestors, Tony Mack McClure jokes that “it seems that virtually everyone who wears shoes has been told at one time or another that they are Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek or whatever. In the Cherokee culture, especially, this is so prevalent that we jokingly say Adam and Eve must have been Tsalagi!”
These claims are often hard to prove, but just as often rooted in reality. It’s impossible to encapsulate the complex history of the Cherokee in a few sentences, but the key point in the Warren story is this: of all the Native American tribes, the Cherokee were the most likely to intermarry with “white” Americans, beginning in the Carolinas in the late 1700s and increasing after their forced removal to what is now Oklahoma in the mid-1800s.
The total number of Cherokee intermarriages is unclear – perhaps a few thousand over the course of 150 years. While that does not seem like a lot, keep in mind that population growth is exponential.
Consider the most famous Native American intermarriage: Pocahontas and John Rolfe. Pocahontas had on child, Thomas. Thomas had one child, Jane. Jane had six children. Nearly 400 years later, an estimated two million Americans can claim direct descent from Pocahontas and Rolfe.
For the Cherokee, all this meant that by 1900 there were very few in the tribe that could claim an unalloyed bloodline. In a 1990 study, the Census Bureau found that only about 15,000 of some 300,000 registered Cherokee identified as “full blood.” The degree of blood quantum – the minimum requirement for legal admission to a tribe – varies within the different tribal units of the Cherokee nation, but is relatively low compared to the majority of recognized tribes. The current Principle Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Bill John Baker, is 1/32 Cherokee by blood.
The same as Elizabeth Warren.
Embracing a Heritage
What does this all mean?
Politically, it would seem, very little. Unless Brown’s campaign can come up with some proof Warren lied or inappropriately used her heritage, the story should lose quickly lose steam.
But reaction to the story has been telling. Two weeks ago, Warren thought of her Cherokee lineage as just an interesting, half-heard tidbit from her family history. Now, conservative “comedian” Dennis Miller is calling her “Spreading Bull” and some Native Americans are deriding her as a “box-checker.”
Neither designation is fair.
American cultural history is far more complex than we generally realize, and how we define ourselves as individuals within that history is tricky. Most of us have some feeling about our family backgrounds, about where our ancestors came from. If we look in the mirror and see ourselves a little differently because we find our forbearers were Jewish or African or Cherokee, is that necessarily a bad thing? Or does it strengthen our ties to the wider world and our collective human story?
Elizabeth Warren said she had included that listing in those long-ago directories in the hope of finding people who shared the same background. Now she has. Once the hubbub subsides, perhaps she will have the time and space to embrace it as what it is: a fascinating, complicated part of our shared cultural fabric.
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