I was among those who thought Sen. Elizabeth Warren was an ethnic fraud—more specifically a “box checker” who claimed Cherokee ancestry to ascend to the Harvard Law School faculty.
But the Boston Globe, in its feature, “Ethnicity not a factor in Elizabeth Warren’s rise in law,” convinced me otherwise. While I wish she would not have waited six years to turn over her teaching records, I am persuaded by the Globe that Sen. Warren never checked any “Native American” box for professional gain—especially not at Penn and not at Harvard.
So I forgive Sen. Warren for claiming tribal ancestry, and am now anxious to forget the entire “Cherokee grandma” controversy that surrounds her. It’s time we all forgive and forget.
The criticism I have about the continued critiques of Sen. Warren’s ancestry is that they cite a void of genealogical documentation for her great-great-great grandma from the late 19th Century—the types of documentation that either never existed for grandma’s in the late 1800s; or are demonstrably incomplete as to Indians who endured that genocidal time in American history.
Folks ask: “Where is her claimed Cherokee great-great-great grandma’s marriage license application or marriage license?” “Why aren’t any of her ancestors listed on any rolls of Cherokee Indians dating back to the early 1800s?” “Where is any proof of her claimed Delaware blood?”
The flaw in these questions is that they fail to appreciate or acknowledge that so-called vital records, especially those for women or Indians who lived in the 1800s, are scarce to non-existent.
They also ignore that federal Indian rolls and censuses have been proven inherently incomplete—lacking countless tribal ancestors. Angelique A. EagleWoman & Wambdi A. Wastewin, Tribal Values of Taxation Within the Tribalist Economic Theory, 18 Kan.J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, 1, 7 (2008).
Truth be told: If such historic federal, state, or local government documentation is the metric of tribal belonging in 2018, most current tribal members would not measure up. Nobody Native I know has their great-great grandma’s marriage license or great grandma’s birth certificate.
Sen. Warren claims she first learned of her Cherokee and Delaware ancestry from her grandma. This is precisely how most of us learned we are tribal: our grandmas told us. That is precisely how I first knew I was Nomlaki and Concow: my grandma told me.
That, quite simply, is kinship.
External issues surrounding our identity and imagery are important. Misappropriated tribal ancestry does have negative psychological impacts on Natives today, particularly our youth. But tribal cultural misappropriation is hardly the biggest existential threat to Indian Country.
The single biggest existential threat is now . . . us. By that I mean our continued internal reliance on colonial-turned-federal modes of tribal termination and assimilation—most notably, blood quantum, residential criteria, and federal censuses/rolls—as measures of tribal belonging.
If we continue to self-define ourselves by using the colonizer’s genocidal tools, we will eventually “kill the Indian” ourselves. Disenrollment—with 80 tribes now engaged in the practice—is a glaring example, with greed-addled tribal politicians wielding those tools to self-terminate their own kin.
So let’s all forgive and forget Sen. Warren. Let her cherish her grandma’s teachings and what she believes is her kinship. Let’s instead focus or energies our teachings and our kinship.
Gabriel S. Galanda is the managing lawyer of Galanda Broadman, PLLC, in Seattle. Gabe is a descendant of the Nomlaki and Concow Tribes, belonging to the Round Valley Indian Tribes of Northern California.