Last year, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren came under fire for claiming she was Native American based on family lore and trace amounts of Indigenous DNA an ancestry test detected. This week at a forum in Sioux City, Iowa she apologized for her previous statements and pledged she would uplift Native American people if elected President.
Warren’s claim of Indigenous roots made a political scene when President Trump mocked her, calling her “Pocahontas” and saying if she took a DNA test and revealed she was Native American, he would donate one million dollars to her favorite charity. (A promise he later denied he made.) At first, Warren boasted her DNA results — which showed she likely had an Indigenous ancestor 6–10 generations ago. However, after backlash from Democrats, Republicans and Native American people, Warren apologized this week for the spectacle the claims caused that did not take into account that for Native American people, Indigenous DNA means oppression and erasure.
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“I am sorry for harm I have caused,” she said at the forum. “I have listened, and I have learned a lot, and I am grateful for the many conversations that we’ve had together. It is a great honor to be able to partner with Indian Country, and that’s what I’ve tried to do as a senator, and that’s what I promise I will do as a president of the United States of America.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren at Native American forum: "I know that I have made mistakes. I am sorry for harm I have caused. I have listened, and I have learned a lot."
"It is a great honor to be able to partner with Indian country…that's what I promise I will do as president." pic.twitter.com/Z0IhlvQnQK
— ABC News (@ABC) August 19, 2019
This month, Warren rolled out a collection of policy proposals to help Native American people, pledging to protect tribal lands and increase funding programs to Native communities. Among other moves, Warren said that if elected President, she would revoke the permits for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines. These oil industry projects are set to run through Native land and have sparked widespread protests over environmental and Indigenous rights. Her proposal would also expand the ability of tribes to prosecute non-Native Americans for crimes committed on their land.
For many, Indigenous ancestry is less about the novelty of spitting into a vile and sending it to a lab and more about a constant fight for rights in a society that ignores and demonizes them.
Due to colonization and racism, Native Americans remain a disenfranchised group in the U.S. One of the most pressing issues their communities face is the repeated disappearance and murder of and violence against Indigenous women — and the lack of press and legal support these cases receive.
According to the Indian Law Resource Center, more than three in five American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and over half have experienced sexual violence. The lack of records on Indigenous women who have gone missing and the government’s apathy toward the issue have led to an environment that treats Native communities like they are invisible and disposable.
Last year, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) said over $113 million in public safety funding would go toward Indigenous populations. A report by the Urban Indian Health Institute points out the issue of lack of data on missing Indigenous women being part of the problem, calling the repeated disappearance and murder of Native women and girls an epidemic. The study says though 5,712 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls were reported in 2016, only 116 were logged into the DOJ database.
Despite the controversy surrounding Warren’s earlier claims of being Native American, she has attempted to help Native populations. As a Senator, she sponsored legislation about suicide and child abuse prevention in Native communities.
Many who attended the Aug. 9 forum seemed willing to look beyond her prior racially insensitive faux pas. Some attendees told the New York Times they believe Warren’s actions speak for themselves, despite the controversy.
Omaha Tribe of Nebraska tribal leader Everett Baxter Jr., who spoke to the Times, went as far as to say he did not believe Warren owed an apology, saying she seemed “pretty in tune, actually, to what’s going on with Indian Country.”
Even so, there are many Indigenous people who were deeply offended by Warren’s ancestry claims and do not seem as apt to forgive her, even after her speech.
Joseph Pierce, a member of the Cherokee Nation and an associate professor at Stony Brook University took to Twitter to analyze Warren’s speech after he watched it online. He said it was disrespectful of Warren to take the determination of who can be considered Cherokee into her own hands. He said her appearance at the forum did not yield real solutions.
“It’s a good strategy for her, but it doesn’t address the central issue of Cherokee sovereignty: how will you repair the harm you have caused?” Pierce tweeted. “She has not even admitted what that harm was, the DNA test video is still up on her website, and she didn’t answer any tough questions.”
My analysis of @ewarren at the @4directionsvote forum: Essentially, I see a pattern of attempting to vaguely admit that she was wrong, but not say specifically why she was wrong or what she did. And then to pivot quickly to her strong suit, which is public policy. #NativeVote 1/
— Joseph M. Pierce (@PepePierce) August 19, 2019
Native American voting rights group Four Directions and the Native Organizers Alliance hosted the forum, named to honor Frank LaMere, an Indigenous activist who died in June. More candidates, including Senator Bernie Sanders and former housing secretary Julián Castro were scheduled to attend the two-day forum.
The Times reported those who ran the forum said they decided not to ask questions about Warren’s ancestry. They said Warren’s campaign had not made requests about what questions she would be asked.