The Boston Herald published an article on April 26 that has ignited – or really, solicited – all kinds of editorials and commentaries on Elizabeth Warren’s Native American ancestry.
I have been as bored with the “revelation” of Warren’s ancestry as I have been with the discussions on the conservative right that have followed. I do not promise my remarks to be any more interesting. The only thing that would make them so would be if those engaged in "covering the issue" (or, really, furthering it as a scandal) were committed to the integrity and ethics of what they were saying and the issues that they were talking about.
But I rant. To bring everyone onto the same page: Elizabeth Warren has been a fiercely progressive consumer advocate, serving on the Congressional Oversight Panel that oversaw the implementation of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act and as a Special Advisor to President Barak Obama on the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In both of these roles, she garnered many enemies and critics among the conservative right – congressional, corporate, and media. She is now the democratic candidate for the Massachusetts Senate, against republican incumbent Scott Brown. Just about everyone on the conservative right, including Brown’s campaign, have seized upon Warren’s ancestry as a means to challenging her integrity, ethics, and viability as a candidate.
And that’s about as interesting as it gets. Interesting, that is, if interesting means tedious. As if any one of these individuals actually cared about or were committed to understanding the politics of Native American ancestry and the ethics of self-definition that they are suddenly morally outraged over and not, in fact, committed to finding any means necessary to de-legitimate Warren’s righteous critiques of Congressional and Wall Street corruption and fraud.
I suppose I find it near impossible to believe any of them care about Warren’s ancestry and what it instances in Native American history given their position on Native human rights to self-determination – a position that led to the United States’ vote against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 and its lame-duck endorsement in 2010, only after the proverbial “this means nothing” clause was added to nullify its legal implications for Native land rights and jurisdiction.
So, now Native people are to believe that everyone in congress, wall street, and the media – on the right, one the left, in the middle – actually cares about Native American ancestry, the historical issues that inform it, and what it means in national politics? Excuse me if I find this hard to accept.
Seven observations made while witnessing “the Warren controversy” from a discrete distance
1. The conservative right – including those in Congress, on Wall Street, in the media, the non-profit sector, and higher education – have worked very hard since World War II to prevent, undermine, distort, and reverse civil rights and Affirmative Action laws and policies that make higher education accessible and affordable. These efforts include congressional complicity with those bank practices that have indentured students and everyone else to exorbitant interest rates on loans that they will never be able to pay back in their lifetimes. They also include the shameless commercial use of “minorities” to disguise their racism as multicultural inclusion.
2. Ancestry is not the same thing as membership in a federal or state recognized American Indian tribe or Alaskan Native village, even though most tribes and villages require documented lineal descent for membership. There are numerous reasons why individuals can claim ancestry and either not be able to prove their lineal descent by genealogical record or qualify for membership in a recognized tribe or village. (Not to mention the many reasons why tribes and villages might not hold recognition status.)
3. Tribes and villages make a legal distinction between those who can claim ancestry and those who are members (often preferring the language of citizenship in sovereign nations). It is common for tribes and villages to respect an individual’s right to claim ancestry as an individual’s basic human right to self-determination. It is common for tribes and villages to assert their membership or citizenship policies and criteria as an integral part of their collective human rights to governance.
4. There are many, many individuals and groups in the United States who make false claims to Native identity for economic and social gain. Native people call them “wannabes.” These individuals and groups have done real damage to Native communities, including that done by taking away fellowships, professional appointments, and all of the commensurate economic benefits and reputation they could provide Native students and scholars. They also do real damage by affirming Anti-Affirmative Action and anti-sovereignty arguments that no one has a legitimate claim and so right to Native self-determination.
5. There is no legitimate DNA test or “evidence” that can prove Native or any other racial ancestry or lineal descent. No. None. Get over it. (See Kim TallBear's interview in "The Myth of Native American Blood.")
6. Physical appearance is not a valid measure of Native or any other racial ancestry, let alone citizenship or membership. But perceptions and judgments about it are a valid measure of racism towards Native people. It doesn’t indicate the “truth” of one’s ancestry or lineal descent, it does tell a lot about what someone expects Native people to look like based on racist stereotypes. Stereotypes that continue to be used to undermine Native sovereignty and self-determination.
7. If anyone discussing "the Warren question" really cared about Native people, they would be writing against the racist expectations and historical ignorance fueling the questions about her ethics and integrity. They would be writing for Native self-determination.