Faux-cohontas: Cherokee No; Wantabe Yes

Elizabeth Warren may claim that her great-great-great grandmother was Cherokee, but according to the Cherokee Nation, she is likely ineligible for membership. In fact, even if she had more than 1/32 Cherokee ancestry, the would-be U.S. Senator from Massachusetts likely cannot claim membership under the Cherokee Nation's strict rules.

The Washington Post ran an op-ed with the ultimate spinning title, “Elizabeth Warren says she’s Native American. So she is.” But she isn’t, and that's not how Native American identity ultimately works. An official source at the Cherokee Nation confirmed Thursday that Ms. Warren “would not under any circumstances qualify as a member of the Cherokee Nation” if she could not find an ancestor listed on the Dawes Roll, a census of Cherokee taken from 1899 to 1906. 

Even if you can demonstrate by genealogy that your ancestors were Cherokee but did not sign the roll, you still cannot get in. “Anyone descended from the Cherokee [not listed on the Dawes Roll] will be unable to enroll in the Cherokee Nation, even if they are able to prove their Cherokee heritage,” writes Christina Berry at All Things Cherokee.

It would appear then that Warren, who claims to be 1/32 Cherokee solely on the basis of family history, cannot claim to be a member, and as Indian tribes, under federal law, have ultimate authority over who is--and who is not--a member of the tribe, Warren may be out of luck.

So strict are the rules that, even if Warren’s own father were Cherokee but had descended from a group of Cherokee which had refused to sign the Dawes Roll, she could not qualify as a member. Ironically, the Roll, created by former Massachusetts senator Henry L. Dawes in 1893, was established to help the Cherokee assimilate into American life by giving them property and divvying up the reservation lands, not to keep them separate for the purposes of multiculturalism. 

Fittingly, Dawes’s approach ultimately backfired, as white farmers moved in to try to exploit the land quotas reserved for Indians--something that Warren, who claims her Native American ancestry, might be able to relate to, if allegations that she traded on her "minority" status to gain a faculty position at Harvard Law School are true.

While the Warren campaign claims she would have received her tenure at Harvard Law on merit, it’s easy to be more than a little bit suspicious. Paul Bedard of the Washington Examiner notes that Warren’s forgery “likely played a role in her Harvard hiring.”

When compared to the academic pedigree of her colleagues at Harvard, she’s found lacking. Most professors at Harvard Law graduated from Harvard, and all but one graduated from the nation’s top 10 law schools—all that is, except for Warren, who graduated from Rutgers University in Newark, which is ranked 82nd by Top-Law-Schools.com

In any event, to this day, several tribes--Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole—continue to use the Rolls to decide how to award tribal benefits, such as casino earnings or scholarships. The 300,000-strong Cherokee do not distribute casino earnings to its members, but they do award modest $1000 to $2000 scholarships to them. In 2009, the tribe provided some 2,512 scholarships.

Did Warren receive such a scholarship? If not, why not? Had she been able to establish her Cherokee bona fides, she likely would have been eligible. And if she were a member of the tribe, she could have enrolled in the Cherokee Nation’s single payer health care system--a system she apparently wants to foist upon the rest of us.

Perhaps Warren, who graduated from Rutgers in 1978, was part of a new wave of Americans self-identifying as Indian. According to Killing the White Man’s Indian (1996) by historian Fergus Bordewich:

Between 1980 and 1990, the apparent number of Indians jumped by 78 percent in New Jersey, 66.1 percent in Ohio, 64 percent in Texas, 62 percent in Virginia, and 58.3 percent in New York. …In 1990, nearly 2 million Americans listed themselves as Indians in the U.S. Census. (54)

In 1978, Congress passed the American Religious Freedom Act, which uses a two-part definition of what constitutes an Indian. According to the act, an Indian is a person who belongs to an Indian Tribe and who “is recognized as eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their status as Indians.” Anything else is fake.

Warren doesn’t fit the definition, but she is, apparently, a member of what Kent Carter, director of the National Archives-Fort Worth Branch calls the largest tribe in America--the Wantabes. 

Alternatively, Warren may be a member of the second largest Native American tribe, the Outalucks. It’ll be up to voters in Massachusetts to decide.


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