As Elizabeth Warren tells it in her new book, A Fighting Chance, it all began with a single question from the press about a long-ago forgotten Harvard Crimson story.
“It started in April with a question,” she writes. “Sixteen years earlier, in an interview in Harvard’s newspaper, a university spokesman had defended the faculty’s lack of diversity by noting my Native American background, and now a reporter wanted to know the details. I didn’t recall the long-ago article, and when the reporter asked about it, I fumbled the question.”
At the time, Warren claimed to have no idea why the spokesman for Harvard Law School referred to her as a Native American in 1996. “I don’t know more than that,” she said.
That year, in October, Harvard Law School’s then-News Officer Michael Chmura told the Harvard Crimson Warren is Native American. “Although the conventional wisdom among students and faculty is that the Law School faculty includes no minority women, Chmura said Professor of Law Elizabeth Warren is Native American,” the article said.
How did Chmura, who did not respond to a request for comment sent Wednesday and has never spoken about the matter since it became an issue in 2012, come to believe that Warren was a Native American in the first place?
The evidence from the time points to Warren herself and Dr. S. Alan Ray, Harvard Law School’s Director of Academic Affairs at the time and now the president of Elmhurst College in Illinois.
Ray arrived on Harvard’s campus two months before the infamous Crimson article, which, until then, was the only written mention of Warren’s claims of Native American ancestry besides a 1984 “Pow Wow Chow” cookbook, which she contributed a (plagiarized) recipe to.
She had been a “woman of color” in the 1993 Harvard Women’s Law Journal and listed in a national directory of minority law professors, but nothing more specific.
As Director of Academic Affairs, Ray was responsible for preparing Harvard Law School’s reports to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and, more broadly, on assessing the number of minorities on its campus.
After he arrived, Warren was publicly identified by the school as a Native American and Harvard’s 1999 Affirmative Action plan, based on the school’s EEOC report, listed a single senior faculty member at Harvard Law School, a woman, as a Native American.
With Chmura relying on Ray’s work to determine who was a minority on campus, and Ray not having any concrete reason to believe Warren claimed to have Native American descent, it seems likely that Warren herself provided that information to Ray, either informally or through information provided in her personnel file.
In May 2012, Professor Robert Clark, who was Dean of Harvard Law School during the 1990s and hired Elizabeth Warren in 1995, told Breitbart News about his own experiences with a Harvard Law School administrator, perhaps Ray, who wanted to list him also as Native American in Harvard’s EEOC report:
My own family lore through my grandfather was that we had a Choctaw ancestor in my own family. But I never verified it and did not claim minority status. A few years later, around 1996 or 1997, I made an offhand comment in an informal get-together with a Native American student group about this Choctaw family lore. Eventually a law school administrator asked me if I wished to list myself as Native American in some of our EEOC reports, but I politely declined. It was just family lore, and more importantly, I had no identification whatsoever with the Choctaw community.
In contrast to Senator Warren, Dean Clark has the basic integrity to know that “family lore” does not constitute credible evidence of ancestry.
Notably, Ray was born to a Cherokee woman and adopted by a non-Cherokee family in Oklahoma shortly after his birth in the 1950s. When he was a child, his adoptive mother saw to the paperwork that confirmed his biological claim to membership in the Cherokee tribe. Unlike Elizabeth Warren, Dr. Ray is an enrolled member of the Cherokee tribe.
Warren now says she “flubbed the question” that she didn’t know why Harvard referred to her as a Native American. The facts suggest the correct answer would have been because she told them that supposedly based on family folklore for which there is no documentary evidence to support it.