Is Elizabeth Warren an Indian?

The question posed above is extremely hard to answer. She doesn’t “look like an indian.” But what do Indians look like?

Just to recap: Elizabeth Warren is running for the Senate in Massachusetts. She’s been widely mocked for claiming herself as “native American” at various points in her career. Warren grew up in what’s now Oklahoma, a vast region which the US government had originally reserved for Indian tribes relocated from the East.

John Ross, chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1828-1866

The question is complicated by the particular history of the Cherokees, who now live where Warren grew up. To be brief, the Cherokees were somewhat unique in the way they managed their relations with the United States. Cherokees living in Georgia in the 1820s and 30s had developed a written language. They published newspapers in Cherokee. They farmed fenced plots of land. They owned slaves. They often had anglo last names, like “John Ross.” They didn’t seem much like the Indians of legend. But they were a nation, with a language, and elected leaders.

Americans in Georgia charged that the Cherokees were fake indians, and that they claimed to be Indian merely to hold on to land guaranteed them by treaty. But the treaties didn’t apply, because the Cherokees weren’t indians any more. “Real” indians presumably would not farm and print newspapers.

But those charges didn’t prevent Andrew Jackson from forcibly removing the Cherokee from their land in Georgia and moving them to Oklahoma. Jackson, in one of the most astonishingly self serving episodes in US history, claimed that if the Cherokee stayed in Georgia they would cease to be indians. By forcing them to move to a strange land he was preserving them as indians, at least the kind of Indians Jackson wanted to imagine, roaming the forests and hunting deer with bow and arrow.

The Cherokee, on the other hand, were exercising the right of self-determination; their society and culture had changed with the times.

So Elizabeth Warren grew up in a place where there were many persons of Cherokee descent, but who did not necessarily “look” or “act” indian. Surely you can be an indian and farm a plot of land, own a car and a radio, and speak English? Or are you required to live in the stone age and wear buckskins? Do you have to look like the guy on the chewing tobacco pouch, or the side of the football helmet? “Cherokee,” like any other identity one can claim, is a living thing, an amalgam of tradition and adaptation. Nobody expected George Bush to wear a pilgrim hat and shoes with silver buckles.

The obvious critique of Warren is that she’s a phony–“fauxcahontas” is the clever name–and that she claimed to be indian in order to increase her chances of getting hired. I have no idea if this is true or not. She had a distinguisehd career before being hired at Harvard. The idea that she was hired purely because she listed herself as indian is absurd, but in fact, she was listed as a “person of color” in some instances, which on the surface is comical and ridiculous: “common sense” rebels against it.

But again, consider John Ross. He was “indian” enough to be forced off his land and made to migrate to a strange and hostile territory hundres of miles away. He was Indian enough to be regarded as the leader of the Cherokee by the Cherokee, who themselves, in the 1830s, did not conform to any simple idea of what “indians” looked or acted like. Or consider Major Ridge, also called “Pathkiller.” Like Ross, he was a Cherokee tribal leader. Does he look indian enough?

The racial past of Americans is far more complicated and ambiguous than Americans generally realize. My favorite example is very personal. According to Virginia, the state in which I now reside, I am a black man. Had my family stayed in VA, my father could not have attended white schools and my parents would not have been allowed to marry. It’s absurd, and ridiculous: I’m as white as any white man you’d ever imagine, and no one in my family even knew of this history till about a decade ago. But there it is, a matter of record.

The man responsible, Walter Ashby Plecker, was convinced there were no “real” indians in VA. Instead, he argued, there lived a mongrel race of intermmarried people, the “WIN” tribe (White, Indian, Negro). If you listed yourself as “Indian” on official documents, Plecker would rewrite them, and change “indian” to “colored,” because there were no “real” indians. Had Warren grown up in VA, she would have been unable to prove any connection to Indian ancestors, because Plecker destroyed the records. And yet, the descendants of Indians still live in Virginia today.

Mildred Jeter grew up in Virginia believing she was an Indian. When she married Richard Loving, an unambiguously white looking man, she was held to have violated Virginia’s law banning intermarriage. The courts regarded her as black, even the US Supreme Court, which ruled that bans on internmarriage were unconstitutional in the 1967 case of Loving vs VA. The Court simply assumed she was black, and regarded her sense of herself as Indian as meaningless and irrelevant. She didn’t “look indian.”

The obvious point here is that defining “indian” is not a simple matter, and neither is “looking” indian. None of my ancestors “look indian,” or look colored, but there it is, in the official record. I don’t go around claiming to be colored, but I didn’t grow up in VA: my family moved to Philadelphia, where everyone quite reasonably regarded them as white and granted them the  privileges that implied. Would I feel differently had I grown up in Virginia, in a community where my family were known to be “colored?” I dont know, but I’m not ready to dismiss Warren’s “indian-ness” out of hand. Being indian doesn’t mean war whoops and tomahawk chops, and it doesn’t mean “looking indian” in some idiotic cartoonish way. It means looking human, and it means having a complex history.

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