But many Native advocates, myself included, were not satisfied. Warren still has work to do, and demanding she do what’s left is beyond reasonable. In all of her apologizing, Warren has never let go of her family story. After spending her entire adult life repeating a lie, I simply want Warren to tell the truth.
In 1836, Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather, a white man named William Marsh, enlisted himself in a Tennessee militia to fight in the “Cherokee War,” an occupation of Cherokee land in the lead-up to the Trail of Tears. Decades later, his grandson John Houston Crawford moved his family onto Indian Territory and squatted on Cherokee land in a move that, with no record of a permit, was almost certainly illegal.
The Crawfords were just some of the tens of thousands of white squatters who outnumber Cherokees on our own land. While Cherokee Nation beseeched Congress to enforce our treaty rights and kick them out, the squatters pushed Congress to divide up our treaty territory and create a path to white land ownership; the squatters won.
The Crawfords settled in the new state of Oklahoma. They lived among Indians, but it wasn’t always peaceful. In 1906, John Crawford shot a Creek man for hitting his son. According to The Boston Globe, his son, Rosco, would later tell stories about how “mean” the Indians were. But one of Crawford’s grandchildren, Pauline Reed, told a very different story. Not a story of living among Indians, a story of being Indian.
Pauline’s youngest child, Elizabeth, grew up with her mother’s version of the story. And though the family had no evidence or relationship to the tribe, Elizabeth Warren never questioned it, she wrote in her memoir. It was her family story, she would say.
The story of Warren‘s family traces the history of Cherokee Nation, but we sit on opposite sides of that history. Like many other white families, Warren’s ancestors replaced the truth of their complicity in Cherokee dispossession with a tale of being Cherokee. If that’s not wrong, if that’s not racist, I don’t know what is.
The monster I am trying to wrestle to the ground is not one white woman who claimed to be Cherokee. It is the hundreds of thousands of white people claiming to be Cherokee and the broad social acceptance that emboldens them. It threatens the future of my tribe.
I do not fault Warren for believing what she was told as a child. But in 2019, Warren isn’t a kid anymore. She is a United States senator running for president. If she is not in a position that demands accountability and truth, who is?
The center of this controversy is not Warren’s political career, it is Cherokee sovereignty and self-determination. The monster I am trying to wrestle to the ground is not one white woman who claimed to be Cherokee. It is the hundreds of thousands of white people claiming to be Cherokee and the broad social acceptance that emboldens them. It threatens the future of my tribe. Warren is just the most public example.
When white people took over our land, they outnumbered us. Today, Cherokees are once again outnumbered by outsiders, claiming not our land, but our identity. In the last U.S. census, there were more white people claiming to be Cherokee than there are Cherokee citizens enrolled in our tribes. These fakes are writing our history, selling our art, representing us to the United Nations, fighting for the same legal status as our tribe, and stealing millions of dollars from federal programs set aside for people of color. And they all have stories that sound just like Warren’s.
I already know what people will say. They will say that many people have Cherokee ancestors but don’t have evidence, falsely believing that Cherokees were too primitive to have a paper trail when our literacy rates were higher than those of white people. They will say their great-grandmother was too proud to sign the Dawes Rolls, falsely believing the U.S. government gave Indians the option when some who refused were arrested. They will say the DNA test proves Warren is Cherokee, falsely believing that Western science knows Indigenous communities better than we know ourselves.
Tribal affiliation and kinship determine Cherokee identity — not race or biology. At a time when the far right is equating Native identity with race to undermine Native rights, the myths that lie in the wake of Warren’s missteps are extremely dangerous. Yes, she apologized, but we are left cleaning up the mess she made.
Warren’s policy platform and admission to harm is a good first step. But a complete apology is working to repair the harm you caused. There is no one in the world who has more power to correct the harmful myths perpetuated by this saga than Elizabeth Warren herself.
She simply needs to state she does not have a Cherokee ancestor and that she was wrong to claim one. Until then, Cherokee people will be left fighting the mountain of confusion she caused. And I am terrified we will lose.
Note: In July, Warren told a group of voters in New Hampshire that “nothing about the way I identified ever had anything to do with my academic career ... Even so, I shouldn’t have done it. I am not a person of color, I am not a citizen of a tribe and I’ve apologized for any confusion over tribal sovereignty, tribal citizenship and any harm caused by that.” We have updated the article to note this statement.
Rebecca Nagle is a writer, advocate and citizen of Cherokee Nation living in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
Research assistance by Cherokee genealogist Twila Barnes.