After years of Donald Trump’s bullying Sen. Elizabeth Warren about her claimed Native American identity, last October the Massachusetts Democrat caved, spit into a cup and released a highly produced campaign-style video to publicize the results of a DNA test.
In the aftermath, Chuck Hoskin, the secretary of state of the Cherokee Nation ― the tribe Warren claims to descend from ― issued a statement that the move was “inappropriate and wrong,” and the senator was “undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.” Meanwhile, several Native critics published op-eds calling Warren’s decision “cringeworthy,” “a vicious rejection of Native sovereignty,” “pure opportunism” and “highly destructive to Native people.”
The loud criticism from Indian Country was quoted, shared and repeated by non-Native media and, for the first time since the controversy began in 2012, it felt as though Native voices were shaping the story. (For a full collection of essays about why the DNA test undermined Native rights ― points this essay is not rehashing ― check out this reading list.)
Despite the backlash, Warren slogged on. In repeated interviews and under enormous media pressure, she refused to apologize. In an interview with The Boston Globe’s editorial board, she stated, “I have an election. Donald Trump goes in front of crowds multiple times a week to attack me. ... I got this analysis back, and I made it public.”
Her announcement on Monday that she is launching an exploratory committee for a presidential bid confirmed she is at least hopeful, if not confident, that the outcry from Native Americans will be buried, be ignored or simply go away. It’s an ugly political calculation. At a press conference in front of her Boston home, when challenged on the DNA test decision, she shrugged it off.
The harm Warren caused and her refusal to acknowledge it ― let alone apologize ― matters. Her behavior regarding what FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver called a “minor story” betrays real flaws in her character as a politician, and while Warren is plowing ahead, Democrats, people on the left and her circle of supporters should stop her in her tracks.
Of course politicians make mistakes, and I am not naive enough to expect perfection. But I am experienced enough to demand that elected representatives be responsive to their constituents and accountable for their actions. A prerequisite for good governance is building responsive relationships with constituents, one that incorporates feedback into strategy and policy. In the era of big money, Washingtonian elites and out-of-touch lawmakers, I am not the only voter who is sick of candidates who can’t or won’t listen.
Instead of listening to marginalized voices, Warren listened to Trump.
Warren bills herself as the ever-accountable champion of the underdog, but on this particular issue, she has failed. She has proved that, in service to her political gain, she will ignore the concerns of marginalized voices ― as she has done to Native critics for the past six years.
She has had ample opportunity to make her mistake of falsely claiming to be Cherokee ― both as a law professor and, more awkwardly, as a cookbook plagiarist ― a minor issue in 2020. Yet her hardheadedness has only worsened the initial offense.
Despite Cherokee genealogists’ irrefutably documenting that she has no Native ancestry, she has refused to stop publicly claiming her family is “part Native.” Despite Native Americans’ warning that DNA testing is dangerous race-based science and an affront to sovereignty, she took the test. Despite promising to work for and with tribes, she did not consult the government at the center of her self-absorbed fiasco and, pointedly, has not sat down with the Cherokee Nation since. If she had listened to the concerned constituents at the center of her repeated bungles, most of this mess could have been avoided.
Instead of listening to marginalized voices, Warren listened to Trump. In her elaborate DNA test rollout, the senator was more focused on one-upping the trolling president than protecting Native rights ― a promise she made and broke in less than a year. The DNA test not only used the same rhetoric about race, blood and Native identity that the far right is using to attack tribal sovereignty but also was politically stupid.
You don’t win Trump’s game by playing it. If Warren can’t resist giving in to his taunts as a senator, how is she going to effectively maneuver a 2020 candidacy? We don’t need a Democratic nominee tuned into the Trump show; we need a nominee tuned into voters.
Warren stands for a lot of positive things that Trump does not, but her misstep on the DNA test is enough to question her commitment to speaking for all voters.
Her defenders on the left argue that because Trump is so much worse, she deserves a pass. I agree with her on most policy issues, but in what will likely be a crowded Democratic field, her blatant disregard for some of her most vulnerable constituents is enough to question her ability to represent all voters.
If the Democratic Party is going to build on its midterm election gains ― after a decade of historic and catastrophic losses ― it needs to be more responsive, accountable and politically savvy than Warren has been. It is naive to think this issue will stop haunting her, and no, that reality is not unfair. She had other options, but she has spent the past six years stubbornly digging the hole she is now stuck in. Native people warned her. Repeatedly. She ignored us. Now the Democratic Party needs to not make the same mistake.
While her early announcement betrays her embroiled position, it has already been an effective distraction. Right before the holiday season, a seemingly unprovoked news cycle saw articles in several major outlets ― The New York Times, GQ, Rolling Stone and even the senator’s longtime loyal hometown paper, The Boston Globe ― questioning or outright rejecting her viability as a candidate. The editorial board for the Globe turned against the presidential hopeful, calling her “a divisive figure” and suggesting that after testing the election waters, she should “stay on the beach.”
But on Monday, she jumped into the waters, and the concerns raised by Native Americans that was headline news mere months ago went back to being a footnote. Without taking responsibility for the harm her DNA stunt caused, by her own standards of holding the powerful in Washington accountable, she is not fit to represent all the diverse people that make up these United States.
On this issue ― where we have so much at stake ― Native Americans are consistently talked over. We are talked over by bigots who taunt Warren with war whoops and tomahawk chops, whose racism is really pointed at us. And we are talked over by Democrats like Warren who profess they stand for our rights but, when it’s politically convenient, plow right over us.
This country was built on our systematic erasure. We deserve to be heard.
Rebecca Nagle is a writer, organizer and all-around agitator for good. She is a Cherokee Nation citizen and a proud Two Spirit woman.