Elizabeth Warren: Record of American Indian Heritage Was Destroyed in 1906

The attack on Elizabeth Warren's sometime allusions to American Indian heritage as being untrue is very likely unsupportable. The thing is, a similar accusation would be baseless for unknowable numbers of American Indian descendants. The records are known to be inaccurate and the Indian Nations take that into consideration. I am nominally a 64th Choctaw and yet am eligible for tribal enrollment. Why, with that amount of dilution would they want to consider me? The answer is that the cultural pressures prevailing at the time of the last Indian census, the Dawes Rolls, literally discriminated against accuracy. At the time it was like a current U.S. Census asking whether or not you were in this country illegally.

I take this subject personally. In 1951, the year I was born, prevailing cultural norms among the whites might have cost me my life and my mother one of her children at birth. In Pecos Texas, my mother's home, the rumor at the time was that the one MD in town had an infant mortality rate of 80 percent in delivery of minority children. My mother, taking no chances, traveled to a little town north of Tulsa, Okla., to deliver me, safer in the Home of the Red Man.

Her father was nominally 1/16 Choctaw. But both he and my mother knew a secret truth. He was three-quarters American Indian, half Choctaw and a quarter Cherokee. He spent his whole life passing as white, but the threat of the local MD was too great a risk to take. How did 3/4 in reality become virtually white in the records? Therein lies the difficulty of proving Indian heritage.

The Dawes Rolls of 1906 were the final census of the Indian Nations prior to dissolution of the reservation system. Those on the rolls could get compensation for the loss of reservation lands if they had at least 1/8 Indian blood. At the same time, the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, had local law requiring any full blood Indian to have a white custodian. Antipathy towards the Tribes for their reluctance to surrender their lands to whites created an atmosphere of intimidation. To reveal one's true blood might have invited recrimination along with a custodian. As a result, many chose the sensible compromise with the government and whites. They signed up to receive allotments on the Dawes Roll but often lied about their true bloodedness. They signed up as 1/8, got their allotments and avoided trouble.

Lineage was lost wholesale by the time the Dawes Rolls were closed, but it remains the solemn document of American Indian heritage. What your great, great, great grandparent gave as their "bloodedness" dictates what you can have certified as your blood today. Greed and a conspiratorial prejudice in government erased the truth.

My own heritage is a concrete example of what bigotry in hand with indifference to justice can do to a family history.

Eliza, my great-great-grandmother was a maid to the household of Kennerly. When Kennerly's wife Esther died in 1872, Kennerly married Eliza who bore him five surviving children. Eliza was a full-blooded Cherokee. One of her children was my great-grandfather.

My great-grandfather married a woman of the Indian Territory, a member of the Choctaw Nation. She was believed to be full-blooded Choctaw. She bore five children. Their first son was my grandfather, born in 1896. He was believed to be 1/4 Cherokee and 1/2 Choctaw. Census and property records support this.

When my great-grandfather and grandmother signed the Dawes Roll in Oklahoma, they signed as her being 1/8 Choctaw and he being white. In this deception they avoided both loss of the allotment due them and the appointment of a white custodian. There's verifiable genealogy to support this in total. I've seen their records on the Dawes Roll, and their signature to falsehood was forced.

So grandpa became nominally 1/16 Choctaw on the Dawes Roll and his Indian heritage thereby nearly evaporated on the record. Grandpa spent his life passing as a white man in fear of the same bigotry undergone by his immediate ancestors. He was also a U.S. Marine who fought in Belleau Wood and the finest man I ever knew. His dog tags are in my drawer here and his Indian wisdom still lights my way.

If one were to do Elizabeth Warren's genealogy, they'd very likely find a family story similar to mine. The American Indians that survived the incursion of white men's disease and rape of the land and outright genocide, were decimated further by the prejudices and callousness of enrollment in Dawes.

Mr. Brown, in arguing that Warren faked her heritage, you open a old grievance you may regret. It wasn't the taking of life in this case, not at Wounded Knee, but a taking of identity and so dignity from the remainder of a race destroyed by white ambition.