Sunday, May 6, 2012

Elizabeth Warren's Ethnicity

Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren

Both Senator Scott Brown and Professor Elizabeth Warren epitomize the American Dream. Both achieved success from humble beginnings. Both are driven to succeed.

Senator Brown has succeeded as a Republican in one of the most Democratic states in America. Professor Warren reached a pinnacle of the legal profession – a professorship at Harvard Law School, which is all the more remarkable because her J.D. is from Rutgers - Newark. No matter how good Rutgers might be as a law school, the reality is that the Harvards, Yales, and Stanfords will rarely hire faculty who did not receive their J.D. from one of the most prestigious law schools.

And yet, for a woman as successful and smart as Professor Warren, how can she get bogged down in her ethnicity? Whether or not she is part Native American is utterly irrelevant to the issues facing America.

And yet that question has dominated the Massachusetts Senate race for the past week.

The Boston Herald ran an article questioning her bona fides. She had self-listed herself in the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) as Native American for a decade. Her campaign when questioned could produce no proof of her Indian heritage.

She said on a Boston TV station that she thought she was Native American, indeed Cherokee. Many Oklahoma natives have Cherokee blood so it is possible. It’s her statement though that aroused attention. She said “I have lived in a family that has talked about Native America, talked about tribes, since I’ve been a little girl. I still have a picture on my mantle at home, and it’s a picture of my mother’s dad, a picture of my grandfather, and my Aunt Bee has walked by that picture at least a 1000 times, remarked that her father, my Pappa, had high cheekbones, like all Indians do, because that’s how she saw it, and your mother got those same great cheekbones, and I didn’t. And she thought this was a bad deal she had gotten in life. Being Native American has been a part of my story. I guess since the day I was born. I don’t know any other way to describe it.”

“High Cheekbones!”

That all Indians have high cheekbones is quite a revelation!

This statement, the ethnic reference to high cheekbones, is not what one expects from someone as brilliant as Professor Warren. The media six years ago, especially the Washington Post, hammered Senator George Allen of Virginia for using the word “macara,” an ethnic slur for People of India descent. He lost reelection by 8,805 votes.

She also said that she had listed herself as Native American “because I thought I might be invited to meetings where I might meet more people who had grown up like I had grown up.” She was unsuccessful in that effort. If that was her goal, then she could have become active in the Native American Section of the AALS or find the Native Americans in Boston and Cambridge. She could also have volunteered to help in the Indian Land Claims litigation, or the Mashantuckets in first seeking recognition and then the casino. She was more interested in furthering her academic career.

A genealogist found a wedding license listing her great, great, great grandmother as Cherokee, making her 1/32 Native American. There is no given percent of Indian blood to qualify as Indian. Each tribe has its own requirement. A common requirement has been 1/8 to qualify to register in a tribe.

Many tribes today, especially those with large casino revenues, have been kicking members out because they have been unable to verify the requisite blood line in the tribe.

Professor Warren is not enrolled in any tribe.

Of course, being 1/32 Indian is 1/32 more than Ward Churchill.

Being an Indian is as much a state of mind as it is lineage. If I had been told I had Indian blood, I would have been proud of it. But I’m not so I don’t. I actually served as the first chair of the AALS Indian Law (Native American Rights) Section, but that doesn’t make me Indian. I was researching Indian Law issues at the time.

If she was brought up thinking she was Cherokee, then maybe she was. However, she apparently never became active in the tribe, so how deep was her belief?

She also claimed to be Delaware as well, but no proof exists for that claim.

Ironically, one of her fields is consumer protection.

Did she use the listing to get a job as opposed to just meeting people? Who knows? No direct evidence exists, but any appointments committee would have checked the AALS Directory and seen her listed as Native American. Certainly Harvard listed her as Native American for diversity purposes.

Where did Harvard get the idea from?

Daniel Patrick Moynihan made the transition from the Academy to the Senate, but he was a polished public figure, having served both Republican and Democratic Administrations.

Will her statements cost her the Senate seat? Not by themselves, but if she continues to make rookie mistakes, then her election will depend how big President Obama’s coattails are in Massachusetts.

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