Is Elizabeth Warren Native American or What?


The Democratic Senate candidate can't back up family lore that she is part Indian -- but neither is there any evidence that she benefited professionally from these stories. warrenReuters

Elizabeth Warren is not a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Elizabeth Warren is not enrolled in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

And Elizabeth Warren is not one of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee.

Nor could she become one, even if she wanted to.

Despite a nearly three week flap over her claim of "being Native American," the progressive consumer advocate has been unable to point to evidence of Native heritage except for a unsubstantiated thirdhand report that she might be 1/32 Cherokee. Even if it could be proven, it wouldn't qualify her to be a member of a tribe: Contrary to assertions in outlets from The New York Times to Mother Jones that having 1/32 Cherokee ancestry is "sufficient for tribal citizenship," "Indian enough" for "the Cherokee Nation," and "not a deal-breaker," Warren would not be eligible to become a member of any of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes based on the evidence so far surfaced by independent genealogists about her ancestry.

"These are my family stories," Warren has said. "This is what my brothers and I were told by my mom and my dad, my mammaw and my pappaw." But so far she and her campaign have been unable to establish that her family lore about being part Native American is anything more than one of the most widely shared family myths known to American genealogical researchers, myths especially prevalent in Warren's home state of Oklahoma, the state with the highest percent of Native Americans in the nation and one where the Cherokee are the largest minority group.

"There's a running joke in Indian country: If you meet somebody who you wouldn't necessarily think they're Native, but they say they're Native, chances are they'll tell you they're Cherokee," said Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton, a spokesperson for the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, which with more than 300,000 citizens is the largest Cherokee tribe.

The New England Historic Genealogical Society backtracked on Warren's ancestry, saying it has "no proof" of Cherokee descent.

Warren, now running as a Democrat to unseat incumbent Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, has been embroiled in the controversy since reports surfaced that she described herself as a minority in a law school directory and was touted as a Native American faculty member while tenured at Harvard Law School in the mid-1990s. Warren has described herself as having Cherokee and Delaware Indian ancestry. Brown's campaign has seized on the story to raise questions about whether Warren misled Harvard or sought to use distant Native American ties for professional gain, and hammered on the propriety of a blonde, blue-eyed white woman describing herself as a minority. But the biggest question raised during the fracas is the one no one has been able to answer: whether she has Native American ancestry at all.

Warren has doubled down on her description of her background and dismissed suggestions she was ever an affirmative action hire as preposterous. "I'm proud of my Native American heritage," she said Monday in an appearance on CNN. "I'm proud of my family."

Her inability to name any specific Native American ancestor has kept the story alive, though, as pundits left and right have argued the case. Supporters touted her as part Cherokee after genealogist Christopher Child of the New England Historic Genealogical Society said he'd found a marriage certificate that described her great-great-great-grandmother, who was born in the late 18th century, as a Cherokee. But that story fell apart once people looked at it more closely. The Society, it turned out, was referencing a quote by an amateur genealogist in the March 2006 Buracker & Boraker Family History Research Newsletters about an application for a marriage certificate:

Lynda Smith said, "When Neoma's son William J. Crawford married his second wife Mary LONG in Oklahoma, he stated on his marriage application that his parents were Johnathan Houston Crawford and O. C. Sarah Smith and that his mother was Cherokee Indian."

No one has surfaced that document, and there's some reason to believe it may not exist. Lynda Smith later wrote that she does not believe she ever saw it herself, according to a report by amateur genealogist Michael Patrick Leahy, who has helped lead a full court press from the right on the Warren ancestry story, along with other conservative outlets such as the Boston Herald and the blog Legal Insurrection. (Smith declined a request for comment.)

The New England Historic Genealogical Society backtracked on Warren's ancestry in a statement Tuesday, saying the group has "no proof that Elizabeth Warren's great-great-great-grandmother O.C. Sarah Smith either is or is not of Cherokee descent" and that the Society "has not expressed a position on whether Mrs. Warren has Native American ancestry, nor do we possess any primary sources to prove that she is."

The Boston Globe, which had taken the Society's earlier statements as confirmation of Warren's Cherokee heritage ("Document ties Warren kin to Cherokees"), issued a sniffy correction Tuesday about the "1894 document that was purported to list Elizabeth Warren's great-great-great grandmother as a Cherokee," noting that "Neither the society nor the Globe has seen the primary document, whose existence has not been proven."

But even were such a document to be found, Warren would not be eligible to enroll as a Cherokee based on it alone. To begin with, the Cherokee Nation doesn't accept marriage licenses as documentation of Cherokee ancestry -- let alone a document described as an application for a marriage license by a descendent of the individual claimed as Cherokee.

"Marriage licenses don't cut it," said Krehbiel-Burton of the Cherokee Nation.

Further, to enroll as a member of the Cherokee Nation, an individual must have had a direct ancestor listed among the more than 101,000 people enrolled on the "Final Rolls of the Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory" between 1898-1914, now known as the Dawes Rolls. The Cherokee Nation is very strict about this, even keeping descendants of siblings of men and women on the rolls out of the tribe, as well as descendents of Cherokees who were living out of the area at the time the lists were drawn up in what was then Northeastern Oklahoma.

"If she does not have an ancestor listed on the Dawes Rolls, she cannot be considered Cherokee through this tribe," explained Lydia Neal, a processor with the registrar's office of the Cherokee Nation.

O.C. Sarah Smith died long before the rolls were drawn up, too far in the past to make Warren eligible for membership in the tribe (assuming Smith was Cherokee).

No direct-line relatives of Warren are listed on the Dawes Rolls, according to Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak (the doubled name is not a typo), the independent genealogist who identified Michelle Obama's slave ancestors in 2009 in a project with The New York Times.

"The Dawes Rolls don't lend support to [Warren's] claim," she told The Atlantic.

The Eastern Band of the Cherokee, for their part, have since 1963 required individuals to be at least 1/16 Cherokee to enroll -- and also to have "a direct lineal ancestor" on "the 1924 Baker Roll of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians." Even were Smith discovered to be Cherokee, Warren would not be eligible to join the tribe as someone who also lacks a direct-line ancestor on the 1924 rolls, according to Smolenyak's research.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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