Elizabeth Warren's Native American Story Won't Go Away

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Google Alerts didn't exist in 1997, but is it really possible Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren didn't know Harvard Law School was calling her the "first woman of color" it hired? That's how she was described in a Fordham Law Review article 15 years ago, Politico's Maggie Haberman reports. The article was specifically about female minorities, so it's not like if Warren happened across the article and skimmed it, she could have missed the context. Per Haberman, the story said:

"There are few women of color who hold important positions in the academy, Fortune 500 companies, or other prominent fields or industries… This is not inconsequential. Diversifying these arenas, in part by adding qualified women of color to their ranks, remains important for many reasons. For one, there are scant women of color as role models. In my three years at Stanford Law School, there were no professors who were women of color. Harvard Law School hired its first woman of color, Elizabeth Warren, in 1995."

Warren's heritage has been a big focus during her race against Sen. Scott Brown for more than two weeks. What long-dead people Warren is related to seems like a silly issue -- it seemed more likely she'd be painted as an Occupy Wall Street lefty -- it won't go away. In part, that's because little bits of information keep trickling out:

  • First the Boston Herald reported April 27 that she was noted as a Native American in a Harvard Crimson article in 1996.
  • Then on April 30 the Boston Globe reported she'd been listed in the Association of American Law Schools desk book as a Native American. That day the newspaper spoke to a genealogist who found her great-great-great grandmother listed as Cherokee on a 1894 document it called a marriage certificate.
  • Warren herself made the controversy worse on May 3 when she referred to her grandfather has having high cheekbones "like all the Indians do."
  • On May 8, in an example of how far into the weeds the story had gone, Breitbart.com even pulled up evidence that her great-great-great grandfather was in the Tennessee militia that helped drive Cherokees on the Trail of Tears.
  • The Washington Post reported May 10 that the University of Pennsylvania also described Warren as Native American. The same day, the Massachusetts Republican Party released an ad calling her a "fraudster" for her claims to her heritage.
  • And also on Monday, the Globe corrected its April 30 story, saying, "The document, alluded to in a family newsletter found by the New England Historic Genealogical Society, was an application for a marriage license, not the license itself. Neither the society nor the Globe has seen the primary document, whose existence has not been proven."

It seems like a lot of reporting effort to establish the ethnic identity of one of Warren's 32 great-great-great grandparents. But the story seems powerful for several reasons. Her opponents can suggest she was not only an Affirmative Action hire, but a fake one. They can also make her seem like a liberal hypocrite -- someone who in theory supports giving special benefits to minorities to right past wrongs, but who in practice doesn't mind so much if those benefits go to her not-so-oppressed self. And finally, lots of people who have paid thousands of dollars in college tuition have secretly wondered if that old family story about the Cherokee ancestor would be enough to qualify for a scholarship. And seeing a blonde woman like Warren called a "person of color" seems like solid evidence that someone out there is getting something for free, unearned, while the rest of us are suckers.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.