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Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren addresses a gathering outside a firehouse in the South Boston neighborhood of Boston, Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012.

Charles Krupa, Associated Press - Ap

Massachusetts election may turn on claim of Indian heritage

  • Article by: JOSH HICKS
  • Washington Post
  • October 2, 2012 - 12:00 AM

For the first time Laurie Weahkee can remember, American Indian heritage has become an issue in national politics. Under other circumstances, that might be welcome. But in this case, Weahkee, a Navajo, Zuni and Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico, is appalled.

Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., has focused his reelection campaign's attention on the self-proclaimed Indian heritage of his Democratic challenger, Harvard Law School Prof. Elizabeth Warren. Years ago, Warren listed herself as a Native American in professional directories.

Her claims set off a controversy in the campaign, one of the most closely watched races in the country. A Boston Globe poll released Sunday showed Warren leading Brown by 43 percent to 38 percent.

Brown brought Warren's lineage into the spotlight with his remarks in a Sept. 20 debate and in an ad using old news accounts to renew skepticism about his opponent's ancestral claims.

Warren responded with an ad of her own, saying: "As a kid I never asked my mom for documentation when she talked about our Native American heritage. What kid would?"

Brown has apologized for staff members doing the "tomahawk chop" outside a political rally. Warren aired a campaign ad explaining she never benefited personally from her claim of Cherokee and Delaware heritage.

This political soap opera on the East Coast has triggered a conversation among Indians across the country.

Warren's assertion of her family's history has tapped into a larger issue for Indians around the murky understanding of ancestry. They have watched a growing number of people embrace Indian heritage in a steady demographic trend.

In the 2000 Census, which for the first time allowed people to mark more than one race, 4.1 million Americans said they were at least partly Native American.

In Oklahoma, where Warren is from, her story came as no surprise, said Amanda Clinton, spokeswoman for the Cherokee Nation.

"This is a very common claim," said Clinton, who noted that Cherokee citizens must be directly descended from tribal members listed on the Dawes Rolls between 1898 and 1914. Warren's family is not found there.

"However, we do not feel it is the tribe's place to second-guess someone's family tree," she said. "There is a big difference between citizenship and heritage."

The New England Historic Genealogical Society found a family newsletter that alluded to a marriage application listing Warren's great-great-great grandmother as Cherokee. But the application was not found.

The Boston Globe interviewed an extensive list of the professor's relatives, who had conflicting memories. Some recalled stories of Indian ancestors, others did not.

Suzan Harjo, a columnist for the Indian Country Today Media Network, said that she admires Warren's politics but that her claims of heritage raise all kinds of questions. If Warren identified as Indian, what did she do for the community she claimed?

"Anyone who is a person of color and anyone who is in academia knows what a box-checker is," said Harjo, who is also president of the Morning Star Institute, a national Native American rights organization.

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