BOSTON — U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is hoping to defuse an issue that has dogged her for years, her claims of Native American heritage, ahead of a possible run for president in 2020.
Last month, Warren addressed the National Congress of American Indians, trying to cast her family’s story in the larger context of challenges facing native peoples. The prominent Democrat has also met with tribal leaders, signed on to legislation supported by Native American activists, and called on Republican President Donald Trump to nominate a director for the Indian Health Service.
The push is in part a rebuttal to Trump, who has repeatedly referred to Warren as “Pocahontas” to try to discredit a potential rival by calling into question her claims of heritage.
“Every time someone brings up my family’s story, I’m going to use it to lift up the story of your families and your communities,” Warren told those gathered for the Washington event.
For her critics, Warren’s speech did little to quell suspicions she used claims of Native American heritage to give herself a leg up early in her academic career.
The story is largely consistent with what the Oklahoma native has said for years, including during a 2012 interview with The Associated Press, when she said she and her brothers were told her paternal grandparents didn’t want her father to marry her mother because she “was part Cherokee and part Delaware.”
In the speech, Warren, who doesn’t claim citizenship in a tribe, said, “My mother’s family was part Native American. And my daddy’s parents were bitterly opposed to their relationship. So, in 1932, when Mother was 19 and Daddy had just turned 20, they eloped.”
Warren also said that she respects the distinction between heritage and citizenship and “that tribal membership is determined by tribes — and only by tribes.”
“But I want to make something else clear, too: My parents were real people,” she said. “My mother’s family was part Native American.”
Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), introduced Warren at the gathering as “a formidable force and an Indian country ally.”
“She truly understands Indian country and what sovereignty really means,” Andrews-Maltais said.
Cedric Cromwell is tribal council chairman for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, which has tried for years to persuade federal officials that it qualifies to have more than 300 acres of land in Massachusetts taken into trust.
“We especially appreciate her remarks about how this government owes its native citizens ‘a fighting chance to build stronger communities and a brighter future — starting with a more prosperous economic future on tribal lands,’” Cromwell said.
But Rebecca Nagle, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation living in Oklahoma, has said Warren needs to apologize for her “false claims,” saying there’s no evidence the former Harvard Law School faculty member has Native American heritage.
“How can a former law professor at the most prestigious university in the country examine the mountain of evidence about her own family and not come to the only logical conclusion?” Nagle wrote in an opinion piece in The Boston Globe following Warren’s speech.
Warren has yet to fully answer whether she used a claim of Native American heritage to help her academic career, said Beth Lindstrom, a Republican hoping to unseat her.
“Only Elizabeth Warren can answer why she assumed a Native American identity as she was climbing the career ladder in academia,” Lindstrom said.
Warren’s public embrace of her family story could carry political risks — but not necessarily from Trump. Rob Gray, a Republican political analyst, said the criticism could hurt Warren more if it came from a rival Democrat.
“Her Indian heritage claims have the potential to be a wildfire, but it will take one of her primary opponents raising it to strike the match,” Gray said. “It comes down to authenticity and whether she’s believable and trustworthy.”
Warren has been discussed as a possible 2020 presidential candidate but has said she is focused on winning re-election in November.
But she is also maintaining a national profile, butting heads with Trump on issues from health care to immigration, while stockpiling more than $14 million in her campaign account and donating hundreds of thousands to Democratic state committees and candidates through her PAC for a Level Playing Field.
Warren’s playbook has precedent. Think Mitt Romney’s 2007 speech to quell concerns about his Mormon faith or Obama’s 2008 address about race.
Warren has acknowledged telling Harvard and her previous employer, the University of Pennsylvania, of her Native American heritage, but only after she had been hired.
“I never used my family tree to get a break or get ahead,” she said. “I never used it to advance my career.”
Harvard Law School professor Charles Fried, who helped recruit Warren, has called any suggestion she enjoyed an affirmative-action benefit “nonsense.”
Jeffrey Berry, a professor of American politics and political behavior at Tufts University, said no speech will make the narrative go away, in part because conservative groups and Trump enjoy taunting her.
In the end, he said, voters are more interested in fundamentals like the economy.
“Side issues may be fun to talk about for ideologues, but by and large the public isn’t paying attention,” he said.
Gabby Archilla, a 26-year-old law student in Boston, said taking a DNA test might help Warren but probably wouldn’t silence her critics.
“It could maybe put that issue to rest,” Archilla said, “but I think a lot of people just have issues with Elizabeth Warren in general.”
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