-- What, exactly, makes someone American Indian? Even Indians themselves don't agree as they debate the case of Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, whose disputed claim of Native American identity is shining a rare spotlight on the malleable nature of Indian heritage and the long history of murky claims to such ancestry.
Warren, a Harvard Law School professor and Democrat who is running in Massachusetts against Republican incumbent Sen. Scott Brown, was listed as Native American in several law school directories. Warren has said that her "family lore" described Indian ancestors, and the New England Genealogy Association said it found indications – but not proof – that Warren had a Cherokee great-great-great grandmother, which would make her 1/32 Indian.
"I'm proud of my heritage," Warren said Thursday. Asked how she knew it included Native Americans, she replied, "Because my mother told me so."
Her opponents question whether Warren chose this heritage to gain advantages available to Indians and other underrepresented groups in academia.
"Warren has zero evidence that she is at all Native American," said Brown's campaign manager, Jim Barnett. The genealogy association acknowledges that it found only secondary references to Cherokee family members, not primary sources such as marriage, birth or census records.
Among Native Americans, the varying opinions demonstrate that Indian identity is subjective even among Indians themselves.
When David Eugene Wilkins first saw Warren interviewed during her nomination to a federal post, he was smitten by her intelligence and politics. But when he heard about her claims of Indian ancestry, "I shook my head and said, `Oh no.'"
"For us it was always about allegiance rather than biology or ancestry," said Wilkins, an enrolled member of the Lumbee tribe and professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota.
"It's where you place your political, cultural, emotional allegiance. She lived her entire life and never had any association whatsoever with any community. So something doesn't wash for me," Wilkins said.
But David Treuer, an award-winning writer and Ojibwe Indian from Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota, said there is a difference between Indian identity and ancestry – you can have one without the other.
"An Indian identity is something someone claims for oneself; it is a matter of choice," Treuer wrote in a Washington Post essay titled, "Elizabeth Warren says she's Native American. So she is."
There are 566 federally recognized Native American tribes, each with its own rules for membership, according to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA. Some tribes require a "blood quantum" measurement of as much as one-half or one-quarter Indian ancestry; others require a certain place of birth or residence.
Wilkins, the professor, is married to a Navajo with many siblings. "I've asked them what defines a Navajo," he said. "One said you have to speak the language. Another said you have to live within our sacred mountains. Another said no, you have to take part in ceremonial life. All this in one family!"
According to census figures provided by the BIA, an estimated 4.5 million people identify themselves as American Indians or Alaska Natives, including those who say they are more than one race. But in a 2005 report, the most recent available, the BIA counted just 2 million enrolled tribal members – which means that fewer than half of all people claiming Indian heritage are recognized by a tribe.
"There's an old joke in this corner of Indian Country that if you meet someone who doesn't know anything about tribal affairs but claims they're Indian, they'll say they're Cherokee," Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton, a spokesperson for the Cherokee Nation, said by e-mail.
Warren grew up in Oklahoma, home of the 310,000-member Cherokee Nation, the largest Indian tribe. Warren does not claim official Cherokee membership, which is based on the "Dawes Rolls," a federal list of Cherokees in Oklahoma from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many people have legitimate Cherokee ancestry but are not eligible for membership because their ancestors were not among those counted, Krehbiel-Burton said.
But "some people falsely claim Native heritage simply out of ignorance," Krehbiel-Burton said. "They've been told for years that they had a great-grandmother (or something similar) who was a Cherokee princess and assume that it's true."
Warren spoke of a similar oral tradition when she mentioned an heirloom photo of her grandfather: "My Aunt Bea has walked by that picture at least a thousand times (and) remarked that he – her father, my papaw – had high cheekbones like all of the Indians do."
Even President Barack Obama has an Indian story, about his maternal grandmother, who was nicknamed "Toot."
"If asked, Toot would turn her head in profile to show off her beaked nose, which, along with a pair of jet-black eyes, was offered as proof of Cherokee blood," Obama wrote in his memoir, "Dreams from My Father."
But eyes, noses and cheekbones are not the issue for Rhonda LeValdo, president of the Native American Journalists Association and an enrolled member of the Acoma Pueblo tribe.
"If you're going to claim it, you have to help your people out," says LeValdo. She had seen no evidence of such involvement by Warren, but said she didn't know enough details to judge Warren's claim.
LeValdo said there are many fakers: "A lot of people find some sort of romanticism in being Native American. They think of the warrior type, or the Pocohontas stereotype. They're just taken with the idea of it."
"But to a lot of our people who live this life, it's tough," she continued. "We deal with a lot of things. A lot of us feel like if you're going to claim it, you have to do something. Don't just use it when you want to use it."
Warren has been adamant that she did not seek any advantage from Native American heritage. Records show that she declined to apply for admission to Rutgers Law School under a minority student program and identified her race as "white" on an employment record at the University of Texas, where she worked from 1983 to 1987.
She left Texas for the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where a report on minority faculty listed Warren's name. Her ethnicity became a campaign issue when the Boston Herald reported that Harvard Law, which hired Warren in 1995, listed her as a minority when the school was under pressure to diversify the faculty.
Besides potentially influencing hiring or promotion, Indian identity can have other economic advantages. Some tribes share millions in casino earnings; health care, scholarships and housing are available to some tribal members.
Native Americans have a high rate of intermarriage with other groups. Many are not identifiable by appearance, which has made it possible for almost anyone to assume a Native persona – for various purposes.
Some of the American colonists who boarded British ships during the Boston Tea Party wore Mohawk costumes. During New York anti-rent conflicts of the 1840s, white people assumed Indian garb and pidgin "Injinspeak" as they harassed patrician estates, according to the book "Playing Indian," by Philip J. Deloria.
The actor Iron Eyes Cody starred as an Indian in films from the 1930s to the `70s, and championed many Native causes. He claimed to be Cherokee, but near the end of his life was revealed to be the son of Italian immigrants. In 1976, former Ku Klux Klansman Asa Earl Carter published a fabricated and best-selling memoir, "The Education of Little Tree," under the name Forrest Carter.
"When that kind of fraud takes place it damages our people," said Wilkins, the professor.
"You have people on the outside claiming this and that to draw attention to themselves," he said, "and then people on the outside may wonder, do Native people really know who they are?"
Associated Press Writer Steve LeBlanc in Boston contributed to this report.
Introduces Financial Product Safety Commission
Elizabeth Warren <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/03/10/financial-product-safety_n_173691.html" target="_hplink">announced</a> a bill creating a Financial Product Safety Commission with House and Senate Democrats in March 2009. The body was designed to have oversight over mortgages and other financial instruments to protect consumers against predatory practices. She said if the agency had existed before the subprime collapse then "there would have been millions of families who got tangled in predatory mortgages who never would have gotten them." HuffPost's Ryan Grim <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/03/10/financial-product-safety_n_173691.html" target="_hplink">reported</a>: <blockquote>Without all these toxic assets on banks' balance sheets, the institutions wouldn't be on the brink of collapse and the recession would be more manageable. "Consumer financial products were the front end of the destabilization of the American economic system." Sen. Charles Schumer's cosponsorship of the bill is notable because of his proximity to Wall Street. The bill's merit, the New York Democrat said, is that it regulates the actual financial product rather than the company producing it.</blockquote>
Geithner Opposes Her Heading CFPB
Tim Geithner expressed opposition to her nomination for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/15/tim-geithner-opposes-nomi_n_647691.html" target="_hplink">reported</a> HuffPost's Shahien Nasiripour. Geithner thought Warren's views on the big banks and Wall St. were too tough. Warren's oversight of the Treasury department as a watchdog for TARP apparently irked Geithner, agressively <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pz7ruJw6byQ" target="_hplink">questioning him</a> during Congressional hearings: <blockquote>While her grilling of Geithner in September, over what members of Congress have called the "backdoor bailout" of Wall Street through AIG, inspired the "squirm" video, just last month Warren pressed Geithner on the administration's lackluster foreclosure-prevention plan, Making Home Affordable. Criticizing him for Treasury's failure to keep families in their homes, she questioned Treasury's commitment to homeowners.</blockquote>
Ready For A Fight
Elizabeth Warren <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/03/fight-for-the-cfpa-is-a-d_n_483707.html" target="_hplink">reiterated her desire</a> for a strong Consumer Financial Protection Agency to HuffPost's Shahien Nasiripour: <blockquote>"My first choice is a strong consumer agency," the Harvard Law professor and federal bailout watchdog said in an interview with the Huffington Post. "My second choice is no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor."</blockquote>
Named Interim Chief Of CFPB
In September of 2010, HuffPost's Ryan Grim <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/13/elizabeth-warren-interim-cfpb-chief-consideration_n_715457.html" target="_hplink">reported</a> that Elizabeth Warren was being considered as a candidate for interim director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Days later the announcement was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/15/white-house-taps-warren_n_715291.html" target="_hplink">official</a>. The move allowed Warren to set up the groundwork for the agency immediately without risking a GOP filibuster of her nomination, a response that seemed certain giving the <a href="http://www.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2010/09/15/opposition_mounts_for_interim_appointment/" target="_hplink">public opposition expressed</a> by some Republican senators. When it came time to put forth an appointment for a longterm CFPB chief, Warren was overlooked, partially because she was seen as unfeasible, but also, HuffPost's Shahien Nasiripour <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/18/republican-opposition-to-elizabeth-warren_n_902165.html" target="_hplink">reported</a>, because she was a divisive figure within the Obama administration: <blockquote>Ultimately, Warren wanted the job, allies said. And near-united opposition from Senate Republicans -- 44 of them signed a letter saying they'd oppose any nominee -- should have made it easier for Obama to nominate her, since the Republicans publicly said they wouldn't support anyone for the role. Instead, the Republicans made it easy for the White House to deflect questions about the administration's lack of support for Warren. Asked how she squared the administration's public statements with its private ones, Warren declined. "I really have to say, I'm just not there. I'm not in the intricacies of the political part of this, and I can't comment," Warren said Monday. "The truth is I don't know anything about it."</blockquote>
Chats With HuffPost About Bureau
In October 2010, shortly after being tasked with building the groundwork for the CFPB, Warren stopped by HuffPost to chat with Ryan Grim and Shahien Nasiripour "This is the first real agency we've built in the 21st century -- well, there's Homeland Security, but one for the people. And it means we ought to think differently," said Warren. "The government can talk to people and people can talk to the government differently than when the Consumer Product Safety Commission was built, or when the FDA was built. And if we do this right, that should change the whole dynamic of who this agency really is." HuffPost's Ryan Grim <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/07/elizabeth-warren-consumer_1_n_754026.html" target="_hplink">reported</a>: <blockquote>By gathering information, contracts and documents from homeowners and consumers, and allowing watchdog groups and individual concerned citizens access to those documents, the agency can exponentially expand the manpower it has to review the operations of banks and lenders. The goal would be to become aware of a particularly fraudulent practice before it is rampant and insulates itself in the financial services industry.</blockquote> For full video of the interview, click <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/07/elizabeth-warren-consumer_1_n_754026.html" target="_hplink">here</a>.
GOP Calls Her A Liar
In May, Warren was called to testify before a House subcommittee and defend the merits of the CFPB. Some of the questions submitted by Republican representatives appeared confused and at times aggressive, leaving Warren to correct them on some basic facts about the actual purpose of the bureau. HuffPost's Mike McCauliff <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/24/elizabeth-warren-liar-gop-facts-cfpb_n_866505.html" target="_hplink">relays</a> one particularly contentious moment: <blockquote>The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), began the proceedings by suggesting Warren had lied to the committee in a previous hearing that had questioned the CFPB's role in offering advice to state attorneys general negotiating a settlement with abusive mortgage servicers. At the time, Warren said she was proud her agency had been able to help, at the request of the treasury secretary. But McHenry brought up the memo again, suggesting it showed that she hid a larger role in the negotiations from Congress. "This is our job, and we're trying to do our job, to be helpful to other agencies, and to help those agencies to hold those who break the law accountable," Warren said, repeating that she was proud of the work.</blockquote>
Announces Senate Run
Elizabeth Warren <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/13/elizabeth-warren-senate-massachusetts_n_960510.html" target="_hplink">announced</a> on September 14, 2011 that she was running for the United States Senate seat currently held by Scott Brown (R-Mass.) "After listening to people all across our state who know that we can do better, folks who are frustrated like I am that Washington just doesn't get it, I'm running for the Senate so I can fight every day for Massachusetts families," Warren <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elizabeth-warren/senate-announcement_b_961624.html" target="_hplink">wrote on The Huffington Post</a>.
One month into her campaign to secure the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Scott Brown in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren raised $3.15 million, largely <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/10/elizabeth-warren-raises-3_n_1003836.html" target="_hplink">from small donations</a>. According to a campaign email, 96 percent of donations were under $100. "These are pretty amazing numbers for our first official finance report, raised in a very short period of time," she said in an email to supporters. Warren's campaign has also attracted <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/18/elizabeth-warren-builds-s_n_1018334.html" target="_hplink">large liberal donors</a>, including colleagues from Harvard and well-known liberal donors like George Soros, Barbra Streisand, and DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. Warren <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/11/elizabeth-warren-scott-brown-fundraising_n_1199680.html " target="_hplink">raised</a> an impressive $5.7 million in the fourth quarter of 2011. In early January, the candidate's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/16/elizabeth-warren-money-bomb-fundraising_n_1208511.html?ref=mostpopular" target="_hplink">money bomb</a> pulled in more than $100,000 in just one weekend.
Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/23/elizabeth-warren-scott-brown-attack-ads_n_1223574.html" target="_hplink">signed a pledge</a> to curb third-party attack ads. If either campaign breaks the agreement, they would donate half the cost of the outside ad to a charity of their opponent's choice. "This may not work," <a href="http://www.politico.com/blogs/david-catanese/2012/01/warren-this-may-not-work-112119.html" target="_hplink">Warren said in an email to supporters</a>. "But there's enough at stake to make it worthwhile to try to take back this election."