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The Conversations Warren Never Had

She never really gave an honest answer about her complicated relationship with Indian Country, and now her campaign is over.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

I am an enrolled member of the Sappony Tribe, one of North Carolina’s seven state-recognized tribes. “Card-carrying” is a little NRA for my taste, but I do have one. An eighth tribe, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, or EBCI, is recognized by the federal government. The distinction in federal versus state recognition is complex but is in part a matter of whether the federal government recognizes your tribal sovereignty, which then opens a series of other questions about land, governance, and resources.

And last week, I signed a letter in solidarity with Cherokee Nation citizens who believed that Senator Elizabeth Warren—who dropped out of the presidential race on Thursday—needs to further address her past claims to Cherokee ancestry. Two days after the letter was published, I received a call from one of its authors informing me that my name would unfortunately be taken off the list. The reason was because the Sappony Tribe is recognized only by the state of North Carolina, which has been the case since 1911. Back then, the state just called us the “Indians of Person County.”

What happened to us is what happened to hundreds of tribes along the East Coast. We, the Saponi people, were a historically small band that often joined with other small bands to form larger commerce-based communities, and so when the British Empire barreled through, hundreds of these smaller tribes were split up, forced to be absorbed into other tribal nations or disappear entirely. But some tribes, like the Saponi, stuck together, forming our own towns and farming communities, which were subsequently segregated and then integrated. There are now three Saponi bands in North Carolina: the Haliwa, the Occaneechi, and the Sappony.

As much as it stung, the request to remove my name from the letter made sense to me. I was being asked because of the fraught relationship between the Cherokee Nation and a slew of state-recognized tribes that claim ancestral ties. Even in North Carolina, the Lumbee Tribe and the EBCI have a long-standing disagreement regarding past claims of common ancestry by some Lumbee citizens. All of this—determining who gets federal recognition and sorting out histories that were often scrambled by colonization—plays out in the political theater, with tribes leaning on members of Congress and the Department of the Interior to help them protect both their cultural identity and their financial interests.

Native citizenship and nationhood is often messy, or at the very least vexing, a direct result of the jagged violence of colonization. If you try to look up the population numbers for Native Americans and Native Alaskans, you’ll get anywhere from 6.8 million people claiming ancestral ties to the shaky 2010 census count of those who solely identified as Native that clocked in at 2.9 million. This was the central theme in Warren’s own DNA test, which she took as part of an ill-considered effort to address her previous claims to Cherokee heritage. She was not claiming to be a citizen; she only ever claimed that one of her ancestors was. But her vague decades-long claim alone was enough to set off the alarms, because it continues to be such a nagging issue for tribal nations. Anti-disenrollment campaigns, fighting against efforts by tribal nations to prune citizens from member rolls, exist because disenrollment does, too. It has since the Europeans arrived: High Country News recently featured a report on how the ancestors of Oklahoma Republican governor and Cherokee Nation citizen Kevin Stitt were once sued by the Nation for attempting to work their way onto the rolls under false pretenses in the nineteenth century. Again, it’s messy and nontraditional, but it’s the system colonization left us with. And it all boils down to the same basic problem as the one that undermines the dreadful polls on racist team names: Even when standing in solidarity with Indian Country, there remains the question of who gets to say they’re Native.

My name has not yet been removed from the letter, but I accepted the decision without a fight because I don’t need anyone else’s validation save for my own tribe’s. I also understood that it was born out of distrust in colonizing forces, not of me personally or the Sappony. But I couldn’t help but see the irony: that in being forced to react to actions like Warren’s and worse, of those who claim flimsy ancestral ties for personal satisfaction or advancement, Native people are now forced to adhere to the legitimacy granted by a federal government that once tried to exterminate all of us. The question of belonging is now being decided by a body that oversaw genocide.

Plenty of Native voters, myself included, would have happily voted for Warren in the general election. There was a brief point, after the DNA test video but before her tank in the polls in October of last year, when it legitimately seemed like Warren was poised to overtake Sanders as Biden’s progressive challenger. I made peace with the notion quickly. She didn’t just have plans for every new domestic program; she had meticulously crafted, almost insanely thoughtful blueprints to achieve them. And on Indian Country, she had no match. The second candidate behind Julián Castro to drop a plan specifically curated for the Native population, Warren developed an exhaustive document that covered nearly every major necessary overhaul Congress, the courts, and the executive branch need to make. Her call for an Oliphant fix—which would allow tribal governments to have criminal jurisdiction over non-Natives on tribal lands—was the single most impressive and nuanced reaction to jurisdictional mismanagement of Indian Country by the federal government.

But the media cycle is a cruel, stupefying beast. Every couple weeks, for reasons that have more to do with dramatics than actual politics, new winners and losers would have to be created to fuel the entertainment-driven psychos on cable news. People like Pete Buttigieg and Mike Bloomberg attracted the crucial and self-fulfilling attention of the media, while Warren, amid a devastating poll, an unnecessarily convoluted Medicare for All rollout, and subsequent public beefing to her left, floundered.

The race for the Democratic nominee is now between Bernie Sanders, who has a plan for tribal nations, and Joe Biden, who does not. In some sense, the plans hardly matter. Politicians release promises and policy proposals all the time; rarely do they see them all the way through—particularly when those plans are about Native citizens and nations. No matter how perfect a plan, there are just certain things—like Warren’s Oliphant fix—that a conservative Supreme Court and Republican-held Senate can squash. The plans instead represent a common recognition of the issues and a promise that the candidate will fight and scrap for the changes even in the face of these hurdles. The candidate Warren chooses to endorse in the days or weeks to come will absolutely speak to how accountable she feels to Indian Country and how committed she is to seeing those same plans through to fruition. If she is, then there is only one candidate who has continued that fight and made many of those same promises—and it’s not the one with no plan at all.

But as much of the cycle has now turned to elegies or fretting over her endorsement strategy, I can’t help but feel as though, on the topic of her Native ancestry and DNA test, her campaign is ending with an ellipsis or a question mark. The apologies and brisk discussion she participated in felt overly political and self-serving in comparison to the rest of her campaign. Warren had a difficult time fielding questions from reporters who had even half a clue what they were talking about.

The closest the American public ever came to seeing Warren really walk through her decision to make a six-minute video doubling down on her claims to Cherokee heritage—including a staged phone call between her and a geneticist—was in an interview on The Breakfast Club. What Warren’s team believed would be a quick pit stop on the way to making a pitch to the African American community—host Charlamagne Tha God later described parts of her performance to The State as “pandering”—instead briefly featured The Breakfast Club doing what it does better than any other radio show in America: be messy as hell.

Charlamagne asked Warren if she regretted taking the DNA test, and her initial answer was the same as it’s always been. “It’s what I believed,” she said. “I’m not a citizen of a tribe, and I shouldn’t have done it.” He asked if she would do it over again. She responded that she couldn’t go back, but added that “what I can do is try to be a good partner.” Then Warren pivoted to talking about student loan debt in historically black colleges and universities and redlining and maternal mortality rates for black women. Charlamagne wasn’t quite done, though. The following exchange is important to read through, because it shows how ill-prepared the candidate was to talk about one of her biggest mistakes to date.

“So your family told you you were Native American?” he asked. “How long did you hold onto that, because there are some reports that said you were Native American on your Texas bar license and that you said you were Native American on some documents when you were a professor at Harvard. Like, why’d you do that?”

“It’s what I believed,” Warren said again. “You know, that’s like I said. It’s what I learned from my family.”

“When did you find out you weren’t?” he asked.

“Well, I’m not a person of color,” Warren said. “I’m not a citizen of a tribe. And tribal citizenship is an important distinction and not something I am.”

Shortly after, Charlamagne called Warren the “original Rachel Dolezal,” a barb that ultimately grabbed headlines and distracted from what had otherwise been a short but fair line of questioning. This would be the last time Warren openly discussed the test in an environment that was not at least partially under her control. In August, Warren offered an opaque apology at the first Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum, but not before Representative Deb Haaland, her national campaign co-chair and undoubtedly the strongest advocate for Indian Country in Congress, gave her a 20-minute intro and hype speech. None of the forum’s panelists questioned her on the test, the video, or her claims. Through the end of her candidacy, the most proactive approach Warren offered in responding to the criticism came in the form of an 18-page, highly sourced document her team wrote in advance of the delivery of the letter from Cherokee citizens.

I once believed I had a chance to ask Warren the nuanced version of these larger, messy questions. I sat down with her national communications director for an hourlong meeting at a New York coffee shop in December 2018, a month after the release of the video and a critical piece in which I excoriated both the video and the test. I had sent her media relations team a very long email explaining why I thought it would benefit readers for her to have a conversation about her misstep. In retrospect, the meeting was a screening, and while its contents were off the record, I felt and still feel it went well. I was never explicitly denied an interview—rather, when I would check in every two months to see if they were ready to talk, even after I was hired here at The New Republic, the answer was always some version of, Not right now, but maybe soon. This kind of thing isn’t personal. It happens with campaigns.

None of this was about her sitting down with me, exactly. I wanted Warren to have that conversation with any Native journalist while she was still in the race. As historic as her campaign was, seeing a white candidate have a full conversation about false ancestral claims would have done wonders for the broken landscape these discussions currently exist in for the non-Native population. This question of who belongs does not only matter when it comes to tribal recognition or who gets to sign a letter.

Reporting by the Los Angeles Times has made crystal clear how financially harmful “pretendians” are to tribal nations. An open dialogue would have covered her mistakes, yes—from the DNA test to her “high cheekbones” comment to her participation in the 1980s cookbook Pow Wow Chow—but it would have also been an opportunity for her to echo the importance of true Native representation in Congress and show the millions of Americans with similar false claims how to properly address and reject this foundational lie of colonization. But as my editor reminded me last month, it’s too often that the honest and straightforward thing is the impossible thing in politics.

It’s obviously never too late to have some form of this conversation. Warren is such an important presence in our politics, even without the presidency. But as a candidate in this election cycle, Warren will never have the chance again—and she may very well be OK with that. She has answered privately to the Cherokee Nation leaders and clearly seems at peace with leaving this in the past. As she continues in her Senate career, she likely will continue sponsoring strong legislation for Indian Country, a trend she heightened over the last year and a half. But her primary campaign is over, and the opportunity to get this right has, at least for now, been lost.