Cherokees hammer Elizabeth Warren on ancestry claim ahead of Mass. party convention

Indian reporters and activists want answers from Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, who has given muddled replies about whether she used unsupported claims of Cherokee ancestry to further her academic career at Harvard.

Steven Senne/AP
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren takes questions from members of the media as Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick looks on during an event at Warren's campaign headquarters, in Somerville, Mass., Wednesday, May 30.

As Massachusetts Democrats meet at their nominating convention today, some members of the Cherokee Nation are stepping up a campaign to get answers about candidate Elizabeth Warren’s claims of tribal ancestry – a sideshow controversy that has nevertheless begun to wobble one of the most closely-watched Senate campaigns in the country.

This week, Indian reporters say they were snubbed by Warren’s campaign as they sought clarification on why Ms. Warren was listed as a minority Native faculty by Harvard in the 1990s, even though she has no evidence to back that claim and apparently never sought out other Native Americans on campus.

Jim Barnett, a spokesman for the incumbent Republican, Scott Brown, did talk to Indian Country magazine, noting that “any time a person tries to attach themselves to a group of people without rationale for doing so, except for maybe personal gain, it seems very seedy to me.”

A group of Cherokees has set up a website disputing Warren’s claims, and some tribal members said they may protest the Democratic nominating convention in Springfield, Mass., today.

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While Warren is expected to win the Democratic Party endorsement, one challenger, Marisa DeFranco, may well pick up enough support to force a primary showdown in September. So far, Democrats continue to support Warren, who trails Brown by two points in the latest polls – the same margin as before the ancestry kerfuffle broke. But Ms. DeFranco has said Warren’s inability to adequately address the ancestry questions is hurting Democrats’ chances of retaking a Senate seat held by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Indeed, signs are emerging that the Native claim controversy has begun to take a toll, as the number of Warren detractors rose by 9 points in the latest University of New Hampshire poll, released Friday. While polls have shown that the vast majority of voters still believe the ancestry issue is overblown, 42 percent of presumptive voters in the UNH poll said Warren had not adequately explained her assertion, compared to 37 percent who said she had. More troubling for her campaign, when asked who they thought would win the race – a question that sums up views and attitudes respondents are picking up from family and friends – 52 percent picked Brown and 27 percent picked Warren.

“Overall, this shows the strengths that Brown has and it shows the problems, obviously, that the Warren campaign has had,’’ UNH pollster Andrew Smith told the Boston Globe.

Warren was listed in the early 1990s as a minority professor at Harvard University, but the only proof Warren has of her claim of 1/32nd Cherokee blood is family stories about high cheek bones that came from an ancestor. In order for Warren to be 1/32nd Indian, it means that the ancestor had to be a full-blooded Cherokee. But on May 15, the New England Historic Genealogical Society said the group “has no proof that Elizabeth Warren’s great-great-great-grandmother O.C. Sarah Smith either is or is not of Cherokee descent.”

Cornell University law professor William Jacobson has claimed that genealogical records show Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather helped the US Army round up Cherokees in the South for the Trail of Tears march to reservations in the West, a charge Warren has not addressed.

Warren has maintained that she never used the designation to further her career but simply to meet others like her. But she has given conflicting answers about whether she informed Harvard about her status, first saying she didn’t know she was listed as a minority until the Boston Herald reported it, and then this week acknowledging she did talk to people at Harvard about it after she was hired. She explained the discrepancy in her answers by saying she had misunderstood an earlier question. Warren stopped being listed as Native in law directories after she received a tenured position at Harvard.

“I don’t want to mislead in any way on this,” Warren told the Boston Globe this week, although a Globe reporter summed up her answers to questions about the tribal claims as “no more enlightening” than earlier responses. Before hanging up with the Globe reporter, Warren said “nothing happened” in reference to the law school directory.

Warren also punched back at Brown’s campaign, which has fanned the controversy, saying Brown “has worked hard to make this campaign about anything else, even my heritage, and he’s not spending time on what Massachusetts voters are concerned about.”

But while Massachusetts voters are still mulling the smoldering controversy, it has frustrated, even angered, some Cherokees nationally. While familial associations and claims of Native ancestry are common, actual tribal membership entails making legitimate family links to government “rolls” that date back to the 19th century and taking part in tribal life. By all accounts, Warren didn’t participate in Native American activities in Cambridge, although she did contribute several recipes to a cookbook called “Pow Wow Chow.”

“Many Indians have asked why, if she wanted to meet people like her, didn’t she continue to list herself in these directories … attend Native functions at Harvard [or] … reach out to hundreds of Native faculty around the country,” writes Indian Country reporter Rob Capriccioso. “Warren has now also failed to connect with American Indians through the Native media – which is sounding alarm bells for Native journalists.”

Warren’s campaign declined requests from Native reporters to interview the candidate this week even as Warren talked to the Globe and appeared on MSNBC. Indian Country quoted one Warren staffer’s email, which said, “Thanks for your request(s)! I will keep you posted. Thanks for understanding. Have a wonderful weekend.”

Brown’s campaign, meanwhile, told Native reporters that the Senator had a strong record on Native affairs, including letters he had written to the Bureau of Indian Affairs over alleged unfair treatment of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. Brown also has supported tribal opposition to an offshore wind farm on Nantucket Sound.

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