Thursday, August 29, 2019

Elizabeth Warren Should Not Be Ashamed of Her Native American Heritage Mistake

Let me tell you a personal story.

My mother was adopted, and as a teenager wrote to the state of Kansas and acquired her original birth certificate. This was probably around 1940. My grandmother didn't want my mother to do this because she felt it wasn't important, but my mother, being curious and a teenager, went ahead and got the birth certificate anyway.  On the certificate, my maternal, genetic grandfather's race is listed as "part Indian."

Think of the history of Native Americans and the history of indigenous people all over the world. What does "part Indian" mean? Decimated by disease and violence, cultures actively destroyed with government sanction, tribes displaced and disbanded, use of native language forbidden--my "part Indian" genetic grandfather could have belonged to any tribe. I don't even know if on that birth certificate the "part Indian" designation was my grandfather's terminology or whether my grandfather had stated his tribal name and the clerk had just decided that "Indian" was good enough. The information is vague enough that I don't even know for certain how accurate that designation is--or if it was accurate at all. What if the story told to my grandfather was just inaccurate family legend? Or what if there were some truth, but that truth so far in the past or such a small part of the past as to be meaningless?

Let me tell you one more story, a quick one.

My father told the story that our family name of Kepler was a direct link to the German mathematician Johannes Kepler, best known for establishing his laws of planetary motion. Johannes Kepler was born December 27, 1571. My dad told the story that Johan's brother was a Hessian soldier during the American Revolutionary War, and that when he came to America to fight, the war was over. That first American Kepler of our line, so our family legend goes, deserted by hiding in a hogshead barrel on the docks, ran off, and became an American resident. That's a great family story, but probably some of you good at math (like Johannes Kepler) will note that the timeframe is about two hundred years off for Kepler's brother to be connected to American independence. That doesn't mean there might not be some germ of truth to the legend, though, that some distant relative of the mathematician didn't ship off to fight those rabble-rouser Americans. As a teenager, I went pretty much the same route as my mom had regarding her heritage--I researched and discovered that the Hessian Kepler soldier shipping overseas was definitely not the mathematician's brother. The time frames didn't.

These stories are a part of my past, and my connection to them is quite honestly not to those distant ancestors (real or not) but to my parents. I remember them telling me the stories, my mom telling me how she asked for her teacher's help in obtaining the address and agency for her inquiry, and help on how to write the letter. This spunky behavior by my mom was especially poignant because my mother had very poor eyesight from a childhood injury and had difficulty in school, although she did well. I remember my father telling me the Hessian soldier story and how much he enjoyed doing so. He was a joke teller and a storyteller, and it was a real sharing moment between us.

Elizabeth Warren and her mom and brothers

Elizabeth Warren grew up with similar circumstances--family stories explaining her heritage, stories that were not accurate. Warren was recently asked about her credibility toward people of color, since when in college she had referenced her family legends, which with recent DNA analysis were determined to be inaccurate. She responded at a New Hampshire candidate forum, as reported by the online website The Hill.
Warren responded that she was told about her family heritage by her parents and cited a Boston Globe investigation from last year that found that her ethnicity played no factor in advancing her academic career. 
“Like most people, my brothers and I learned about who we are from our mom and our dad. My family’s very important to me, and based on that, sometimes, decades ago, I identified that way. But nothing about the way I identified ever had anything to do with my academic career,” Warren said.
“Even so, I shouldn’t have done it. I am not a person of color. I am not a citizen of a tribe, and I’ve apologized for any confusion over tribal sovereignty, tribal citizenship and any harm caused by that,” she continued. 
Whether or not my Native American genetic heritage is significant in my DNA or not, those two words on my mother's birth certificate, "part Indian," did have a big impact in my life. I will most likely never know what tribe my heritage connects to. That knowledge is lost. The fact that I have lost knowledge of my family's past has been an impetus, though, since my teenage years to learn more about Native American history. It has influenced my understanding of spirituality and of my relationship with the natural world. Those two words and my mother's stories have influenced who I am. My genetic grandfather died in an automobile accident and my genetic grandmother, a nurse, could not work and raise my mother, so my grandmother gave my mother to my adoptive grandparents, who had not been able to conceive. My mother told that story so sweetly and simply.

Elizabeth Warren has established a Fact Squad page to "Fight back against the lies, smears, and wacky conspiracy theories making the rounds about Elizabeth and this grassroots team. Fact Squad gives you all the information you need to respond to every lie with the truth."

On that site is referenced The Boston Globe's assertion that genetic claims were no part of Warren's work history.
Fact: Elizabeth Warren's heritage played no role in her hiring. In the most exhaustive review undertaken of Elizabeth Warren's professional history, The Globe found clear evidence, in documents and interviews, that her claim to Native American ethnicity was never considered by the Harvard law faculty, which voted resoundingly to hire her, or by those who hired her to four prior positions at other law schools. At every step of her remarkable rise in the legal profession, the people responsible for hiring her saw her as a White woman.
Warren has recently proposed a "lengthy and exhaustive policy plan" to address Native American issues, which has been reported by many sources, among them ABC News. I am still watching closely the Democratic candidate race for the presidency. I have to say, though, that I admire that Warren discovered her family legends to be inaccurate, fessed up, and is now moving forward to improve the situation for Native Americans. As Americans, we can and should feel some connection to all the different people who comprise our nation.

That's what makes us American--our heritage is conceptual, not genetic or cultural. Warren's positive, inclusive spirit is what America needs. I'm not sure at this point whom I will vote for in the presidential election. We all make mistakes, and I'm reassured to know that there are candidates who are willing to admit mistakes, to rectify errors, and then to move on in a positive, constructive manner.


  1. Many families have really interesting (if dubious) stories. Ours has a wonderful tale of how we are descended from a Dutch princess, huge (lost) family wealth, squabbles and intrigue. I, for one, accept this a gospel! I’m sure the truth is far less interesting. 😊 Nice article, well done. —Mark

    1. Thank you, Mark. As I mentioned in the article, the interaction with my parents regarding our family legends was more important to me than the facts. After all, it's "legend"!

  2. Family stories are so often just that - stories. My father told me I was 1/16 Jew. He had been in concentration camps during the war, the last being Dachau, (that has been verified. The Dutch government gave him a pension because of it and we have the records) But I had my ancestral DNA done and there is zero Ashkenazi blood in my veins. I have to say I was disappointed to find that out. It was like I lost an important part of my identity.(BTW the site won't recognize my website URL - I have had this on another site as well and don't understand why)

    1. Sometimes the whole computer/internet thing is a real mystery, Yvonne. Not to mention our family legends! Thanks, as always, for taking the time to comment.