The Elizabeth Warren Situation Is More Complicated Than Many Think

A ton of ink has been spilled on the subject of the Elizabeth Warren run for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts.

Most of the writing on the Indian side of opinion is whether or not Warren has a legitimate claim to her Delaware and Cherokee ancestry. Strong language has emerged on the subject, rightly due to the fact that so many Americans claim Indian heritage without any idea of what being an Indian is all about. But between the Indian and non-Indian sides of the coin are a million slices of what-ifs and others. Example one: I met a woman whose husband was enrolled in Coweta Creek and got support for his considerable higher education costs. Beyond that, he knew next to nothing about his tribe. He was born into an African American family, married an African American and had a couple of wonderful children. His wife’s question to me was how she could get the children enrolled after they had been informed the children lacked sufficient blood quantum. This mother was interested in her children’s education and wanted them to have all the benefits they might be due as a result of their father’s heritage. I did not have good news for them. Example two: my brother married a lovely French woman when he was in Europe with Patton in World War II. They married and had four great children. None of these children was enrolled in our nation because enrollment descends from the mother. Since my father’s father was Stockbridge Munsee, my brother or I could have enrolled in that tribe, but my nephews and nieces lacked sufficient blood quantum to enroll. Either way, with their 50 percent blood quantum, they could not be called Indians in the parlance of our nation. I am not enrolled in Stockbridge Munsee in addition to my home Seneca Nation because Indians may not be dual citizens among tribes. I can choose one or the other, or as in my case, my mother chose my tribal affiliation when I was born. I can admire the Stockbridge Munsee from afar but I cannot join without leaving my natal nation. When Elizabeth Warren’s mother told her she had Indian heritage and Elizabeth did not question it, should she have known that when she entered a political campaign years in the future that she would not only be questioned, she would be ridiculed, and that a Pandora’s box of ugly behavior would emerge? And how quickly it emerged. How rapidly it spread. It seems there is a thin film of resistance that holds civility in check, but once the surface is pierced, all sorts of anti-Indian rhetoric and reprehensible behavior emerge, as if at the ready and simmering. The displays went well beyond addressing Elizabeth Warren’s character or any genuine concern over claims to Indian identity by the undeserving. Of course the Indian opinion, as would be expected, was a spectrum of views while the Cherokee Tribe took a neutral position. Warren’s opponent Scott Brown has apologized for some of the behavior of his staff, which was seen performing in a video, whooping and chopping the air. Meanwhile the Massachusetts senate race has taken on national interest because of its controversy. The free publicity is worth gold. Example three: I have another brother who married a Hawaiian and his children think of themselves as Indians as well as Hawaiians. They know they cannot be enrolled, but still they will not throw away their father’s blood. They are proud of who they are and as Native Americans they have every right to be. But being Native American and being a member of a nation are marked by a chasm of difference. They can never be Indians. Does that mean the nation should change its ancient law that says who we are is who our mother is? It is a serious question with many arguments and sides. Tribes across the country are discussing citizenship, a standing that does not necessarily relate to blood quantum or as in the case of nations with no blood quantum, tribes ask how many generations will elapse before no trace of Indian heritage remains? It seems we are unprepared to settle these questions because there are many sides to the question of identity—it is not a coin but an icositetrahedron with 24 faces—as if the coin with its two sides grew into many planes. But that is what is really there when we address the question of Indian identity. It isn’t that we should open the gates and let all the people in who say they have a claim to identifying as an Indian; but it isn’t that we should close the gates and keep all the people out who under current tribal rules have no claim. The question is, what is it? Laura Waterman Wittstock, Seneca Nation, is a retired nonprofit executive and journalist. She currently hosts the live weekly radio interview program, First Person Radio, on KFAI-FM in Minneapolis, MN