As an enrolled member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, 1981 alumna of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, veteran scholastic administrator, and lifelong Democrat, I am profoundly disturbed by the emergence of recent details concerning Harvard and one of its law school’s senior faculty members, Massachusetts senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. Over the course of the past month, facts have come to attention that leave little doubt that the HLS bureaucracy and Professor Warren perpetrated nothing less than ethnic fraud. The development of this saga has elicited a disappointing response from all parties involved and reflects not just a single offense of intellectual dishonesty but, rather, a broader and systemic racial masquerade rooted in egregious insensitivity. Media commentary from both polarities has failed to articulate the troubling implications involved in the deceit in which Harvard Law and one of its most prominent contemporary staffers have engaged for over a decade. I urge fellow Native alumni of Harvard, as well as all American Indians presently associated with any of the University’s schools, to denounce the conduct of HLS and Professor Warren.
The spectacle that has engulfed the contest between the liberal folk heroine and Senator Scott Brown illuminates a willful perversion and debasement of equal opportunity ideals, as well as a chance to see elements of critical race theory writ large.
Of course, abstractions favor the Warren camp. After all, what standards can arbitrate cultural authenticity? To parse the politics of self-determination is, at cursory glance, a presumptuous business at best, and Charles Fried, the faculty member who recruited Warren to Harvard, contends that claims to minority status played no part in her hiring.
Ultimately, however, whether the Professor formally obtained her employment in Cambridge thanks to affirmative action is immaterial. An unethical endeavor does not have to succeed in its objectives in order to warrant objection. Similarly, qualification does not automatically legitimize malfeasance.
Warren has predicated her bid for elected office on an advocacy for the disenfranchised, the proverbial “99 percent.” Consequently, her conduct vis-à-vis a historically marginalized Native community is fundamentally pertinent to the ideological consistency of her campaign platform.
Despite initial reports by news outlets that a marriage certificate discovered by New England genealogists pointed to a Cherokee great-great-great grandmother, both the Boston Globe and the New England Historic and Genealogical Society recently conceded that no proof has been discovered to substantiate the existence of that document. Additionally, ReJeania Zmek, the Logan County Clerk, explained that Oklahoma only began maintaining marriage applications around 1950, the year after Warren herself was born.
Although the academic originally asserted that she never advertised her theoretical American Indian ties to Harvard, the school bureaucracy was familiar with her background by 1996-1998, when Harvard Law spokesman Mike Chimura referred to Warren as a Native American in separate articles about women and minority HLS faculty members published by the Harvard Crimson and the Fordham Law Review. Warren contends that she had been unaware of Chimura’s promotion of her lineage, but declared that she was “proud” of her roots. In essence, then, she is effectively endorsing Harvard’s decision to publicize her as a representation of diversity, and is thus contributing to the perpetuation of environmental homogeneity and an institutionalized strain of racial posturing.
On Friday, the Boston Globe reported:
“…for at least six straight years during Warren’s tenure, Harvard University reported in federally mandated diversity statistics that it had a Native American woman in its senior ranks at the law school. According to both Harvard officials and federal guidelines, those statistics are almost always based on the way employees describe themselves.”
In addition, both Harvard’s guidelines and federal regulations for the statistics lay out a specific definition of Native American that Warren does not meet.
The article also notes that Harvard Law claimed a single Native American professor in a 2011 diversity survey based on ethnic self-identification.
What’s so confounding about the efforts of the Warren camp to deflect attention from these realities is that a consideration of the mainstream progressive ethos she publicly embraces fails to support her actions. Rather, the central question here is one of intent: why did Professor Warren list herself as a minority in the AALS directories and in federal compliance statistics when the implicit purpose of the opportunity to ethnically self-identify in a professional context is a function of equal opportunity aspirations? If we lived in a color-blind America, questions of race would not appear on scholastic and employment paperwork because they would be irrelevant; as it is, their presence is not an invitation for entertainment and networking. A seasoned veteran of academia in her late thirties would presumably recognize as much.
If one proceeds from the premise that the objective of affirmative action is to promote mosaics of perspective as didactic apparatuses in and of themselves, then Warren is not an individual who can refer to a personal history defined by either Native culture or Native genetics. It is wonderful that her “family lore” aspires to inclusiveness with its nods to “high cheekbones” but to argue that such vaguely defined allusions are of similar value in shaping a unique world view as regular exposure to and celebration of specific custom, doctrine, and ideology, would be patently false. And if white privilege exists, as numerous proponents of liberalism contend, then it has to be aesthetic as well as cultural. Warren’s experience has, by and large, been that of a Caucasian female American. And so Warren’s motivation in emphasizing a claim to Native lineage becomes a central issue in regard to her credibility.
A not-insignificant number of her defenders have attempted to double down by maintaining that most Oklahomans likely have at least a minute amount of Indian DNA. What a poetic illustration of the legacy of colonialism: first, the European entitlement to Native territories, and, now, white entitlement to Native cultural identity sans the conditions that confer meaning on that identity. In this respect, Warren has arguably benefited from pervasive misconceptions about Indians and a propensity of mainstream America to romanticize them. Perhaps as a result of white guilt, it is an acceptable, even trendy, practice among stalwart Warren supporters in Internet forum dialogues to sympathetically recall their own ambiguous tales of indigenous ancestors and then to admit that they themselves have no proof but muddied familial oral narratives. After all, anyone who has listened to their aunt wax envious about cheekbones can’t be ignorant about the nuances informing tribal politics, ceremonies, and traditions, or about the unique obstacles with which many Natives grapple each day: third-world living standards on reservations; endemic alcoholism and poverty; a situational dearth of legal recourse due to jurisdictional complexities; an absence of opportunity for educational or economic betterment.
Perhaps, in the end, we should appreciate Professor Warren for revealing institutionalized deficiencies at our alma mater that may have otherwise remained unexamined. However, we should nevertheless hold her accountable for the damage she has wrought—by either crassly capitalizing on the plight of the American Indian or indulging in the fetishization of a frequently caricaturized minority group. We ask the fellow Native alumni of Harvard, as well as the University’s current Native students and staffers, to join in supporting Senator Brown. Because when Warren directly facilitates a corruption of equal opportunity philosophy and then disingenuously dismisses valid concerns about her behavior as attacks against her family, she demeans the bravery of our Native forebears who fought so valiantly to resist assimilation and to preserve our various ways of life.
Educated at Darmouth College and Columbia University in the City of New York, Cole DeLaune is a native of Oklahoma and Tennessee. He currently resides in Atlanta, and has contributed editorial content to Vogue and Elle, among other publications. He is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma.
Margo (Kickingbird) DeLaune is a longtime professional veteran of the education arena. She is an alumna of Franklin & Marshall College and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Of Kiowa and Pottawatomie descent, she is presently a resident of Georgia and Oklahoma.