America is a nation of immigrants. You hear it all the time, especially from the left.
The thing is… it’s not true. Sure, America is a nation where a majority of the population are immigrants or descended from immigrants. But it’s also a nation of the descendants of colonists, descendants of slaves, and Indigenous people from coast to coast. The old “America is a melting pot” phrase actually more accurately represents the fact that this nation is made up of people from everywhere in the world and people from the Americas.
When you hear Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders waxing philosophic about our “nation of immigrants” to fight isolationism and Trumpism it feels right. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted something similar. “America is a nation of immigrants, “the newly elected Congresswoman wrote. “Without immigrants, we are not America.”
As an Indigenous American and not an immigrant, I’d like to say, “Hi! Do I get to be America too … yet … ever?”
Though it’s disappointing, the use of the phrase without caveats by Ocasio-Cortez isn’t that surprising. AOC has close ties to Bernie Sanders, who tosses the term around a lot. The modern popularity of the line itself goes back to President Kennedy, who wrote a book titled A Nation of Immigrants.
Obviously, this isn’t the first time that any Indigenous American has heard it and felt frustrated by the exclusionary tone of that phrase. Still, it’s 2019 and we know America is so much more than just immigrants. Indigenous voices, Black voices, LGBTQI voices, and female voices are louder now than ever. So we have to ask, is it not time to move on from this monolithic idea of America as a singular nation of immigrants? It is, after all, looking back at America through very rose-tinted glasses — the kind boomers likely wore to Woodstock — to think that way.
Indigenous voices on Twitter were quick to point out the fallacy implied by Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet.
And here’s where something cool happened: Ocasio-Cortez isn’t from the old guard and she gets social media. Within a few short hours, she thoughtfully responded. “Thank you for pointing this out. … I’ll be more careful moving forward!”
That’s all it takes, folks. Listen to disenfranchised voices when they have a concern, learn, acknowledge, move on. We don’t have to cancel anyone. They don’t need to step down. There is no long and winding process of penance.
Listen, learn, and get better. Why can’t all politicians be this cool?
Senator Kamala Harris also gets the need to recognize Indigenous Americans. She has repeatedly used the “nation of immigrants” tag in speeches but (seems) to always have the good sense to qualify it. This is how Senator Harris words it: “We are a nation of immigrants. Unless you are Native American or your people were kidnapped and placed on a slave ship, your people are immigrants.”
As an Indigenous person, it’s nice to get that little wink of acknowledgment. But it means more. It means that we’re being included in the conversation about what this country is and where it’s headed. And it’s about time.
So what does any of this have to do with Senator Warren? Well, Harris and Ocasio-Cortez listened to Native voices. They offer inclusion. Senator Warren has failed to do that for years now. Partly out of ignorance, perhaps, but also partly out of a desire for self-preservation.
Very briefly, Senator Warren was called out for claiming to have Cherokee and Delaware ancestry when she first ran for the Senate in Massachusetts. This charade included Senator Warren adding “Cherokee” recipes to a cookbook painfully called Pow Wow Chow. What were her “Cherokee” recipes? “Mexican Oatmeal Soup” (the Cherokee are from what is now the American South). Another was titled “Crab with Tomato Mayonnaise Dressing.”
I’m not making this up no matter how crazy it sounds. There’s a word in Indian Country for someone like Warren: Pretendian.
Look, a lot of Americans — especially those living in Oklahoma — have old family myths that they’re part Cherokee. Hell, it’s even a joke on Archer. The issue is so pervasive that the Cherokee Nation has to employ full-time genealogists to deal with people claiming that their great-great grandma was an Indian princess, exactly as Warren did.
This was exposed when Warren was running for Senate but fizzled until Donald Trump ran for president. He quickly latched on to a clear weakness in Warren’s armor. As all bullies do, he attacked her in a spot that she could not defend. The Cherokee Nation clearly stated that Warren had no connection to the tribe and was not Cherokee. Indigenous people reached out and asked her to stop spreading the myth. Instead, Warren dug in her heels and refused to let go of the old family yarn. Then she took the bully’s bait and took a DNA test.
This, of course, turned into a total mess. It was an indefensible position in the first place and there was no high ground to be recovered. Warren’s DNA test “reveal” was by all accounts a disaster.
But here’s the thing: All Warren had to do when she was running for Senate was to say this: “There are old family stories that I grew up with about a distant relative being Cherokee. I’ve come to realize that maybe those stories are more myth than fact. Even if there is some ounce of truth to them, calling myself Cherokee does not accurately reflect my experience in America. After listening to Indigenous people and the Cherokee Nation, I’ve come to understand how pervasive and damaging these stories are to Native Americans around the country.”
That’s literally all it took. A single statement could have done it.
Sadly, that’s not what happened. Instead of listening to the chorus of Indigenous voices like Jacqueline Keeler, âpihtawikosisân, Lucas Brown Eyes, Ruth H. Hopkins, Dr. Adrienne Keene, Rebecca Nagle, Simon Moya-Smith, the freakin’ Cherokee Nation, and so, so many more, Warren stood her ground and continues to do so.
Does the bully smell this ever eroding position? You’d better believe it.
Today, because of Warren’s actions, Indigenous Americans are getting discriminated against from both sides of the aisle. The left is silencing Indigenous voices for daring to question Warren and the right, spearheaded by Trump’s virulent hatred for all things Indian, is aggressively attacking our land and culture while trying to upend longstanding treaties.
Overall, it’s ugly. And all Warren had to do was what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez just did: Listen, learn, and grow. Had Warren done that, Indigenous people around America wouldn’t be dealing with tweets like this from the right:
And this from the left:
Instead, we’d be part of the national dialogue. Our issues would matter as we ramp up toward another election cycle. It’s a position in the broader conversation that’s long been denied and is (quite obviously) well-deserved.