A Native American Activist Who’s Critical of Elizabeth Warren Says Her ‘Pocahontas’ Speech Was A ‘Step In The Right Direction’

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BY: Zaid Jilani 02.16.18

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Elizabeth Warren used her recent address at the National Congress of American Indians to address long-standing criticisms of her claims of Native American heritage.

“You won’t find my family members on any rolls, and I’m not enrolled in a tribe,” she said, conceding that there are no tribal records of her family belonging to the Cherokee. “And I want to make something clear. I respect that distinction. I understand that tribal membership is determined by tribes — and only by tribes. I never used my family tree to get a break or get ahead. I never used it to advance my career.”

But she also insisted that she does have part Native American lineage. “But my mother’s family was part Native American. And my daddy’s parents were bitterly opposed to their relationship,” she said. “So, in 1932, when Mother was 19 and Daddy had just turned 20, they eloped.”

She used the rest of the speech to highlight issues important to Native populations, such as economic deprivation, environmental degradation, and stopping interpersonal violence against Native peoples.

Her speech was applauded by at least two critics of Warren’s claim of Native heritage.

Rebecca Nagle is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who works on domestic violence issues as well as other activism. Last year, she wrote an op-ed for ThinkProgress critical of the Massachusetts senator. “She is not a hero because, despite claiming to be the only Native woman in the U.S. Senate, she has done nothing to advance our rights,” she wrote.

In an interview with The Intercept, Nagle gave Warren credit for addressing issues important to Native Americans. “I would say overall I think that this speech was a step in the right direction,” she said. “And I hope that she continues to walk in that direction. I also hope that people [will] hold her accountable in that direction.”

The activist appreciated how Warren focused on the underlying issues in the community rather than simply focusing on herself. “I think her re-framing the conversation and instead of centering herself, centering Native people was a really good step in the right direction. I also think that the other thing she did that was positive was making a clear commitment to prioritize Native issues,” she said. “I think we’ll have to watch and see if she makes good on that promise. But I think that commitment is a good step in the right direction. And also clearly building relationships with Native leaders.”