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Native Americans tell Warren to renounce ancestry claim after DNA test

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  • A new letter signed by over 200 citizens of the Cherokee Nation and other Native Americans called on Elizabeth Warren to denounce her family’s claim that they have Native American ancestry.
  • They also said Warren’s claims muddled people’s understanding about how tribal citizenship actually works.
  • Warren has been dogged by claims for years that she falsely claimed Native American ancestry. Before launching her 2020 campaign, she took a DNA test meant to prove her family’s claim of Cherokee and Delaware ancestry.
  • The test sparked backlash from many Native Americans, and Warren has repeatedly apologized and held meetings with tribal leaders to make up for the blunder.
  • In a response to the letter, Warren stated that “I am a white woman” and “I was wrong to have identified as Native American… I apologize for the harm I have caused.”
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

More than 200 Cherokees and other Native Americans signed a letter condemning Senator Elizabeth Warren’s past claims about her heritage as “dangerous,” and demanded she renounce her family’s claim to Cherokee and Delaware ancestry.

The letter, organized by Cherokee Nation citizens Joseph M. Pierce, Daniel Heath Justice, Rebecca Nagle and Twila Barnes, says Warren’s actions “have normalized white people claiming to be native, and perpetuated a dangerous misunderstanding of tribal sovereignty.”

It was signed by 143 members of the Cherokee Nation, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. More than 70 members of other tribes also signed.

The letter comes as Warren’s campaign enters a critical stretch ahead of Super Tuesday as she seeks the Democratic nomination for president.

Warren has not won any of the early states, and the letter breathes new life into an issue that nearly halted her campaign before it even began and created a liability that Warren has worked for months to overcome.

Criticisms that Warren inaccurately claimed Native American ancestry have existed since at least 2012. President Donald Trump has ridiculed Warren with the nickname “Pocahontas”.

Ahead of her 2020 campaign launch, Warren took a much-criticized DNA test to prove a family story that she had Native American ancestry and stymie Trump’s attacks. After an ensuing uproar, and criticism from some Native Americans, Warren contacted the Cherokee Nation to apologize, the Intercept reported. 

The new letter had been in the works for about three months, Pierce told Insider. He insisted that the timing was not politically motivated, but acknowledged that “the context of her seeking the Democratic nomination presents us with an opportunity to try to pressure her.”

The letter states that “while the average American thinks of Native Americans as a racial category, we are actually a political group. Our rights are based on citizenship in sovereign Nations and those Nations’ treaty relationship to the United States.”

Individuals who wish to join the Cherokee Nation must complete a rigorous application process and prove that they are related to a person listed on the Dawes Rolls, a registry compiled from 1898 to 1914 of people who were accepted for citizenship with the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminole tribes.

DNA tests, such as the one Warren took in 2018, are not considered a marker of indigenous identity or citizenship, said Pierce.

Warren’s claim that DNA evidence supported her family’s claim to Native American heritage created a dangerous public misconception about Native American identity, according to Pierce and the letter’s authors.

As an example, the authors cited a Los Angeles Times investigation that found hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants meant for minorities had been given to companies whose members made unsubstantiated claims of Native American ancestry.

The signatories make several demands of Warren, including that she publicly:

  • Say that Native people “are the sole authority on who is — and who is not — Native,”
  • Say that her family’s claim to Cherokee and Delaware ancestry is false and that she does not qualify for tribal citizenship,
  • Better explain to the public why her claim to Native American ancestry was “dangerous.”

On Tuesday, Warren responded to the the Cherokee Nation authors with a 12-page letter that repeatedly acknowledged her failures and pointed to her work as senator and presidential candidate on behalf of Native Americans.

Warren wrote: “I am not a person of color; I am a white woman, and that is how I identify. In addition, I am not a tribal citizen. Tribal Nations — and only Tribal Nations — determine Tribal citizenship.”

“I was wrong to have identified as Native American, and, without qualification or excuse, I apologize for the harm I have caused,” she wrote.

“Regardless of whether you forgive me — and again, that is up to you and you alone — I will continue to try my hardest to be the best champion for Indian Country I can be.”

Since the DNA test, Warren has spent significant time trying to demonstrate her commitment to tribal issues.

In August, she appeared at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Iowa, where she told participants, “I am sorry for the harm I have caused. I have listened, and I have learned a lot, and I am grateful for the many conversations that we’ve had together.”

Warren, along with Senator Jeff Merkely of Oregon, also introduced legislation last year to revoke the Medals of Honor awarded to soldiers who massacred Native Americans at Wounded Knee.

Warren’s response letter also outlines other policy proposals she believes would benefit Native Americans.

But Pierce said that Warren did not address one of his letter’s core requests: that she state that her family’s stories and claims to Native American ancestry were false.

“It’s not so much about asking her to apologize or not apologize,” Pierce told Insider.

“She’s already done that, that’s fine. We’re asking for her to fix what she has broken and to clarify what she has so thoroughly muddled.”

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