Brown, Warren, Racism, and the Politics of Identity

The Band Played On

Down in Massachusetts they have been having a brouhaha about whether Elizabeth Warren is Native or not. Her opponent in the Autumn elections, Sen.Scott Brown, has harshly criticized her for claiming to be Cherokee, yet having no proof. Others have also been highly critical, including Cherokee tribal members. (For a thoughtful Native critique of Warren see Lily Teague’s post at Cherokesdemandtruth.)

From where I sit, the issue is complex. First, there is a difference between claiming heritage and asserting tribal membership. Second, both sides are making claims of sovereignty in ways that deny the effectiveness and trauma of the ongoing practices of assimilation utilized by the U.S. and various state governments against Native people. Third, Scott Brown may criticize Warren but has not spoken strongly in favor of governments living up to their treaty obligations. Nor can I find evidence of him having criticized his fellow Republicans for their frequent racist attacks on Native people and others of color.

Of course, there is sometimes money to be made from tribal affiliation, and minority status can be a powerful entry key into college and the professions. When folks falsely claim Native ancestry, they are potentially denying scholarships and services to those who truly deserve them. This is yet another form of warfare against Native people.

As a light skinned, gray haired person who looks European, I have had relatively easy access to much that America has to offer. As a Polio survivor with obvious physical challenges, I have also experienced a good deal of prejudice and discrimination. Indeed, I have learned more than I would ever want to know about barriers to access. I can certainly understand why my parents, especially my father, just might choose to pass as European and protect me from worse.

When I look at all this I can’t help but note Warren has been less than thoughtful, forthcoming, or articulate in discussing issues of identity. I also see that neither side has addressed the complexity of Native American life, nor of the Mixed Blood experience that is everyday life for millions of us. I even understand the family politics of Native heritage and identity of which Warren speaks.

For those of us with recent Native ancestry who are unable to prove that ancestry, the effects of this nasty debate are potentially chilling. This seems to advance the U.S. program of genocide through assimilation. (It used to be U.S. law that one drop of Native blood made one a Native!) It also tends to silence many folks who might otherwise be vocal supporters of their not so distant kin in Indian Country.

Finally, given the Cherokee (my mom’s purported side of the family), and other tribes’, dis-enrollment of people of Mixed Race, and others, with clear tribal descent, one must be conscious of the role prejudice, desperation and greed play in all this. In a culture as ruthless as ours, survival encourages hardness, and I guess racism and greed are understandable.  Still, they make strange bedfellows fir those of us raised with more Native values.

Speaking of strange bedfellows, that’s how we Mixed Bloods got here isn’t it?

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