September 28, 2012

Race and a Political Race

Wynn Dwanna_Robertson Jonathan R. Wynn and Dwanna L. Robertson

Robertson is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation,and a PhD candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

The Massachusetts Senate race between incumbent Scott Brown and Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren took an unexpected sharp turn this week. Shades of racialized language (reminiscent of the 2008 Presidential campaign) seeped in. This actually started in April, when Brown’s staffers uncovered that Warren claimed she was a minority, implicating her as committing ethnic fraud because she lacked proof of a Native American ancestry.

During their first political debate, Brown went straight at this issue in a prepared remark, saying, “Professor Warren claimed she was a Native American, a person of color — And as you can see, she’s not.” With this statement, Brown contends he can identify Native Americans—and other people of color—just by looking at them.

It would be humorous—Did she accidentally forget to braid her hair and wear her moccasins?—if it didn’t have serious undertones cutting at the heart of race and politics in the U.S.. Brown suggests Warren received special consideration for claiming she was part Cherokee. “When you are a U.S. Senator,” he stated, “you have to pass a test and that's one of character and honesty and truthfulness. I believe and others believe she's failed that test." But did Warren fail the test?

Native people weighed in with strong opinions. Indigenous author and filmmaker, Sherman Alexie tweeted “Warren is as close to her Indian ancestors as I am to my 19th Century Russian furtrapping great-grandfather.” Northern Cheyenne member and former U.S. Senator, Ben Nighthorse Campbell thinks Warren’s claim is inappropriate if she used it to get ahead. Democratic Congressional candidate Wenona Benally Baldenegro, a member of the Navajo Nation, says the controversy distracts from more important issues of “tribal sovereignty, tribal rights and the very serious issues that our tribal communities face, today.” The news site Indian Country has a great discussion about the topic as well.

Interestingly enough, not one Indigenous person took issue with Warren’s appearance. Because they know claiming a Native identity involves negotiating an intricate matrix of cultural, political, and racial criteria. Being “identifiable” was never the qualifying standard for Indigeneity. Technically, only enrolled citizens of federally recognized tribes can legally claim to be American Indian, and those members and citizens have tribal and/or CDIB cards to prove it. This begs the question: why isn’t Warren a citizen of the Cherokee Nation?

The short story is that in 1887, Congress enacted the General Allotment Act that, in effect, removed communal land from the tribes and portioned it out to individuals. ‘Eligible’ tribal members were identified to receive parcels of land for farming and ranching. Local Indian agents decided whether people qualified as ‘Indian’ or not, eventually alienating hundreds of thousands of American Indians from their respective tribes: Less than 40 percent of the applications for membership on Indian Census Rolls were approved.

This isn’t just a problem for Warren. All the information reported by the U.S. Census Bureau about Native Peoples is collected by self-identification. According to the Census Bureau, over 4.8 million people identify as American Indian in 2010; yet, the U.S. Department of Interior reports only 1.9 million people are enrolled members of federally recognized tribes for the same year. This means an additional 2.9 million people who identify American Indian as their race are not citizens of federally recognized tribes. So, do they also fail the test “of character and honesty and truthfulness?”

Warren responded by talking about how her mother told her she was part Cherokee.

One political reporter who has similar familial stories, points out that when you grow up in Oklahoma City—the onetime heart of Indian Territory before Oklahoma Statehood—this was not at all uncommon. In a political ad Warren states:

“As a kid, I never asked my mom for documentation when she talked about our Native American heritage. What kid would? ...But I knew my father’s family didn’t like that she was part Cherokee and part Delaware — so my parents had to elope.”

Apparently Warren’s mother ”passed that test” enough to be rejected by her soon to be husband’s family.

Brown’s core assertion, wrapped in charges of a lack of character and dishonesty, is that Warren received special treatment for her race. This is what is known in political circles as a “dog whistle”: a sound only the base of a party can hear and, in this context, it is an effort by the Brown campaign to energize whites who feel they don’t get special treatment for their race and they suspect others do. (A well-worn reading in Introduction to Sociology classes is Peggy MacIntosh’s “The Invisible Backpack,” as it is a great introduction into how whiteness has plenty of its own hidden privileges.)

The Boston media has uncovered evidence that from 1986 to 1995 Harvard Law School promoted the fact that Warren was a “diversity hire.” There is some evidence proving her heritage: The New England Genealogical Society uncovered evidence that her great-great-great grandmother said she was Cherokee in a 1894 marriage license, but then stated it did not have such evidence.

One of the easy ways to examine whether or not Warren received preferential treatment is to see if she has a good record, regardless of her race. It’s a rather easy thing to do, in fact. Her publication record is online and it is so long it almost broke my browser.

(Scott Brown and his supporters also attempt to portray Warren as an elitist by continually referring to her as “Professor” with a clear inflection, and despite the fact that a large portion of her scholarship has been about middle-class debt and consumer advocacy. That’s a topic for another blog post.)

The ugliness of the race has spilled over into the media and out onto the streets. In May, blogger Michelle Malkin wrote an article perpetuating stereotypes of American Indians by using extremely offensive names when referring to Warren, including “Sacaja-whiner,” “Pinocchio-hontas”' and ”Chief Full-of-Lies.” The Native American Journalists Association condemned Malkin’s piece as disrespectful and belittling to Native peoples and tribal nations. And then, on September 22, Brown staffers gleefully taunted Warren campaign volunteers with stereotypical “war chants” and waving their arms in a ”tomahawk chop.”


These actions were politically dumb and racist, and Brown has distanced himself from them but has not apologized for those campaign workers. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker called the event racist. By the way: Would Baker pass Brown’s test? (A little noted fact about the recently assassinated Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, is that he was a member of the Chinook Nation. Would he pass the test?)

Co-author of this post and UMass Graduate Student, Dwanna Robertson, is a member of the Muscogee/Creek Nation, and writes a thoughtful plea for critical reflexivity about First Nation folk during the fall season: Halloween is often a chance to reinforce racist stereotypes with costumes like ”Native American/Pocahottie” are no exception. In 2011 there was a fantastic ”We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” campaign by an Ohio University student group. (Image from S.T.A.R.S. website)

Culture not costume

Back to Brown’s assertion idea that our eyes can tell us a person’s race. Sociologist Mary Campbell has been working on misclassification of race based upon skin tone, finding not only that American Indians experience a high level of misidentification, but that in the process they also experience higher levels of psychological distress.

Although it was mostly constructed as a lark, the website, All Look Same, offers the chance for site visitors to confront their own misidentification with a test for you to guess if a picture is of a Korean, Chinese or Japanese person. Dyske Suematsu, created the site because he was often surprised that people confused his Japanese heritage and thought it would be interesting and humorous to see if people, Asians and non-Asians alike, could tell the groups apart. He thought it would be a way to celebrate similarities and differences, and he received positive and negative feedback over it.

There is, however, a real challenge when it comes to speaking of how indigenous folk look. It is not just that it's a bad idea to think facial features are satisfactory markers of race. It is that the emphasis on perception also indicates a complete misunderstanding of U.S. History: People who claim First Nation Heritage are of a mixed ethnic background due to generations of attempted racial extermination, cultural oppression, and a breaking of tribal links to land and community.

Not all Europeans look alike. Not all Africans look alike. And with over 816 culturally diverse tribal groups, not all North American Indigenous people look alike. Brown’s confusion over why a descendent of Delaware and Cherokee might not appear to be what a white person thinks what a Delaware and Cherokee should look like demonstrates not a perceptual error, but rather a lack of understanding of history and the social construction of race.


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You claim:

"People who claim First Nation Heritage are of a mixed ethnic background due to generations of attempted racial extermination, cultural oppression, and a breaking of tribal links to land and community."

Nonsense. No one raped Indians. They freely entered into marriages with whites for many reasons. You may say that Scott Brown doesn't know the intricate and often contradictory details of ethnic/racial identification in the U.S., but it wasn't "racist" to challenge Warren's claim (if she truly made it) of being American Indian or Native American (as opposed to simply party Native American, which is common as dirt among many whites in the South).

"White Indians," such as the Chief of the Cherokee Nation, have their cake and eat it too. Why shouldn't this scam be recognized?

Let's admit that "whites" are not "pure" and can be part Indian, African, Asian, etc.


Thanks for your comments, and I'm glad that you took the time to write a response to our piece.

Although our piece doesn't mention rape per se, we would beg to differ that 'no one' raped American Indian women. Co-author Dwanna Robertson’s recent research uncovers a great deal of evidence on this point, as does the work of other social scientists and historians. But you don't have to be a scholar to find evidence of the violence against Indigenous women, just look here:

In addition, here's an article from this year, noting that American Indian women are twice as likely to be raped, and it brings up a key additional point: that non-American Indian men are protected, and reported rapes of Am-Indian women only result in arrest 13% of the time, as compared with 35% for African American women and 32% for whites. ( This is addressed by the Violence Against Women Act.

However, the point of our post is over the ability to judge race based upon perception.

And last, we would agree that what we think of as 'Caucasian' today is not 'pure,' but is in fact 'socially constructed.' This means that we collectively distribute and withhold resources based upon perceived differences that are social rather than genetic. In sociology classes, for example, we often will talk about the one-drop rule overturning the legal definitions of race or how Irish and Italians were once not 'white,' but went through a process (largely at the expense of African Americans) via the labor movement to position themselves as 'white.' Although we’re not sure what you mean by ‘scam,’ we feel that this complicated history is just as pronounced in the case of American Indians, or more so.

Thanks again for your comment, D.

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