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Who Gets To Decide Who Is Native American?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, you know those kids who always have their fingers on a keyboard texting? You might think they are wasting time and money, but in a few minutes, we'll talk with a texting champion who has turned his habit into a $50,000 prize. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about an issue of identity, a conversation about what makes us who we are. Now, you might think this is one of those conversations that only take place with college freshmen at late night bull sessions, but this one is actually taking place in the context of a U.S. Senate race.

By now, many of you may have heard about a controversy involving a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, Democrat Elizabeth Warren. She found herself in hot water earlier this year when it emerged that she claims Cherokee heritage. Here's Elizabeth Warren back in May.


ELIZABETH WARREN: This is what my brothers and I were told by my mom and my dad, my mamaw and my papaw. This is our lives, and I'm very proud of it.

MARTIN: Critics have been dogging Warren about the claim ever since. They say they don't care about her pride. They care about privilege. They suggested identifying as part Native American helped Warren's employment prospects at Harvard Law School and the University of Pennsylvania, and they're saying Warren is not providing enough documentation to back up her claim of Cherokee heritage.

And now that Ms. Warren has been given a prime time speaking slot at the upcoming Democratic Convention, the issue may get more national attention, so we wanted to ask the questions that we think many people might have about this, which is, just who is Native American? Who gets to decide, and why does it matter?

And we've called together two guests who've thought a lot about this. Rob Capriccioso is the Washington Bureau Chief of the Indian Country Today Media Network. He's been covering this story extensively. And Tiya Miles is the chair of the Afro-American and African Studies Department at the University of Michigan. She's also the author of several books, including "The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story." She's investigating the ties between African-Americans and Native Americans and, for that work, she won a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2011. And they're both with us now.

Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

ROB CAPRICCIOSO: Thanks for having me.

TIYA MILES: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Rob, I'm going to start with you. Where did Elizabeth Warren go wrong, and how did this become such a big story?

CAPRICCIOSO: Her situation is playing on a historical issue that has plagued a lot of American Indians throughout history. When folks claim to be a member of a tribe or have native heritage and then can't back it up in the way that other folks have been forced to prove by the federal government, forced to prove by their tribes, and so then you have her coming into this. She has a political problem and a cultural problem.

MARTIN: What is she claiming? Just tell us. What are the facts?

CAPRICCIOSO: Through a great, great, great grandmother. It was first reported when this came out that she would have been calculated to be about 1/32nd Cherokee. And genealogical societies were researching her background and all the papers that were there. And, come to find out, even the records that that initial one-thirty-second was based upon are not all that clear. She could be as little as one-sixty-fourth. She might not be any Native American at all.

MARTIN: How did this issue come forward? How did it become a public matter what ancestry she claims?

CAPRICCIOSO: It became a controversy at the end of April when the Boston publications started reporting about her past with her - the institutions of higher education that she worked for, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Texas University. There were questions about whether she had called herself Native American while she was employed at those institutions in the past. And so the newspapers in Boston started covering that and asking what the institutions knew about her past and what she knew about her past.

Well, it came out that the institutions said that they didn't know anything about her identity. It later came up that she was being identified as Native American after she was hired at these institutions. So there's been questions since then raised by the political campaign of Scott Brown as to whether Elizabeth Warren might have originally said something about being Native American, which led the institutions to talk about this.

MARTIN: So you can understand from the political standpoint why she's opposing Republican Scott Brown, who is the incumbent. He famously won that seat that had long been held by Ted Kennedy. But I want to talk about the cultural side of it. How are people within the Cherokee Nation responding to this and, more broadly, in Indian country? Tell us, if you would, why this is...


MARTIN: ...why this has continued as a controversy, apart from the politics of it, if that's possible?

CAPRICCIOSO: Right. Well, some are very outraged because they feel like this is just another example that has happened now throughout history of people coming in and trying to get the benefits of being an Indian without having faced the hardships that their family might have experienced in the past and their ancestors might have experienced. So, on that level, some are very outraged.

Others are very willing to give Elizabeth Warren a pass on this. They see her as a person who might be sympathetic to Native American issues, especially if she considers herself Native American. In the future, she might be a good ally. So they don't want to be too hard on her, necessarily.

But I think every Indian, when questions of native identity come up, you get warning signs in your brain. How much can you trust this person? And so a good way to help foster that trust would be to talk more with those people who have those kinds of concerns and...

MARTIN: And she hasn't done that.

CAPRICCIOSO: So far that hasn't happened.

MARTIN: Rob, I'm going to ask you to stand by. I'd like to turn now to Professor Tiya Miles. Professor Miles, we're going to speak with you. We've spoken before about African-Americans who claim Native American ancestry. So I'm interested in your perspective about how this is playing out. And I'm thinking in contrast to African-Americans, you don't often hear about African-Americans being upset or annoyed when somebody claims to be African-American, even if that person from a physical appearance standpoint doesn't resemble how African-Americans mainly look. So could you talk a little bit more about how you react to this and why you think the reactions are as they are?

MILES: Sure, Michel. I think that for African-Americans there hasn't been the same extent of a need to protect something from people who are trying to steal it. Whereas, for native people and native nations there's always been a sense of protectiveness because either European powers, the United States government, U.S. settlers, contemporary people right now have been trying to get what and native people have, whether that's land or a sense of coolness attached to religious practice, or attached to certain kinds of styles of fashion. For African-Americans there really hasn't been such a coveted sense of blackness that other people wanted that had to be protected.

MARTIN: Rob, talk a little bit more, if you would, about has Elizabeth Warren taken any steps to document this aspect of the heritage she claims? And how would she go about doing so?

CAPRICCIOSO: The answer to date is not really. She has, you know, gone on record with publications who keep asking her about this. There's a famous YouTube clip, I think we played a portion of it earlier in the show, but that's a very rudimentary level of documenting your native identity. Tribal enrollment cards, now that's the ultimate way to prove you're a member of a tribe. She hasn't contacted a tribe to go about that process. She hasn't - it hasn't been reported, at least, that she's looked for personal connections on the Dawes roll that the Cherokee Nation requires an ancestor to be on in order to become a member of their tribe.

MARTIN: Tiya Miles, could you talk a little bit more about the contrast though, you see between how Native American ancestry is established? I mean it's kind of ironic in a way, isn't it, that Native American ancestry is proved in part by a list that was generated by the federal government?

MILES: It's perfectly ironic. And I think that it's frustrating even for people who are using those very lists to determine they're enrolled citizens today. But it's what we have. It's an imperfect system. And the one thing that I think about regarding Elizabeth Warren is that I think that she did make some mistakes but it seems to me to be in some ways unfair because she started off by saying she had a family lore and a lot of people have family stories of native ancestry. I think that family stories can shape the way people feel about themselves and their past but they shouldn't be turned into something that's more like a ticket - the idea that you can use that story to create entree for yourself into other kinds of spaces. That's where this whole situation I think got derailed with Elizabeth Warren. Whether she did that or whether people view her as having done that.

MARTIN: Rob Capriccioso, so talk a little bit more about this. I mean were saying that part of the sensitivity around this is that you think there are a lot of people who claim Native American ancestry. And the question for some people is do you claim the privilege without experiencing any of the hardship?

CAPRICCIOSO: Right. When you asked that I totally think about the folks who might have been discluded(ph) from those roles that I talk about earlier who were fully Native American but maybe they didn't want to sign on to those roles because they didn't want to be part of this federal gathering process. In other respects, maybe the federal government wasn't able to gather that information because they couldn't connect with the folks who were in various regions of the country in the 1800s.

In terms of - it's hard to talk about privilege because we don't know about Elizabeth Warren's background. I know she came from a very economically-challenged background, which is very consistent with a lot of Native American families around the country. It's a really difficult question to answer on privilege for her.

MARTIN: What about the point that Professor Miles made, which is that there are a lot of people as part of the oral history of their family claim Native American heritage? Within Indian Country how is that viewed?

CAPRICCIOSO: It's hugely important and they are very valid. Many enrolled members have very important stories about their family history but they're put in a difficult position because you know what your family situation is and what your family had to do and what hoops your family jumped through to have you be an enrolled member of a tribe. Folks who come to it later now with their family stories again, we go back to that, didn't have the same experience that some of these families do who are enrolled citizens. Some of them did though, and they're still not considered enrolled citizens, which isn't fair and it's all a part of this colonial issue that Dr. Miles mentioned earlier.

MARTIN: Professor Miles, I'm going to give you the final word here. You know, it's interesting, we live in a time when it seems that we've talked a lot more about identity and what it means than many people ever thought we would, in part because we have a president who is biracial, and even now we're still talking about this. Do you envision that there will be more conversations about this going forward, or do you think that this is just one of those kind of weird happenstances of the fact that this is a person who is participating in a hotly contested political contest?

MILES: I don't think this is the end. I think that given that we're having more and more interracial marriages and people who are claiming mixed-race identities who also might want to claim what I'll call it a fixed-race identity simultaneously, we'll be approaching this question again and again I think in different circumstances that we can't even imagine right now.

MARTIN: Is there anything else you wanted to say about this that I didn't have to wit to ask you?

MILES: Well, I would just like to add, I think part of the crucial issue here is that claiming an identity - at least in my view - has two parts to it. One can claim but I think one also has to be claimed in order for that identity to be fully rounded and I think that's part of Elizabeth Warren's trouble, that she claimed this native identity but she has not been claimed nor does she seem to have really reached out to try to be claimed by Cherokee people and by other native academics.

MARTIN: Tiya Miles joined us from member station WUOM in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She's the chair of the Afro-American and African Studies Department at the University of Michigan. Part of her work is investigating the ties between native peoples and African-Americans. She's the author of many books, including "The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story" and she is a 2011 MacArthur so-called genius fellow. Rob Capriccioso was with us once again. He's the Washington bureau chief of the Indian Country Today Media Network, with us from Washington, D.C.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.


MILES: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.