EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 6, 2012

Warren's claim as Native American opens debate over ethnic ties

By Bill Kirk
bkirk@eagletribune.com

LAWRENCE — Questions about her Native American heritage continued to dog the campaign of Democratic Massachusetts U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren late last week, even as she made a stop at the Everett Mills to celebrate labor unions and the Bread and Roses strike of 1912.

After proclaiming her allegiance to organized labor and working families in a speech to about 100 people in the sixth-floor exhibition hall on Friday, Warren reiterated that her designation as a Native American in a book on law professors back in the 1980s and 1990s was based on family lore.

"I'm proud of my heritage," she told reporters after making remarks at the breakfast gathering. "I grew up on family stories about who I am. It's something we just talk about in my family. As I've said, it's part of who we are."

Experts in genealogy and Native American culture said this week that such a claim, if used to further an academic or professional career, would certainly be unethical, although not illegal.

Others say the issue has brought up many questions about racial and ethnic identity, both in terms of the DNA makeup of people and their cultural connections.

It's also spotlighted a robust interest in genealogy, as more and more people are plunging into their ancestral past in an effort to find out who they really are. Aided by the Internet and DNA analysis, people can find out more easily than ever where they came from and who they're related to. Even many people from Latin America, including those from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, are finding that they have Indian roots in the ancient Taino tribe.

'Ethnic fraud'?

In Warren's case, questions remain as to whether she used her Native American ancestry to further her career as a law professor. Some critics say she's guilty of what's known as "box-checking," or designating yourself as a Native American in order to be considered a minority in the eyes of future employers or college admissions officers.

It's a charge Warren refutes, saying that she made the designation because she was reaching out to make a connection with people who may have a similar background.

When asked if she took advantage of so-called "box-checking" she said, "I worked hard for every job I got. I was hired because of the work I've done."

Whatever her reason, fraudulent designation of Native American ancestry is frowned upon as unethical, although it doesn't appear to be illegal.

But it should be, says Jim Peters, the executive director of the state Commission on Indian Affairs.

Peters, himself a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, said the practice was common during the heyday of affirmative action, but is less common now. He noted that if Warren was simply trying to assert her connection to her native American roots, that's fine. But if she was using it to gain an advantage on job applications, that's not.

"There should be a law against it," he said. "People have a right to embrace the fact they have Native American in their ancestry. If they have a connection, we don't hold it against them."

But, he added, "It depends on what you want to do with it."

That's precisely what the Coalition of Bar Associations of Color was getting at when they passed a "Resolution on Academic Ethnic Fraud" last July. The resolution, signed by the presidents of the Hispanic, Asian, Native American and National bar associations, states, among other things, that "fraudulent self-identification as Native American on applications for higher education ... is particularly pervasive among undergraduate and law school applicants."

It goes on to say the phenomenon is "so pervasive, it is commonly understood and referred to within the Native American Community as 'box-checking.'"

While no evidence has been documented that Warren checked a box indicating she was a Native American on her law school application to the Rutgers School of Law-Newark, it is clear that she did check a box in her application to the Association of American Law Schools desk book, a directory of law professors from participating schools.

Further, it has been revealed that Warren's minority status was listed by Harvard Law School possibly as recently as last year as part of that university's efforts to show its own ethnic diversity in hiring minority professors.

When asked about these issues Friday, Warren's campaign issued a statement saying: "She has been straightforward and open about her heritage while the people who recruited her (to teach at Harvard Law School) have made it clear it was because of her extraordinary skill as a teacher and a ground-breaking scholar."

The statement went on to say that her Republican opponent, Sen. Scott Brown, "has been peddling nasty insinuations for weeks to distract from his million-dollar tax returns and multi-million dollar Wall Street fundraising. We're getting back to the issues that really matter in this election, like how to level the playing field for middle-class families."

Brown's campaign had no comment on the matter.

Common question

For many, the question over Warren's claim to Native American ancestry has opened a window into the issue of ethnic diversity in general and Native American heritage in particular.

In recent years, according to David Lambert, a genealogist with the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, more and more people are looking into their pasts to see if there is some link to the indigenous tribes that resided on this continent for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.

"In the past 30 or 40 years, more people are coming forward, inquiring as to their Native American heritage," he said. "One hundred years ago, people wouldn't be looking at that."

He said there are many reasons for that, but at least one reason seems to be related to people wanting to cash in on their possible connections to financially successful casinos on Indian-held land across the country.

"A lot more people are coming forward, based on the casino aspect," he said. "Why not find out if you're related? If you have it, you're not wrong to claim it, but you have to back it up, through research and DNA, just so the next generation knows the truth, and can claim it."

He said in most cases he's reviewed, people are not Native American.

"If you polled 100 people, more than 40 percent will say they are Native American," he said. "The truth is, it's more like 10 percent. I usually disappoint people."

He said many people, including Warren in this case, look at old photographs that may show relatives with high cheek bones and dark hair.

"But you can't base it on photographs," he said, recalling how one couple he worked with, thinking they were Native American, were actually Scottish.

"You have to look for church records, vital records, probate records," he said. "Everyone wants to prove they are related to an Indian chief or a princess. More likely, you are not related to the royal family of Mohawks."

He said the prevalence of Native American ancestry is more pronounced in Western and Southern states, and less so in New England.

In Warren's case, a preliminary review of her ethnic roots by another researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society determined that she was 1/32nd Cherokee because she had a great-great-great grandmother who was Cherokee.

However, no documents have been provided showing proof of that connection.

A spokeswoman for the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Okla., said there are actually three Cherokee tribes, all with different rules regarding citizenship.

"For Cherokee Nation, applicants must show documentation they are a direct, lineal descendant of someone on the Dawes Rolls, which were compiled by the federal government in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and available to be viewed online on the National Archives' website," said Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton, the deputy executive director of the Cherokee Nation Communications department.

She added, "there is a difference between having Cherokee ancestors and being a citizen of the Cherokee Nation (or any tribe, for that matter). There were Cherokees who for one reason or another were not on the Dawes Rolls, which means their descendants, while legitimately Cherokee, are not eligible for tribal citizenship. It is not a perfect system by any stretch of the imagination, but at this point, it is all we have to go by to determine eligibility for citizenship."

She said she could not discuss specific cases such as Warren's for privacy reasons.

Representatives of the other two Cherokee tribes, one of which is also in Oklahoma, the other in western North Carolina, could not be reached for comment.

Dominicans and Taino

The use of resources such as the Dawes Rolls is just one of many methods used by people to determine their ethnicity. More and more, people are turning to DNA analysis, according to several experts reached this week.

Lambert said it is still an imperfect science and can only show if a person has Native American blood, not which tribe they might be from.

In Latin America, DNA and blood-type testing has been used to show that many people from the Dominican Republic, for example, are related to the Taino tribe, which populated the Caribbean around the time the Spanish arrived.

Jorge Estevez, of the National Museum of the American Indian/The Smithsonian, said that for generations, school children in the Dominican Republic had been taught that the Taino Indians were completely wiped out by the early to mid-1600s following the Spanish invasion.

In fact, he said, Taino bloodlines, and many Taino customs, remain active today throughout the region.

Several different tests have been done, he said, showing that anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of the population of the Dominican Republic had Taino DNA markers. In Puerto Rico, the results were even higher, with one test showing that 61 percent of the population had Indian blood, he said.

"What it showed," he said, "is that the genocide of the Taino people is ludicrous."

The result has been a revival of interest in the culture of the Taino tribe, with groups sprouting up all over the Caribbean celebrating Indian traditions.

In the United States, in general, and Lawrence in particular, interest in tracing such family lineage doesn't seem as popular. The Lawrence History Center on Essex Street, for example, has no records of anyone doing research on the subject.

Lambert, of the New England genealogical group, said people should celebrate all of their ancestral lines.

"I've known Native Americans who have both Mayflower lines and Native American lines, and they say, 'I just want to be Native American,'" he said. "They should embrace all of their ancestors."

He added, "Elizabeth Warren now has a connection and a tradition. What she does with that is her doing. Some will become registered members of a tribe, others will just go on with their life."

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