Let’s chuck the Cherokee fixation and deal with today’s challenges by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog. You can find Marjorie’s blog at http://marjoriearonsbarron.com/

The Boston Herald drumbeating investigation of  Elizabeth Warren’s claim to having Cherokee blood keeps on.   In yesterday’s installment,  the paper published excerpts from a 1984 cookbook called Pow Wow Chow, edited by Warren’s cousin, who compiled recipes from “Five Tribes families.”  The story has gone viral on right wing websites. But so what?

The Five Tribes included Cherokee, which is how Warren identified herself.  Responsible genealogists are quick to point out that proving one’s Native American heritage is complex,  that  most of those claiming a   “Cherokee heritage” actually come from other tribes initially,  and there are more people with legitimate indigenous roots than those who can provide clear and convincing documentation.

Forced west to Oklahoma in the 1830s Trail of Tears  displacement, “Cherokee” women often  intermarried with settlers of European descent who couldn’t afford to bring brides from back East.

For more than a century,  being classified anything other than white was not chic but more to be whispered about.  If  possible, Native Americans  tried to pass, lest they be subject to legal and social discrimination.  They couldn’t vote, own land or go to school with white children.  Then much of the U.S. realized that we were a stew, not a melting pot.  The nation saw strength in diversity, a desire to right past discrimination, and affirmative action.

In Oklahoma, among those who trace their roots back more than  a century,  some Native American blood is expected, and even celebrated. This ranges from Oklahoma Congressman   Tom Cole, a Chickasaw Indian and the only Native American in Congress, to former Sooner GOP Congressman Mickey Edwards, who was born in Cleveland and was made an honorary Osage Indian.

That Oklahoma-born Elizabeth Warren heard this part of her heritage passed down from one family to another is not surprising.  That she had no documentation is also not surprising.

My husband’s grandfather was said to have been a member of the cavalry in the czar’s army.  It’s part of family lore  but there is no paper trail.  My grandfather was said to been a cigarette factory owner in Russia in the late 19th century, before he fled conscription in the czar’s army and came to America.  Again, no documentation of that factory.   Children are told about their forebears and, in turn, tell it to their own children.

All the brouhaha stems not from the fact that Elizabeth Warren  listed herself years ago as a minority in a national directory of law professors but how she handled the question today.  It’s pretty clear that Harvard hired her not because of affirmative action but because she’s a smart lady and a good professor, with an expertise in bankruptcy law that they were looking for.  What we don’t know is to what extent Harvard made her 1/32 Cherokee blood work for the university at a time when it was under fire for lack of diversity, or whether they got any benefit from the designation. But that’s an issue for Harvard.

Thankfully, most people understand that there are bigger issues in this campaign, not the least of which is Scott Brown’s efforts to gut strong regulatory support of the Volcker Rule.  He may be heeding his heavy level of financial backing from Wall Street at a time when the nation needs to stand firm on financial regulation, rather than watering it down.

The Cherokee story has staying power because its gives Brown an opportunity to pander to white male independents. It’s easier for reporters, columnists and bloggers to write about because it doesn’t require explaining the significance of procedural votes  or  delving into complex (sometimes boring) substance.

If the Cherokee  story drags on, perhaps Warren should say, “Look, I am proud of my identity  and what I’ve always been told … that I am part Native American, but I shouldn’t have listed myself as a minority because, practically speaking,  I’m not. Now let’s look at what the real issues are and get focused on the clearcut differences between Scott Brown and me.”

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

2 Responses to Let’s chuck the Cherokee fixation and deal with today’s challenges by Marjorie Arons-Barron

  1. Greg Page says:

    Marjorie, thanks for writing this. I agree with you about the overall importance of this issue [low], and will cite Sayre’s Law here: “In any dispute, the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” Complicated stuff like START negotiations, NATO expansion, or the Volcker Rule doesn’t get the same radio play because it’s harder to wrap your head around. The Native American heritage thing is a bit more straightforward, and it also conjures up a lot of other intense feelings that some people hold about things like hiring preferences and “set-asides” for some people.

    But for a second, let’s shelve all of that. As your previous post on this issue implied, there was a screw-up here on the part of the Warren campaign. The fumble that I see is how do you go from “I don’t remember” and “It wasn’t all that important to me,” to “I was trying to connect with people like myself” and “it was part of our family lore” in a span of ONE DAY?!? The second two quotes show that a) clearly, she does remember, and b) clearly, it was important to her.

    I think your advice in that last paragraph is sound, and it’s too bad her advisors weren’t saying that before all this erupted — a good vetting process lays out EVERYTHING on the table and then pre-empts the opposition by figuring out how to handle questions like this before they arise. To me, jumping from the old legal standby of “I don’t remember” and then spinning 179 degrees to the “people like me” line, followed up by the “high cheekbones” bit just doesn’t pass the smell test.

    Then again, neither does Scott Brown staging a half-court basketball shot at a high school, taking out paid radio ads to wax philosophical about the loss of Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield, or insisting over and over again that he’s a “regular guy” when he’s anything but. My partisan blinders aren’t so thick that I can’t see problems on both sides.

    And your point about family lore is well-taken…other than stories from my now-deceased grandparents, and some phenotypes suggesting Celtic blood, I can’t really *prove* the lore I’ve heard about relatives fleeing County Wexford for Canada around 1870 when the British burned their church and displaced them. For the sake of the argument, let’s give Elizabeth Warren a full pass on that.

    That still doesn’t explain the awkward fumbles along the way from the original “Who…me?” reaction to the more sensible and reasonable follow-up answers. This was badly flubbed.

  2. Marjorie Arons-Barron says:

    Greg, Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Some in the media are just hand-maidens to Scott Brown and won’t let it go. They even went with a story that she had plagiarized recipes she submitted to the Pow Wow Chow cookbook when, it was later proven, someone stole the recipes from her. Give me a break!