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How Cherokee Is Real Cherokee? Mixed-Race People Discuss Elizabeth Warren

The state of Massachusetts debating a woman's bloodlines is yet more evidence that maybe trying to quantify race is a bad idea.

If you thought that a white Senate candidate running for office against another white candidate could never become embroiled in a racial battle, think again. And turn your eyes toward Massachusetts, where that's exactly what's happening.

Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat running for a Senate seat against incumbent Republican Scott Brown, claims she is one-32nd Cherokee Indian, a claim that, for a time, was supported by the New England Historic and Genealogy Society. This week, however, the society revised its original finding, saying, "We have no proof that Elizabeth Warren’s great-great-great-grandmother O.C. Sarah Smith either is or is not of Cherokee descent."

For the most part, it's a stupid argument. A lot of kids have parents who tell them familial legends about distant Native American ancestors—who cares if Warren fell for a tall tale passed down from generation to generation? Alas, the story went from family fable to point of contention when Warren reportedly classified herself as a minority when she went to work at Harvard Law. According to reports from the Boston Globe, Warren, citing her Cherokee heritage, listed herself as a "minority professor" in the Association of American Law Schools desk book, a well-respected reference text for legal scholars, from 1986 to 1995. Warren now says she claimed minority status "in the hopes that it might mean that I would be invited to a luncheon, a group something that might happen with people who are like I am." She also says that when so such invitation materialized, she stopped checking the minority box.

Though she hasn't provided evidence to prove it, if Warren actually is part Cherokee, that gives her as much Cherokee blood as Bill John Baker, the latest principle chief of the Cherokee Nation. Still, her Republican opponents aren't having any of it; they're accusing her of concocting a minority story to help sneak into her job and Harvard, and to curry favor with "real" minorities.

Of course, that the GOP would harangue Warren is obvious. More interesting is how other mixed-race Americans feel, particularly mixed-race Americans who could, based on their looks, pass as being fully white, like Warren. So I asked a few of them.

Adam Serwer is a political reporter at Mother Jones who was raised by one black parent and one Jewish parent. At the beginning of our email interview, he wanted to establish that he believes Warren's Cherokee controversy to be "a dumb non-controversy with little relationship to what matters in a Senator." That aside, he says his own racial identification has been about what he knows culturally more than what's in his blood. "I have a Cherokee great-great-grandparent, but I don't identify as Cherokee because it's had no impact on my life," he says. "I've never been to a reservation, I have no close Cherokee relatives, and no cultural ties whatsoever to the Cherokee nation. ... I don't really know what my DNA says about how black or Jewish I am, but I was raised in those communities and that's the perspective I've lived my life with." In other words, if Warren had spent years in close contact with other Cherokee to learn the culture and its traditions, as, say, Chief Baker did, there may have been no issue.

Serwer says that though he finds Warren listing herself as a minority is "a bit strange," ultimately he thinks it's not a big deal. "As long as she wasn't trying to pass herself off as Native American, it doesn't bother me."

Christopher Davison, a small business owner in Tucson, Arizona, agrees that an attachment to the culture should be paramount when one is considering how to racially label oneself. Though Davis is one-quarter Japanese, he says he never considered himself anything other than white until watching a documentary about World War II in high school. "I remember when I found out about the Japanese internment camps, and i found out that I would have gone to one of those," he says. "That's kind of when I really started to feel Japanese." But although Davison's late-blooming interest in his Asian heritage led him to study the Japanese language and Japanese cooking, when it came to filling out college applications, he never checked the box marked "Asian." "Mainly because I don't look it at all," he says. When his cousin, who is also 1/4 Japanese, started identifying himself as Asian on all of his college and scholarship applications, Davison says it made him a little upset. "He didn't know how to speak Japanese or cook any of the food or anything," he says. "To claim the culture but not really know it is strange, and I could do origami and reproduce my grandmother's recipes and speak to her in her language. I definitely felt more Japanese than him."

So if Warren wasn't really steeped in Cherokee tradition, as Davison was with Japanese tradition, should she be so eager to claim Cherokee? According to Jessica Reed, a graduate student in Los Angeles who is one-32nd black and one-32nd Native American, she should. "I'm sure Elizabeth Warren is, on the one hand, trying to capitalize on her being part Native American so she has greater appeal to non-white demographics," says Reed. "But if I were in her position, I'd not only claim my heritage, but make the case that non-white voters can see me as an ally, and that their concerns will always be my concerns. I don't think that's pandering. I think that's progressive."

One voice has been noticeably absent from discussions of whether Warren is Cherokee enough: that of actual Cherokee people and their descendants. So I got in touch with Steven "Stone Bear" Phillips, principal chief of the United Cherokee Nation, an organization of Cherokee descendants, people much like Warren herself claims to be. "Only Indians, dogs, cats and horses are registered and have a blood quantum requirement," he says. "Research Native people and you will find that the registration requirements and blood quantum issue is divisive amongst the people and was installed by the very government that tried for hundreds of years to genocide the Cherokee and other Native peoples."

Phillips compares Warren to Obama, who is also famously mixed race. "Our current President is mixed blood, including some Cherokee blood, but self-identifies as an African-American. I don’t believe he has to have a [letter from the government] to prove it," he says. "In turn, neither should I, nor you, nor Ms. Warren, be required to prove to any other person or government, who we are and what blood quantum percentage we have."

Phillips closed his email to me this way: "My prayers to the Creator today are for my Cherokee sister Ms. Warren."

Photo via (cc) Flickr user mdfriendofhillary

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