February 26, 2020

Dear Senator Warren:

As concerned citizens of the Cherokee Nation, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, we recognize our responsibility to stand up for our communities: to those we claim and those who claim us.

Senator Warren, as you seek the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, your history of false claims to American Indian identity and the defense of these claims with a highly publicized DNA test continue to dog your political career. For Native Americans, this moment is more than an annoyance; it represents the most public debate about our identity in a generation. In a country where Indigenous people are mostly invisible, what Americans conclude from this debate will impact Native rights for years to come.

Whatever your intentions, your actions have normalized white people claiming to be Native, and perpetuated a dangerous misunderstanding of tribal sovereignty. Your actions do not exist in a vacuum but are part of a long and violent history. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that white members of fake “tribes” have been awarded over $800 million in no-bid federal contracts set aside for minority business owners. Rather than using evidence of Native ancestry, these fake tribes rely solely on family stories and commercial DNA tests. When you still defend yourself by stating you believed what you heard growing up, you set a harmful example for these white people stealing Native identity and resources with stories very similar to your own.

While the average American thinks of Native Americans as a racial category, we are actually political groups. Our rights are based on citizenship in sovereign Nations and those Nations’ treaty relationship to the United States. But that hasn’t stopped opponents to tribes from arguing that laws defending Native rights treat us differently based on race and therefore should be declared unconstitutional. If they win, it could be the end of tribes as we know them. By publicly equating race and biology with Native identity, your DNA test promoted the exact same logic the Right is currently using to try and destroy Native rights.

You have yet to fully address the harm you have caused. While your apologies are a step in the right direction, they have been vague and inadequate. Accountability is not just admitting you made a mistake, but working to correct the harm it caused. A recent collective statement by Cherokee scholars makes clear that any person who publicly identifies as Cherokee has initiated an open discussion about their identity. As a Harvard professor and U.S. Senator, you have the unique opportunity to turn this controversy into a needed learning moment.

As Native community members, academics, activists, scientists, writers, organizers, aunties, uncles, young people, and tribal citizens concerned about the future of Native rights, we call on you to make a clear public statement that includes the following:

  • Like many other white families, your family story of Cherokee and Delaware ancestry is false and it was wrong for you to repeat it as an adult. You have had the genealogical evidence since 2012. Stating you do not qualify for citizenship is not enough; the truth is you and your ancestors are white.

Native Americans come from over 574 different nations, each with our own unique histories, languages, cultures, and politics. We do not think with one mind or speak with one voice on this issue — or any other. However, Cherokee citizens are the most impacted not only by your actions but by the growing epidemic of white people claiming to be us. If you truly want to listen and change, then you need to hear all Native voices on this issue — whether or not they serve you.

You have done some good things for Indian Country during your time in political service. You have also done real harm. Right now you have the platform and the opportunity to stand firmly on the side of justice. This is not about politics or your career. This is about the well-being of our nations. The time has come for you to show true leadership and make this right.

Signed:

(Tribal affiliations listed for identification only)

  1. ᏥᏍᏆ, ᏣᎳᎩ, ᏥᏍᏆ ᏣᎳᎩ/ O-gah-pah/ Wa-zha-Zhe

The undersigned Native citizens stand in solidarity with our Cherokee relatives, friends, and colleagues who face a unique epidemic of non-Natives claiming their identity. We recognize that while the problem most often targets Cherokee identity, the public misunderstanding of what it means to be Native American threatens all of our rights. We hope that this long controversy will end and Senator Warren will do the right thing and set the record straight that Indigenous self-determination comes before before unsubstantiated family stories and DNA testing.

  1. Ali Watson, Oglala Lakota

The letter was organized by four citizens of the Cherokee Nation: Joseph M. Pierce, Daniel Heath Justice, Rebecca Nagle, and Twila Barnes. Media inquiries can be sent to the following email address: ewarrenisnotcherokee@gmail.com.

If you are a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, or the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and would like to sign this letter, please fill out the following form: https://forms.gle/Vz2ofHxs2rEfdzZq6

“Constitution of the Cherokee Nation formed by a convention of delegates from the several districts at New Echota, July 1827.” Newberry Library, Chicago. VAULT Ayer 251 .C211 1828.

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