The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), according to its website, “is the oldest, largest, and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization serving the broad interests of tribal governments and communities.” Not surprisingly, it has weighed in on the obnoxious behavior of Senator Scott “You Checked the Box” Brown’s employees when they protested at Elizabeth Warren’s campaign.
I disagree with the NCAI’s criticism of Warren. Like most people, I doubt she knew about the in’s and out’s of tribal membership. Warren, like most culturally European Americans, sees herself in terms of heritage, not membership. Holding her responsible for failing “to educate a non-Native media and the public unfamiliar with federal tribal enrollment rules or about historic federal policies that make proving Native ancestry very difficult for some people” is logically impossible. It’s also a bit unrealistic to expect her to hold interviews with Native American media when she was trying to damper on an issue that her opponent had raised. Maybe I missed it, but I don’t believe the Native American media interviewed Scott Brown about his accusations, racist accusations which he and his campaign intended to exploit in order to harm Warren’s campaign.
Of interest in this press release is what it means to be an American Indian. (I wrote a little about the politics of Cherokee identity this summer, earning myself a hit piece on Red Mass Group). In a nutshell, American Indian heritage is complicated. It’s regarded differently than being African American or European American. When Warren talks about her heritage, she talks like a European American. She speaks of Cherokee and Delaware ancestry, much like I talk about being French Canadian, Irish, and English. Unfortunately, being an Indian is more complicated. To qualify, some want her to be involved in Indian issues or speak a Native language. For others, a DNA test would help, though even if her DNA were 100% Cherokee, there are some Cherokees who wouldn’t consider her as such because her heritage can’t be traced heritage back to the Dawes Rolls. Warren never made her heritage an issue, Scott Brown did.
As many of my fellow BMGers have pointed out pictorially, Indians don’t always look like the people who played them in Westerns. The NCAI has something to say about this too. Here’s the press release:
“In the last week, the Massachusetts Senate race reached an extremely disturbing place. The National Congress of American Indians is calling for the candidates to return civility to the public discourse and to immediately stop the politicization of Native identity. On Tuesday, video footage was released showing Senator Brown’s staff leading crowds in ‘war whooping’ and ‘tomahawk chopping’ during a clash with Warren supporters. Additionally, last Thursday Senator Brown made inflammatory remarks about Warren’s skin color as an indicator that she is not of Native descent.
The video footage of Senator Brown’s staff engaged in ‘war whooping’ and ‘tomahawk chopping’ is not only offensive and demeaning to Native Americans it is also demoralizing to citizens across the country. It’s concerning that experienced staff members of a United States Senator would act this way; Senator Brown should take corrective action immediately. These actions belittle the democratic process and are emblematic of an irresponsible public discourse on race and Native identity by misinformed individuals and the media.
Elizabeth Warren also bears responsibility for allowing the public discourse about Native identity to become misrepresented. She has every right to be proud of her family, however her campaign failed to educate a non-Native media and the public unfamiliar with federal tribal enrollment rules or about historic federal policies that make proving Native ancestry very difficult for some people. Finally, Warren’s campaign did not respond to requests for interviews from Native media organizations. All of these actions could have gone a long way to reducing tension and increasing awareness.
The video released of Brown’s staffers comes just days after Senator Brown responded to a question during the opening of a September 20, 2012 televised debate between the two candidates in which he referred to Warren’s white skin color as proof that she is not of Native American descent in response to an opening question about character, “I think character is important…what you are referring to is the fact that Professor Warren claimed she is a Native American, a person of color, and as you can see, she is not.”
Skin color or physical appearance has no bearing on one’s Native American heritage or status as an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe. As a result, numerous national television programs and websites have irresponsibly echoed Senator Brown’s statements by referring to someone’s skin color as an indicator for Native American identity. These claims are false and Senator Brown should correct the record and retract his statement immediately.
NCAI is concerned by the negative and racially charged statements and actions that are the result of the politicization of the issue of Native ancestry. This issue has no bearing on the qualifications to be the Senator of Massachusetts.
Native American peoples have long endured discrimination and we will not tolerate, nor should the American people tolerate, a return to hostile environments or ignorant discourse about America’s first peoples. Nor should we tolerate a hostile environment about a common characteristic many people share, a connection to Native American ancestry.
Today, Native people are proud of our ancestors, our place in the American family of governments, and we will not stand for irresponsible behavior or public discourse.”
- According to the 2010 Census – 5.2 million or 1.7 percent of the U.S. population are American Indian or Alaska Native, including those of more than one race. Of this total, 2.9 million were American Indian and Alaska Native only, and 2.3 million were American Indian and Alaska Native in combination with one or more other races. Source: 2010 Census Brief: Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-02.pdf
-According the Bureau of Indian Affairs website –
“Tribal enrollment criteria are set forth in tribal constitutions, articles of incorporation or ordinances. The criterion varies from tribe to tribe, so uniform membership requirements do not exist.
Two common requirements for membership are lineal decendency from someone named on the tribe’s base roll or relationship to a tribal member who descended from someone named on the base roll. (A “base roll” is the original list of members as designated in a tribal constitution or other document specifying enrollment criteria.) Other conditions such as tribal blood quantum, tribal residency, or continued contact with the tribe are common.”
- About the Senator of Massachusetts Responsibilities. In addition to representing the State of Massachusetts, a Senator from the Bay State is one of 100 members of the Senate who engage in nation-to-nation relations between the 566 federally recognized tribal nations in the United States and the federal government. A Massachusetts Senator is also one of two members of the U.S. Senate who represent a state with two federally recognized tribes, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).