Warren should apologize to Native Americans

Trump calls Warren 'Pocahontas'
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Story highlights

  • Simon Moya-Smith: Donald Trump uses Native Americans as fodder for his tirades
  • Elizabeth Warren should speak out against such rhetoric, Moya-Smith says

Simon Moya-Smith is a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and culture editor at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter @Simonmoyasmith. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Senator Elizabeth Warren owes Native Americans an apology.

The former Harvard Law professor claims to be one of us, an "Indian" if we choose to use that inaccurate term. She says she is part Cherokee. Donald Trump calls her "Pocahontas," using the name as a racist pejorative. And how does Warren respond? By calling him a "loser" and attacking his business record.
Simon Moya-Smith
That's not good enough.
    If the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is going to use our community as fodder for his frequent tirades, then Warren should show she is a real friend to our -- and supposedly her -- community by calling him out on it.
    Of course, Trump isn't the only Republican currently narrowing in on her dubious lineage. On Monday, former Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts said Warren should take a DNA test to prove whether or not her claim of Cherokee heritage is legitimate.
    "The easy answer, as you all know, is that Harvard and Penn can release those records, she can authorize the release of those records, she can take a DNA test, she can release the records herself. There's never been any effort," Brown told reporters.
    But what exactly would that change at this point? She has played the Indian card for decades and is already ensconced in the ivory tower. Even if she were found not to be Native American it's hard to imagine her reputation would suffer a lasting blow, not least because millions of other U.S. citizens claim to be indigenous North American, too.
    In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, half of the country's adults who identify as mixed race claim to be white and American Indian. That's more than 8 million people -- most of whom just guess they are Native American with no proof, only rumor and family lore.
    Still, we in Indian country are curious: Where are you, Elizabeth?
    We're wondering because ever since the controversy surrounding her contested background became public discourse in 2012, when she ran for the U.S. Senate, Warren has avoided Indian country like an ex. That is seriously problematic for Native Americans since she is being talked about as a potential running mate to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. It's hard enough to get new presidents to pay us any attention, let alone a vice president.
    But that isn't the only reason Warren should apologize. She has also reinforced racist Native American stereotypes.
    Quoting an aunt of hers, Warren said one of her relatives supposedly "had high cheekbones, like all of the Indians do."
    I am an enrolled citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, and I don't have high cheekbones. I have fat cheeks. Folks, cheekbones are not proof of one's indigenous lineage. (By the way, in what America is it OK to say "I have [name a stereotypical physical feature], so that means I am [name a marginalized ethnicity]")?
    I guess this America.
    While she's at it, Warren should probably just apologize to all Americans, not just to Native Americans, for a tweet she sent to Trump in March.
    "(Donald Trump) stands ready to tear apart an America that was built on values like decency, community, and concern for our neighbors," she wrote.
    As has been noted many times before, this country was actually built on the backs of slaves and on the genocide of Native Americans. If Warren is Native American she should know this better than anyone. Never forget the Trail of Tears.
    But, so far as we know, Warren is Native American only by speculation. Not Native American by fact.
    Sadly, Adrienne Keene, a Harvard graduate and an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, says Native Americans, and her people -- the Cherokee -- have become "collateral damage" to Warren's inaction and claim to indigeneity.
    "The problem is that there's been no direct addressing the harmful stereotypes that are being employed (during this presidential race), and the effects they have on contemporary Native American people," she told me.
    Keene, who was a doctoral student at Harvard when Warren was running for the Senate, said the fact that Warren has had no involvement in Indian country is telling.
    "Native identity is about relationships -- to your tribe, your land," she said. "And these relationships are not something that are being honored in her claims of (Cherokee) identity."
    Yet Warren continues to perpetuate a false reality of who Native Americans are today, while in turn, inadvertently or not, encouraging the claims of millions of convenient Indians who self-identify as Native American for their own gain. (And FYI, we do not go to college tuition-free just because we are Native American. That is yet another erroneous stereotype about us.)
    As my friend and Harvard graduate April Youpee-Roll, a member of the Fort Peck Tribes, so appropriately put it, "by mythologizing Indian identity, one implicitly furthers assimilation by undercutting the legitimacy of resilient, strong and modern tribal communities."
    Native Americans are far more than political fodder, or a white woman's claim to ethnicity. We are your neighbors, and we deserve respect.