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Elizabeth Warren's heritage struggles all started here
01:35 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Elizabeth Warren’s campaign is soaring: She is rising in the polls, her fundraising is on fire and her seemingly endless ideas are helping to define the Democratic race for the White House.

And then there is the issue of her ancestry – her past disputed claims to Native American heritage.

The Massachusetts senator has struggled with the subject for years, and last fall, it appeared to threaten to blow up her presidential campaign before it had even begun. Her campaign released the results of a DNA test that showed distant Native ancestry, drawing fierce criticism from many, including some tribal groups. Warren apologized in both public and private.

Warren’s efforts to make amends and rebuild her relationships with the Native American community in the months since have gone far beyond those apologies, according to CNN’s interviews with almost a dozen people. They have included private meetings with tribal leaders, seeking counsel from Native Americans friends, and, on Friday, the release of a set of ambitious policy plans aimed at helping Native people.

That outreach will unfold in public on Monday, when Warren speaks at length alongside tribal leaders at a conference hosted by the Native voting rights group, Four Directions, in Sioux City, Iowa.

Stick with the policy

The controversy surrounding Warren’s claims to Native lineage has been one of the most trying for a campaign – and candidate – not prone to missteps. With less than six months until the Iowa caucuses, it’s clear the senator has no plans to again draw attention to her own family ancestry, and that she and her team are eager to put the matter to rest in the midst of a tumultuous primary contest.

The only way to do that, her campaign says, is to stick to what Warren has most excelled at this year: policy.

A senior Warren aide told CNN that as it relates to the ancestry dispute, they could only describe the campaign’s next steps as focusing on issues that are important to Indian Country through outreach and policy work. (The aide declined to elaborate on any other strategic thinking, including how the campaign plans to beat back future attacks from critics, including President Donald Trump.)

One person in contact with the campaign described her advisers as being sensitive to the heritage issue, and careful about any deliberations related to Indian Country. The decision to attend Monday’s conference would have fallen in that category, that person said: “She has to go to it. You’re sort of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

OJ Seamans, a co-executive director of the Four Directions group, told CNN that he spoke with PaaWee Rivera, a Warren aide who was previously the Democratic National Committee’s director of Native American and Rural Engagement, more than a half-dozen times over the past few weeks. The two chatted about a wide range of issues, including the upcoming conference, and Rivera was “cautious” about how the event would be handled, according to Seaman. Seaman offered reassurances that the purpose of the forum was to educate the public and discuss the unique needs of Native peoples.

And if anyone tried to create a distraction while Warren was on stage, “I would stand up and stop it,” Seamans quipped.

Seamans, whose group is nonpartisan, said among the 2020 White House candidates, Warren was easily at the “forefront” of advocating for Indian Country.

“We are not the general population. We are nations within a nation, and in order to address our needs, it has to be addressed differently. And she does that,” he said.

Private meetings with tribal leaders

The Warren campaign said Warren herself has been in regular contact with Native American leaders over the last year, including a January backstage meeting in Iowa with Native American activist Frank LaMere, who died this summer and after whom the Monday conference is named after; a private meeting with the Eastern Band of Cherokees in February; and last month, a lengthy discussion with tribal leaders in Detroit the week of CNN’s presidential debates.

There have also been staff-level outreach to tribal groups, including Cherokee Nation, to whom Warren apologized earlier this year about the DNA test after the tribe called it “inappropriate and wrong.” Many of Warren’s policy plans have featured provisions to aid Native Americans.

Rion Ramirez, the chairman of the DNC’s Native American Caucus, said Warren’s campaign was the first one to commit to the Detroit roundtable with tribal leaders. (Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, were also among the candidates who participated.) Native leaders met with each candidate for about 40 minutes to an hour, Ramirez said, and he recalled that the issue of Warren’s family ancestry did not come up during her session. He had enthusiastic praise for the senator’s work on tribal issues.

“We haven’t been included in so much and she has been actively out there doing outreach and engaging for a long time now,” Ramirez said. “So that’s something that’s fundamentally different from the other candidates.”

Seeking advice from Native American friends

As Warren climbs in the polls, questions over her past claims to Native ancestry have largely receded into the background. The issue didn’t come up during either of the first two rounds of primary debates.

On the campaign trail, Warren has only faced a handful of questions about her ancestry in recent months. The sharpest came during a May interview with the hosts of “The Breakfast Club,” a New York-based nationally syndicated radio show. Co-host Charlamagne tha God compared Warren to Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who falsely claimed to be black.

“I grew up in Oklahoma. I learned about my family the same way most people learn about their family, from my momma and my daddy and my aunts and my uncles, and it’s what I believed,” Warren said. “But I’m not a person of color, I’m not a citizen of a tribe, and I shouldn’t have done it.”

Trump, for his part, has only ratcheted up his attacks on Warren in recent days, including by deploying a racial slur. At a rally last week in New Hampshire, Trump vowed to “revive” the “Pocahontas” nickname he has frequently used to describe the senator.

Warren has largely declined to engage the President’s attacks in public. But in private, Warren has sought advice from Native American friends.

In an interview, Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, the chairwoman of the Wampanoag tribe who has been friends with Warren for years, said the two have had numerous conversations over the years about the attacks on the senator’s ancestry. She said those discussions date back to Warren’s 2012 Senate race, when Republican opponent Scott Brown relentlessly went after Warren for having previously self-identified as Native American.

Andrews-Maltais said that more recently, Warren asked for her counsel on whether – and how – to respond to some of the racially charged attacks, including Trump’s frequent use of “Pocahontas.”

“She wanted to make sure she wouldn’t do anything that would be negatively reflected on my community, or myself,” said Andrews-Maltais, who described Warren as a “tremendous” ally of Native Americans.

She recalled that her response to Warren was: “Nope, I have your back on this one. Swing back.”

In a speech before the National Congress of American Indians in February 2018, Warren made the rare move of addressing, at length, Trump’s use of “Pocahontas” head-on. In that speech, she pledged that “every time someone brings up my family’s story, I’m going to use it to lift up the story of your families and your communities.”

‘A deeper understanding of what it means to be a Cherokee citizen’

If Warren’s wide-ranging efforts to address the plight of Native Americans have been widely applauded by tribal leaders, her release of the DNA test was an unwelcome distraction.

New Cherokee Nation chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., who was openly critical of Warren after she released her DNA test, adopted a softer tone in an interview ahead of the Monday forum. Asked what he wanted to hear from the progressive senator in Iowa, Hoskin said he hoped her comments “would reflect a deeper understanding of what it means to be a Cherokee citizen.”

“Of course, I would hope that of any public official, but particularly one like Sen. Warren, who demonstrated a lack of understanding of that idea,” Hoskin said.

Others in the community remain more critical.

Rebecca Nagle, an activist and Cherokee citizen, said she applauds Warren’s work with New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo tribe and one of the first two Native Americans elected to Congress last year. But Nagle said Warren’s apology to Cherokee leadership didn’t go far enough in clearing up damaging misperceptions.

“The public understanding of Native identity in 2019 is like a dumpster fire. Warren poured gasoline on the dumpster fire and a private apology doesn’t make up for that,” Nagle said.

She pointed to the fact that the DNA test video is still live on Warren’s campaign website. A campaign aide told CNN that as part of an upcoming relaunch of the “fact squad” section of the campaign website, that video — and some other older materials — would soon be removed, and replaced with newer content.

Activists’ concerns are hardly symbolic. White developers have sought to exploit confusion over the definition of Native identity to secure lucrative government contracts. According to a recent Los Angeles Times investigation, white contractors with dubious claims to Native heritage have, since 2000, won more than $300 million in funding intended for minority-owned businesses.

“It’s a narrative that doesn’t need to be given any more life. And that’s what Warren did,” Nagle said.

Haaland, who endorsed Warren in July and released a draft legislation with the senator last week that, in part, boosts funding for Native American programs, told CNN in an interview that she readily offered Warren her support around the DNA controversy.

“I never question anyone’s identity. There are a number of people who told me, ‘Yes, I’m native. And I just don’t question that about people,” Haaland said.

And if anything, the congresswoman said, she sees Warren’s upbringing as making Warren a stronger ally of the Native American community: “Her ancestry? It’s helped her to understand that the US government has a responsibility. She understands what that trust responsibility is.”