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Elizabeth Warren’s ‘Pocahontas’ Controversy

Q: Is Sen. Elizabeth Warren part Native American? Is that how she got jobs as a professor at Ivy League law schools?

A: Warren has released a report of a DNA test that claims to “strongly support” her statement that she has Native American ancestry, and no one has proved that she was ever hired because of her racial background.


What are the facts regarding Elizabeth Warren’s Native American heritage and did she use it to further her career?


Update, Oct. 15: On Oct. 15, Warren released the results of a DNA test performed by “an expert in genetic ancestry analysis” and supervised by Dr. Carlos D. Bustamante, a professor of biomedical data science at Stanford University. Bustamante’s report concluded that “while the vast majority of” Warren’s “ancestry is European, the results strongly support the existence of an unadmixed Native American ancestor in the individual’s pedigree, likely in the range of 6-10 generations ago.” We have edited the short answer and other parts of this article to reflect that Warren has now provided documentation for her claim to be part Native American, which she had previously not done.

The subject of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry came to national attention in April 2012, when she was a candidate trying to unseat then-Sen. Scott Brown, the Republican incumbent.

The Boston Herald reported that Warren had previously been touted in the 1990s by officials at Harvard Law School, where she was a tenured professor, as an example of the faculty’s diversity. That led to the revelation that Warren — citing only anecdotal evidence — claimed to be part Cherokee and Delaware Indian, and had listed herself as a minority in a directory of law professors from 1986 until 1995.

Brown and others then accused Warren of claiming to be a descendant of American Indians to advance her career in academia, which Warren has repeatedly denied doing.

“Let me be clear. I never asked for, never got any benefit because of my heritage,” Warren said in a 2012 TV ad rebutting claims made by Brown.

The controversy resurfaced after President Donald Trump — as he had done before — referred to the Democratic senator as “Pocahontas” during a Nov. 27 ceremony at the White House to honor Navajo code talkers from World War II.

Our readers have been asking about Warren’s lineage and career ever since.

Warren’s Heritage

Warren, who was born and raised in Oklahoma, has said that her parents and grandparents, who are now deceased, were the sources of that information.

“I am very proud of my heritage,” Warren said at the time, according to news articles. “These are my family stories. This is what my brothers and I were told by my mom and my dad, my mammaw and my pappaw. This is our lives. And I’m very proud of it.”

In that 2012 campaign ad, Warren said that her parents had to elope because her father’s family didn’t like that her mother “was part Cherokee and part Delaware.”

At one point, Christopher Child, a genealogist at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, said that he had discovered possible supporting evidence. The Boston Globe reported that Child found a newsletter that indicated that Warren’s great-great-great grandmother had been listed as Cherokee on a marriage document in 1894. That would make Warren 1/32 American Indian, he said.

But the Globe later noted in a correction that neither the newspaper nor the genealogical society had seen the alleged primary document, only the family newsletter alluding to it.

“NEHGS has not expressed a position on whether Mrs. Warren has Native American ancestry, nor do we possess any primary sources to prove that she is,” an organization spokesman said in a statement at the time. “We have no proof that Elizabeth Warren’s great great great grandmother O.C. Sarah Smith either is or is not of Cherokee descent.”

Even if that document does exist, it alone would not be enough for Warren to be recognized by the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes, the Atlantic magazine explained in an extensive analysis of Warren’s claim.

And a DNA test, which Brown and others suggested Warren take, also might not be conclusive, according to a 2016 story in the Washington PostNanibaa’ Garrison, a bioethicist who studied genetics at Stanford University, told the newspaper: “It’s really difficult to say that a DNA test would be able to identify how much Native American ancestry a person has.”

Update, Oct. 15: Bustamante’s report said the analysis of Warren’s DNA “identified 5 genetic segments as Native American in origin at high confidence, defined at the 99% posterior probability value.” In addition, the report said, “we performed several additional analyses to confirm the presence of Native American ancestry and to estimate the position of the ancestor in the individual’s pedigree.” The Boston Globe, which interviewed Bustamante, quoted him saying, “We are confident it is not an error.”

She again made the point about her family’s stories during an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on the day of Trump’s most recent “Pocahontas” dig.

“Look, I learned about my family the way that most people learn about their families,” Warren said. “My brothers and I learned from our mother and our daddy and our grandparents who we are. And that’s it. That’s how we learned it. That’s what we know.”

Warren’s Career

Again, this all became an issue after the Boston Herald reported that Harvard Law School, where Warren worked from 1995 until she was elected to the Senate in 2012, “touted Warren’s Native American background … in an effort to bolster their diversity hiring record in the ’90s as the school came under heavy fire for a faculty that was then predominantly white and male.”

In a 1996 article, the Harvard Crimson wrote: “Of 71 current Law School professors and assistant professors, 11 are women, five are black, one is Native American and one is Hispanic, said Mike Chmura, spokesperson for the Law School.”

The one Native American, according to Chmura, was Warren, the Crimson reported.

The original Herald story also led to the disclosure that Warren had identified herself as a minority in the Association of American Law Schools directory for law professors from 1986 to 1995. It also came out that Warren was highlighted in a 2005 report from the University of Pennsylvania’s Minority Equity Committee as a minority recipient of a teaching award at Penn.

The information in the 2005 report about minority faculty was obtained from the university’s personnel payroll system, as well as records maintained by each of Penn’s 12 different schools, according to a note on its data sources. Warren was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School from 1987 to 1995.

(FactCheck.org, which launched in 2003, is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.)

It was also reported by the Boston Globe that Warren, on a 1973 application to the Rutgers Law School, declined to apply for admission under the Program for Minority Group Students, and that she listed herself as white on an undated personnel document at the University of Texas, where she worked from 1981 until 1987.

Warren has declined to authorize officials at Harvard or Penn, both private institutions, to release her employment records, as Brown challenged her to do.

To Warren’s critics, this all suggested that she only started claiming to be a minority — based on her alleged roots — for professional advancement. Warren also stopped listing herself as a minority in the AALS directory after she was hired by Harvard in 1995, news stories said.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders made the same charge about Warren in a Nov. 27 press briefing where she pushed back against the suggestion that the president’s “Pocahontas” remark was “offensive” or a “racial slur.”

“I think what most people find offensive is Senator Warren lying about her heritage to advance her career,” Sanders said.

Warren, though, denies that she ever claimed to be a minority to secure employment. She said that she has always been recruited by employers based on her work.

“I never used it to get ahead,” she said in the Nov. 27 interview with Cooper. “I never used it to get into school. I never used it to get a job.”

We are not aware of anyone having proved anything different.

Warren told reporters in 2012 that she claimed to be a minority in the AALS directory to connect with others with the same heritage.

“I listed myself [in the] directory in the hopes that might mean that I would be invited to a luncheon a group something with people who are like I am,” Warren said, according to CBS News. “Nothing like that every happened. That was absolutely not the use for it and so I stopped checking it off.”

The directory didn’t specify the race or ethnicity of Warren and others who self-identified themselves as minority professors.

Initially, Warren said that she was unaware that Harvard had been claiming her as a minority faculty member. Though she later acknowledged in a statement to the Globe that she had told colleagues at Harvard and Penn that she considered herself Native American, but that she revealed that “at some point after I was hired by them.”

That explanation came after the Globe said it had obtained records showing that Harvard “began reporting a Native American female professor in federal statistics for the 1992-93 school year, the first year Warren worked at Harvard, as a visiting professor.”

Even so, the Globe, in a separate, lengthy article about Warren’s rise in academia, said that it interviewed “a wide range of professors and administrators who recruited or worked with Warren” who all “said her ethnic background played no role in her hiring.”

Those interviewed included Stephen B. Burbank, a Penn Law School professor who recommended hiring Warren, Hank Gutman, the chair of the school’s appointments committee at the time Warren was recruited, and Robert H. Mundheim, the dean who hired Warren at Penn.

All three men said they were unaware that Warren, a nationally recognized scholar in bankruptcy and commercial law, claimed to be part American Indian.

Charles Fried, a former U.S. solicitor general under President Ronald Reagan, also vouched for Warren. Fried, a Harvard Law School professor who was on the appointments committee that recommended hiring Warren in 1995, told the Herald that Warren’s heritage never came up during the hiring process there.

“It simply played no role in the appointments process. It was not mentioned and I didn’t mention it to the faculty,” he was quoted saying.

In a 2012 statement released through Harvard, Fried added: “Elizabeth Warren was recruited (she did not apply — one does not apply for these positions) to be a tenured professor at Harvard because she was preeminent in the fields of bankruptcy and commercial law, two fields in which we had strong teaching needs.”


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