Thursday, June 7, 2012

One little, two little, three little Indians......

Take a moment to read through these three possible facts about me:

A) I'm Native American. My great-grandmother was a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, making me one-sixteenth Indian.

B) I come from a family of great race-car drivers. My great-grandfather drove in the Indy 500 and my father raced stock cars at the Princeton Speedway, where I learned to drive.

C) My family's military history is star-studded. An early ancestor was at Yorktown to witness Cornwallis' surrender to Washington, and my great-great grandfather fought at Gettysburg.

So which – if any - of these statements are true about me? Apparently it doesn't matter, because now, according to Elizabeth Warren, we are all “what we know” we are.

In case you've missed the story, Warren is a Democrat running for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts, and she has a bit of a problem. It turns out that Warren has been advertising herself as Cherokee for a few decades, which allowed some of her employers – Harvard and Penn universities among them – to list her as a “minority” on various forms and reports, thereby satisfying their consciences that they were “diverse” enough.

Warren's tale about her ancestry – and its role in advancing her career – seems to change weekly. First she denied telling Harvard that she was a Cherokee. Then it was discovered that she'd been listing herself as an Indian years before she joined the Harvard faculty. The she suddenly “remembered” that she HAD mentioned it to Penn and Harvard after all, but certainly not in a way that would have helped her get hired. 

Of course not.

Whether her heritage played a role in her hiring or not is, of course, an unanswerable question, since only those who made the hiring decision know what internal calculations they made, and they're not talking much about it. But it goes without saying that being a “minority” member is absolute gold in elite academic circles.

What's particularly amazing about the Warren story is this: There's no evidence whatsover that she has any Cherokee blood in her!

She claims to be 1/32nd Cherokee based on family lore and the alleged “high cheekbones” of one of her ancestors. But there is no documentation, no genealogy records, not one single shred of proof that anyone among her ancestors was an Indian. The New England Genealogical Society – one of the nation's premier ancestry organizations – backed away from its initial support for her Cherokee heritage claim when it couldn't find any supporting evidence or documentation.

But the lack of proof isn't stopping Warren. She told the Boston Globe this week that the proof is in her family stories. “It’s who I am, it’s how I grew up. It’s part of the home I grew up in. It’s me, part of me, through and through. I can’t change that.’’

So there you have it. If your parents told you that you were heir to the throne of England, then you're a prince. If they told you that aliens left you on the doorstep, then you're the King of the Milky Way. Whatever you claim to be, you are. Whether Fauxcahontas' genealogy will matter to the voters of Massachusetts remains to be seen.

As for me, alas, there is no famous military hero or race-car driver in my family lineage. There is, however, my great-grandmother, Lulu Trueblood. Part Indian herself, she married a full-blooded Sioux Indian, and I have relatives scattered all over the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota and the sand hills of northwestern Nebraska. My Minnesota-born father – himself the great-grandson of Dutch immigrants – met my Nebraska-born mother when they both were in the Army and stationed in Alabama. They married, had me while living in Michigan and then moved back to Minnesota when I was a toddler. So even though most people would consider me one of the whitest guys they've ever met, I have a far greater claim – and a documented one at that - to minority status than does Elizabeth Warren.

But never in my life did I consider checking a box that said “Native American” next to my name. Those who know me well know how much I abhor identity politics, racial preferences, affirmative action or any other thing that tries to segregate, label and separate us as Americans. Perhaps there would have been additional scholarship money while in college, or a job promotion somewhere along the line, but I would never have sought it nor felt right about it.

(Personally, I'm most grateful for what appears to be a dominant Sioux genetic feature of a full head of hair. At age 55, there's not a hint – knock on wood - of a receding hairline or any thinning. When was the last time you saw a bald Indian?)

“The content of their character” was Martin Luther King's idea of how his children would be judged, and the fact that someone's great-great-grandfather was a slave, or was attacked by Custer or arrived on a boat from the poorest country in Europe shouldn't have anything to do with how their descendants are treated today. We each need to rise or fall on our own merits.

Which is why the world view of Elizabeth Warren – not to mention Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and the other race hustlers – is such poison in American society. We can decide to thrive for a few more centuries as “Americans,” or we can descend into a dark, divisive world of tribal identities that eventually tears society apart at the seams.

The really sad part of Elizabeth Warren's story isn't that she might have hustled her way into a cushy job, or added some cachet to the Harvard faculty list. It's that she thinks a hypothetical link to someone from a hundred years ago defines “who I am.” If she really believes that, I pity her.


  1. She knows she's not an Indian and was never raised to believe that she was an Indian. This is just another version of "it depends upon what the definition of 'is' means", "I invented the internet" or "I actually voted against it before I voted for it". All BS accepted by the stenographers since the fabricators are on their team.

    Abe Frommen

  2. Leonard FooniminJune 11, 2012 at 7:44 AM

    We use to be a Melting Pot but we've become a collection of Tupperware.