Just four months from now, a critical mass of states will hold their Democratic Party primary elections — an election that students have heard about, likely, for months. At a crucial time, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is drawing with former vice president Joe Biden in the polls. This comes after she faced harsh criticism only one year ago for taking a genealogy test to prove her long-standing claims of Native American ancestry to, among others, a president who repeatedly baited her with the slur “Pocahontas.”
Like so many events over the last three years, President Trump’s language garnered disgust for anyone outside of his loyal base. Yet the criticism raised by Native Americans and their allies stated that she took the test, trying to use trace amounts of Native American ancestry to prove membership in a tribe.
At the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa this August, Sen. Warren made a formal apology for claiming Native American ancestry.
“I know that I have made mistakes,” Warren said. “I am sorry for harm I have caused. I have listened and I have learned — a lot. And I am grateful for the many conversations that we’ve had together.”
In debating Warren’s past and future with regards to indigenous peoples, it is crucial that the conversation does not become a self-righteous whitewashing, whether at the hands of well-intentioned allies or not.
Some Native Americans like Cherokee genealogist Twila Barnes, who has been critical of Warren since her ancestry claims came to attention in Warren’s first Senate race in 2012, think the presidential-hopeful’s actions have caused irreparable damage. Barnes said in an opinion article written for Indian Country Today that Warren’s behavior and the press “have obscured a wide-ranging pattern of dishonesty and contempt for Indigenous communities that disqualifies [Warren’s] candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.”
In an age that demands apologies from major political and cultural figures for various behaviors but in fact receives few earnest apologies, Sen. Warren’s apology feels foreign and bold. Yet a piece is missing, and it is one that people who are victimized in any abuse of power say is critical for closure. Sen. Warren recognizes her harm, but does not name it specifically, which is to say that she does not name her power as a person of privilege.
Cherokee journalist Rebecca Nagle voiced this concern in a thread of tweets, comparing Warren’s apology with what she would like to have seen.
“I am glad that @ewarren said she was sorry today for the harm that she caused, but without her using her platform and power to repair that harm the apology falls flat,” Nagle wrote. “Here’s what she needs to say: ‘I was told a story as a child that my family had a Cherokee ancestor. I now know that story is not true…It was not only my fault, but my privilege to never question what my parents told me.’”
Many at the forum, however, believed discussions regarding Warren’s past were distracting from the far more important work of discussing policy and the ways that presidential candidates can build relationships with Native American communities.
A week prior to the August forum, Warren released a plan designed specifically to address issues within Tribal Nations. In it, Sen. Warren discussed ongoing collaboration between freshman Congresswoman Deb Halaand (D-NM) — who has endorsed Warren — and plans for health care, criminal jurisdiction, roads and more.
With last winter’s events seeming to fade into her past, Sen. Warren is one of the few Democratic presidential candidates who has seen such long upward trends in 2020 pre-election polls. A Warren presidency could have a massive impact on many states, including Idaho, in supplying federal dollars to improve economic and infrastructural stability.
While some critics are keeping a wary eye on her, her message for “big, structural change” seems to be finding traction, even among those who thought her actions were unforgivable just months ago. In today’s climate, that is an impressive feat indeed.