When I was growing up in the Family Shea I was taught that somewhere back there in the family tree was not merely a Blackfoot Indian, but a Blackfoot Indian princess. I did not question this particularly, being 12 or so, but neither did I dwell on it much. It was a factoid, one of those things you squirrel away in memory but which you don’t think about since… so what? It did occur to me to wonder what an Indian princess might be like and how different she might be from a regular Indian (vague images of Princess Tiger Lily from Peter Pan are mostly what floated through my head on the extremely rare occasions I thought of her):
But mostly I never thought of her. Her existence was less important to me than the existence of Godlove Michael, a seventeenth century ancestor of mine my brother–a passionate genealogist–discovered. And even he and his cool name were less important than the German Protestant ancestor (whose name I forget) who came to the New World fleeing religious strife in the Old World. He and his people had made a living in German Protestant lands making tar from tree pitch to seal the hulls of German ships. They had fled to England as brother Protestants but the English didn’t want a bunch of lousy Krauts, so they were packed off to the New World to make tar for the British fleet.
Problem: The trees in the New World were not the same as the ones back home. So their tar was worthless. Result: My ancestors, who were indentured servants, could neither leave nor work. So they became the first people in the New World to go on the dole.
Such a proud heritage.
My brother’s genealogy work has achieved many interesting results. But the most interesting with regard to my Indian heritage is the discovery that I have none. Just none. I am Irish, English, Scot, and German. This was confirmed by one of those DNA test things. I did not weep to learn this because the Indian thing was mostly unreal to me anyway. I’m not even sure who in my family originally told me that. It just seems to have been a legend somebody had picked up.
I mention all that because, until the silly Elizabeth Warren contretemps arose, I didn’t give a lot of thought to how we “know” what we think we “know” about our families of origin. Chesterton famously opens his Autobiography this way:
Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington.
As a general rule, that system for obtaining information about our origins and the origins of our family seems to work tolerably well. I can trace my family back a couple of generations from the stories told by my parents (on my mother’s side). On my dad’s side, I knew almost nothing growing up, because I never met my grandfather, a violent drunk who ditched his family and who seems to have come from a long line of drunks, horse thieves, and criminals. My brother has barely traced the Shea name back to the 19th century, partly because the spelling varies widely and seems to have been O’Shea or Shay at some point, but mostly because my Shea ancestor seems to have spent his life one step ahead of the law.
Beyond that, all my knowledge comes from the massive genealogical documentation my brother has amassed. This is more “fact” than “lore” and so I know very little of the lived lives of my ancestors beyond births and deaths. But I do know there is no Indian back there.
Nonetheless, I thought there was, because people I knew told me so and I figured, reasonably enough, that they knew more than I did.
Last week, Elizabeth Warren released the results of her DNA analysis, showing that she does have a tiny bit of Native American DNA. The background to this story is interesting. The legend, cherished and amplified by the Right Wing Noise Machine, is that she claimed Native American heritage in order to get hired at Harvard as an Affirmative Action candidate, thereby cheating another real Native American out of a shot. It’s a story from the remote past that is circulated and recirculated among American white conservatives, notably that champion racial justice, Donald Trump, who jeers at her and calls her Pocahontas. Because he is the epitome of class and grace.
There’s only one problem, none of that is true.
The 60-plus Harvard Law School professors who filed into an auditorium-style room on the first floor of Pound Hall on that February 1993 afternoon had a significant question to answer: Should they offer a job to Elizabeth Warren?
The atmosphere was a little fraught. Outside the hall, students held a silent vigil to demand the law school add more minorities and women to a faculty dominated by white men.
The discussion among Harvard professors inside that room is supposed to remain a secret, but it’s still being dissected a quarter of a century later because the resulting vote set Warren on her way to becoming a national figure and a favored target for conservative critics, among them, notably and caustically, President Trump.
Was Warren on the agenda because, as her critics say, she had decided to self-identify as a Native American woman and Harvard saw a chance to diversify the law faculty? Did she have an unearned edge in a hugely competitive process? Or did she get there based on her own skill, hard work, and sacrifice?
The question, which has hung over Warren’s public life, has an answer.
In the most exhaustive review undertaken of Elizabeth Warren’s professional history, the Globe found clear evidence, in documents and interviews, that her claim to Native American ethnicity was never considered by the Harvard Law faculty, which voted resoundingly to hire her, or by those who hired her to four prior positions at other law schools. At every step of her remarkable rise in the legal profession, the people responsible for hiring her saw her as a white woman.
The Globe examined hundreds of documents, many of them never before available, and reached out to all 52 of the law professors who are still living and were eligible to be in that Pound Hall room at Harvard Law School. Some are Warren’s allies. Others are not. Thirty-one agreed to talk to the Globe — including the law professor who was, at the time, in charge of recruiting minority faculty. Most said they were unaware of her claims to Native American heritage and all but one of the 31 said those claims were not discussed as part of her hire. One professor told the Globe he is unsure whether her heritage came up, but is certain that, if it did, it had no bearing on his vote on Warren’s appointment.
So on the basis of this legend, Trump then declared last summer (and lies he did not) that he’d pay a million bucks if she could prove her Native ancestry:
The wording of the bet is that she would have to prove she is “an Indian”. So Warren took the test. Turns out she’s 1/1024th Native American. Not “an Indian”, of course. But not just making crap up either. She took her family’s word for it and it turns out there was something to it. She doesn’t want the dough for herself, of course, and urged him to give it to a charity. He, being Trump, refuses. And he, being an ugly racist and misogynist does not act like a good sport and give a bit to charity in acknowledgement that she was being honest about what she understood the family story to be. Nope, he doubles down and calls her “Pocahontas” because his mob of mouth-breathers think that it is comedy genius to laugh at women and minorities.
So now the Right Wing Lie Machine has swung into gear to defend the Racist Boor in Chief. The obvious line of attack is the 1/1024th thing. “She was clearly evil to use that to get hired at Harvard!” they shout.
Except that none of that is true. She has not used the claim of Native heritage to game the system.
Well, it was pretentious to claim Native heritage on her personnel forms after she was hired on the basis of such thin DNA results.
She didn’t claim it on the forms due to DNA results. She claimed it because she trusted the family lore handed to her by her elders. DNA testing is brand new. Most people know what they know about family from parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents. There’s no evidence she lied. There’s just evidence she trusted her family.
Ironically, the people now attacking her on behalf of Trump as a cheating Affirmative Action hire are committing the same error she made: Trusting an authoritative Elder’s word. Only unlike Warren’s elders, Trump is a proven, documentable liar who can’t even tell the truth about the bet he made when we have footage of him making it in front of a mob of his orcs. Warren at least has the excuse that there was no particular reason to doubt her family. What excuse does Cult 45 have?
One final point, Cherokee people have, I think, justly criticized Warren for ballyhooing her 1/1024th results. They have also criticized Trump as the racist he is for his “Pocahontas” insults.
Predictably, the Right Wing Lie Machine has faked “concern” about the Cherokee statement contra Warren while turning a blind eye to the Cherokee comments about Trump. Because they are People of the Lie.
Meanwhile, I think this teapot tempest was, on the whole, a foolish move by Warren. Trump and his base are immovably stupid and dishonest about this. It has only encouraged him to shout “Pocahontas” more while his mob of orcs howl with laughter at the white chick who cheated her way into Harvard. They don’t care about facts because they have no principles, only goals. Most Americans are not going to read the Globe article and so will come away, despite the facts, with the impression that a privileged white lady who claimed to be an Indian got owned when her 1/1024th results came back. The optics are bad. Politics is about impressions and rumors, not reality.
But the far more important and deeper reality is nonetheless this: Trump and his party of racist predators are doing everything in their power to deny Native Americans the vote. To the orgasmic delight of “prolife” Christianists for whom the unborn are simply human shields for the despotism of their god king, the very first thing Trump’s Supreme Court appointees did was smash voting rights for Native Americans in North Dakota by upholding an insane law which forbids ballots to be sent to PO Boxes (while the law also denies home addresses to Natives on reservations).
Between Warren and Trump, who do you think upholds voting rights for Native Americans?
Warren’s Native heritage is ultimately just another BS Panic du Jour for the Right Wing Lie Machine. It is trivial. What is not trivial is the studied racism being enacted as policy by this evil party of white supremacists who now dominate all three branches of government.