When she was running for the US Senate a couple of years back, the question of Elizabeth Warren's alleged Native American heritage came up. Naturally all the noxioux nattering came from the wingnuttery.
Warren had said that she was 1/32 Cherokee-Delaware. Sounds pretty easy to check, right? Well not so fast there, Lone Ranger. It turns out that there really isn't much in the way of reliable verification of that can be had.
My whole childhood I was also told that I was 1/32 Native American, also Cherokee to be specific. That means that one of my great-great grandparents had to have been full-blood Cherokee. All I had to do was trace my line back to that person and voilá, I would be an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation. After all, my roots are in Oklahoma, and my ancestors got there in the mid-19th Century, when it was still officially known as "Indian Territory". It's got to be there, I figured.
With much digging around in places like Ancestry.com I was able to track down all 8 of my great-great-grandparents. While none of them had "Indian" names, that was not an uncommon occurrence -- lot of Cherokees had, even before the infamous Trail of Tears, long taken on "white" names in an effort to appear as though they were assimilating. One of them just had to be The Indian. But which one? And proving it was going to be another story.
The problem turned out that it was pretty cut and dried that your Cherokee ancestor had to have been listed on the Dawes Rolls or you were flat out of luck. As it happened on the frontier when white women were few and far between, white men would take Native American wives. But those guys were usually looked on with scorn by other whites, derided as "Squaw Man" and "Teepee Creepers", and consequently the children's Indian heritage was something to be hidden away, not celebrated. If you were a Native American woman living off the reservation with your white husband, you likely did not get counted in the Dawes Rolls. Plus a number of Indians just refused to be listed because they did not agree with the allotment system for distributing Indian land to the members of the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes".
My cousin, who can also trace his own Cherokee heritage back through his mother's side of the family, was fortunate enough to have an ancestor with the foresight to allow himself to be registered, so he was able to enroll in the Cherokee Tribe.
So what about a DNA test? You'd think that a DNA test would be conclusive. Some dickhead Boston Globe columnist actually issued a "challenge" for her to take the DNA test and prove once and for all that she is really an Indian. But there's a problem with that as well.
If there is anything that could come back to haunt Elizabeth Warren's candidacy, it is this. It is not at all clear if she really did benefit from claiming her status as Native American for Affirmative Action advantages but she'll still be accused of it.
Oh, and one more thing. A lot was made -- also by the wingnuttery, naturally -- of the fact that she doesn't "look" Indian. If that's a legitimate criticism, then what are we supposed to make of this guy:
That's the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, Bill John Baker.
Or this guy:
That's Hollywood actor Iron Eyes Cody, or to use his birth name, Espera Oscar de Corti. This has been the iconic image of Native Americans ever since that famous 1970s "Crying Indian" Keep America Beautiful anti-littering commercial. He was 100% Italian.