Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) addresses the winter session of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., on February 14, 2018. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Tribal leaders cheer surprise speaker as meeting in D.C. winds down

Tribal leaders gave a standing ovation to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) after a surprise speech in which she promised to stand up for Native Americans and their issues.

In her first-ever speaking engagement before the National Congress of American Indians, Warren acknowledged long-standing doubts about her heritage. She has claimed Cherokee ancestry, which has led her political detractors -- especially President Donald Trump -- to deride her as "Pocahontas."

"So I figured, let’s talk about Pocahontas," Warren said at NCAI's winter session in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Warren noted that Pocahontas was a "Native woman who really lived" during a critical period in history. As the daughter of a powerful leader of the Powhatan Confederacy, she played a role in easing relations between tribal nations and new European arrivals in the early 1600s.

"Without her help, the English settlers might well have perished," Warren said, referring to the Jamestown settlement that was established in present-day Virginia.

But unlike mainstream depictions of Pocahontas falling in love with an older European man, Warren pointed out that the "real story" is all too familiar to Indian Country. Making a comparison to the countless numbers of indigenous women who are victimized and go missing and murdered at sky-high rates, she said the teenaged girl was "abducted, imprisoned and held captive" before being taken away from her homelands and transported to England.

"She never made it home," Warren said of the woman known among her people as Matoaka, and later, Amonute. "She was about 21 when she died, an ocean separating her from her people."

Retelling that history gave Warren a way to address questions about her own. But while she insisted that her mother's family in Oklahoma was "part Native American," she did not present any specific evidence and admitted that no tribe accepts her people as citizens.

"You won’t find my family members on any rolls, and I’m not enrolled in a tribe," Warren said.

She quickly added: "I respect that distinction. I understand that tribal membership is determined by tribes -- and only by tribes."

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) at National Congress of American Indians

Warren's heritage was a big issue in her first campaign for U.S. Senate. Her Republican opponent and other detractors said she claimed to be Native American to land a job as a professor at Harvard Law School.

Warren adamantly denied that accusation amid speculation of her ambitions for higher office.

"I never used my family tree to get a break or get ahead," she told tribal leaders."I never used it to advance my career."

Gavin Clarkson, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation who is running for a seat in the U.S. House as a Republican, is skeptical of that explanation. As a law student at Harvard, he said he and fellow Native students repeatedly tried to engage with Warren because of her claims of being a professor with Native ancestry.

"She did not show up once to support Native students," Clarkson, who was a member of Harvard's chapter of the National Native American Law Students Association and served as its president for one year, told Indianz.Com. "Not once.”

Clarkson, who recently left a position within the Trump administration, believes Warren's lack of interest in Indian issues during her academic years extends to her political career. Prior to winning her election in 2012, he pointed out that she helped launch the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a federal agency that has repeatedly targeted tribes and their lending operations and has generally refused to recognize their inherent authority.

Since joining the Senate, Warren hasn't put her name to any major tribal legislation or advanced any significant Indian policy, Clarkson charged.

"I don't think she’s a supporter of Indian Country," said Clarkson, who has been in D.C. all week to meet with tribal leaders during NCAI's winter session. "I don't think she is a supporter of tribal sovereignty."

Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe offered a different account. She said she was proud to introduce Warren to NCAI, "for the first time in Indian Country," and she described the lawmaker, who is popular in Democratic circles, as a long-time supporter of her people.

"Sen. Warren is not just an advocate for Aquinnah, she's an advocate and champion for all of Indian Country," Andrews-Maltais said, noting that Warren has often reached out to her personally to talk about issues affecting her tribe, whose homeland include the island of Martha's Vineyard and Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

"Anytime I meet with her about our issues, she's typically briefed and in full support, willing to support and fight for all of our causes, and that's because she truly understands Indian Country and what sovereignty really means," added Andrews-Maltais, who once held a position for the Obama administration.

And though it took Warren six years to appear before the largest inter-tribal organization in the United States, she hasn't ignored NCAI, according to Vice President Aaron Payment. She has always attended the reception tribes host during their winter meeting in D.C., he said.

During a "quiet moment" at one of those receptions, Payment asked Warren about her Indian heritage. "And she told me the exact same thing we heard today," he said.

"That speaks to me of her genuine nature and respecting her mother and her heritage," said Payment, who also serves as chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

But Warren's lack of specifics continue to represent a major problem for some citizens of the Cherokee Nation who have questioned why she has claimed Cherokee ancestry in the past, only to more recently soften it to a vaguer description of being "part Native," which was repeated in the speech on Wednesday.

"A swing and a tone deaf miss," Stacy Leeds, a former justice on the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court, wrote in a post on Twitter on Wednesday.

"It's pretty pathetic that while acknowledging the rights of tribes to determine citizenship and descendancy, she undermined the native genealogists who debunked her family blood myths," added Johnnie Jay, a young Cherokee activist.

Cherokee scholars and citizens have indeed looked into Warren's family, including those on her mother's side. Those searches have turned up no Cherokee ancestors, or any Indian ancestors, for that matter.

"There is absolutely no evidence to suggest she actually had a Cherokee or American Indian ancestor," according to Cherokee genealogist Twila Barnes, whose Thought's From Polly's Grandmother blog offers the most definitive accounting of Warren's family history to date.

Doubts aside, Warren was well-received at NCAI's meeting. Attendees enthusiastically cheered and applauded many of her points, particularly her promise to become a more prominent advocate for Native Americans after seemingly laying low for the past six years.

"For far too long, your story has been pushed aside, to be trotted out only in cartoons and commercials," Warren told tribal leaders.

"So I’m here today to make a promise: Every time someone brings up my family’s story, I’m going to use it to lift up the story of your families and your communities," she added.

Warren also touted her support for S.1942, also known as Savanna's Act. The bill is named for Savanna Marie Greywind, a young citizen of the Spirit Lake Nation who was abducted and brutally murdered in North Dakota in August 2017.

"We can take steps to stop violence against Native people -- including passing Savanna’s Act to fight the plague of missing Native women and girls," said Warren, who is a co-sponsor of S.1942. The bill received a hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on October 25, 2017, and awaits further action.

Warren was a last-minute addition to the schedule. She was not listed as a speaker on any of the draft or finalized agendas, and it was only when Andrews-Maltais came to the stage did people in the room realize something different was about to happen. The sudden presence of additional photographers in the room also gave a signal to the crowd.

Following her speech, which lasted about 20 minutes, Warren received a standing ovation, the only one during NCAI's general assembly, which took place on Tuesday and Wednesday at the Capital Hilton, just a couple of blocks from the White House.

“In addressing NCAI, Senator Warren addressed the world, and we are deeply honored by the courage she showed today,” President Jefferson Keel said in a statement after the speech. “We appreciate her candor, humility, and honesty, and look forward to working with her as a champion for Indian Country.”

NCAI's winter session officially kicked off on Monday with Keel's State of Indian Nations. The address was followed by a slew of high-profile speakers, including top officials from the Trump administration, and key members of Congress, Republican and Democrat alike.

"Veterans issues should not be political issues," Secretary David Shulkin of the Department of Veterans Affairs told tribal leaders on Wednesday morning, shortly before the public release of a report that looked into the misuse of federal funds by Shulkin and other senior officials at the agency. "Indian issues should not be political issues."

NCAI's winter session concludes on Thursday with some additional meetings, listening sessions and consultations.

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