A little bit Cherokee? Elizabeth Warren not alone in ancestry claim

Kevin Costner, James Garner, Johnny Depp, James Earl Jones, Chuck Norris, Cameron Diaz.

You guessed it (no, you probably did not). This is a partial roster of the people included in Wikipedia’s “List of People of Self-Identified Cherokee Ancestry,” which, inexplicably, does not include Elizabeth Warren.


Warren’s candidacy for Senate in Massachusetts took a bizarre (left? right?) turn in the past week when it was revealed that she had claimed, without apparent proof, to have Cherokee ancestry. In this she obviously joins many Americans who have heard family tales about Native American ancestry but lack the documentation to qualify for actual tribal membership. Hence, the list of “self-identified Cherokee ancestry.”


Besides the names above, this would appear to include President Obama, who wrote in his memoir, “Dreams of My Father,” about his maternal grandmother, who was nicknamed “Toot.”

“If asked, Toot would turn her head in profile to show off her beaked nose, which, along with a pair of jet-black eyes, was offered as proof of Cherokee blood,” Obama wrote.

What makes it a political issue for Warren, a Democrat who is challenging Republican incumbent Sen. Scott Brown, is that her employer, Harvard University, apparently claimed her as a Native American for diversity purposes in filings with the federal government.

Reported the Boston Globe: “Either Warren or a Harvard administrator classified her repeatedly as Native American in papers prepared for the government in a way that apparently did not adhere to federal diversity guidelines.”


Warren, who is originally from Oklahoma, has said she was told about her Cherokee roots by her mother and that she had not been aware that Harvard was touting her heritage in its diversity filings. One poll suggested that voters don’t much care, but it was conducted relatively early in the brouhaha. Conservative columnist George Will has been among those saying the issue will hurt Warren as voters come to view her as a “comic figure associated with laughable racial preferences.”

This is, at root, a peculiarly American story, and not just because it involves claims to be an original American, or a tiny piece of one. In America, race matters -- culturally, legally and politically. It’s intriguing to wonder, though, how much longer that will be true. Already, most Americans have a heritage that is a mix of nationalities; someday, it seems reasonable to predict, they will also be a mix of races.

Consider a recent study by the Pew Research Center, which found that one in 12 marriages in the United States is now between different races, with the ratio one in five in the Western states. Strikingly, the vast majority of people surveyed by Pew said interracial marriage was either good for the country or of no consequence.

Of course, none of this is really at issue in the Warren case, which is more about false claims than about race. Warren may yet find some documentation to back up her family stories. But as Garance Franke-Ruda wrote on the Atlantic magazine’s website, “Warren’s story has become so politicized and such a hot potato in her race to unseat Brown that she’ll be in a sticky situation no matter what she finds.”