What Makes Us Human

And one percent Neanderthal

Politics of Authenticity: Elizabeth Warren Edition

What makes an identity "authentic"?

“When I was growing up, these were the stories I knew about my heritage,” she said.

She also said that when her mother and father wanted to get married, her father’s family said no because “my mother was part Delaware and part Cherokee.”

“This is my family, this is who I am, and it’s not going to change,” said Warren.

That's how Elizabeth Warren responded in her first debate with Scott Brown, when he attacked her for having a history of identifying herself as Native American in a law directory, back in the 1990s.

The Brown campaign originally raised the issue last spring. It didn't seem to help him then. One poll in May

showed that a plurality of respondents said they believed Warren was telling the truth about her claims to be part Native American while a clear majority said they didn't believe the development was a significant story. Voters responding to the poll were split when it came to the question of whether she benefited from listing herself as a minority.

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A plurality is the largest number among multiple choices. To be precise, in the May 23 Suffolk University poll (which found that 72% of likely voters in the Massachusetts Senate race knew about the controversy), 49% of those voters thought Warren's claim was true; 28% thought it was false; and 23% were unsure.

Why, if (as Brown says) you can tell just by looking at Warren that she is not Native American, did a majority of Massachusetts voters report believing her?

In May, as she did again in the debate last week, Warren stood by family tradition and identity: "This is who I am, and its not going to change", she said in the debate. In May, she responded to a question about how she knew she was Native American:

Because my mother told me so. This is how I live. My mother, my grandmother, my family. This is my family.

The media have primarily scored this as a failure of the Warren campaign to respond to the attack.

Yet the polling in May suggests that for a very large group of potential voters, the claim was convincing.

I want to suggest that this is consistent with a split between two ways of thinking about authenticity in identity.

The first is legalistic, formal, and above all, categorical. This is the approach to legitimate identity that emphasizes that Warren is not an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation.

The other way of thinking about authentic identity is what Warren seems to be clinging to, long after a political consultant would probably have advised her to apologize for identifying as Native American in the 1990s.

Kevin Noble Maillot, an enrolled member of the Seminole Nation and also a law professor, wrote about these two different ways of thinking about authentic Native American identity back in May:

Tribal citizenship depends on descent from an enrolled ancestor, and every tribe has its own requirements.

In the Cherokee Nation, there is no minimum blood requirement, which would allow someone with as little as 1/128 Cherokee blood to enroll (that would be a great-great-great-great-great grandparent). Finding that remote relative is not conclusive, however. The ancestor may not have enrolled himself. Or he could have favored assimilation and counted himself as white. Or her application was rejected or she became ineligible for citizenship....

Some members say that tribes should be composed only of members with high degrees of Indian blood. Others say it should be geographically based. And some others say citizenship should be based on history and culture, regardless of blood or residence....

Even within Indian Country, the meaning of race and citizenship is contested....Someone’s subjective opinion about her heritage may conflict with tribal requirements for membership.

"Indian blood" is defined by what a writer for the Atlantic in May called the "creepy and antique-sounding term" used by the US Bureau of Indian Affairs: "blood quantum". This is a threshold that measures the cumulative proportion of Native American "blood" contributed by all ancestors.

It draws on an anthropologically dubious concept of distinct identities that retain their coherence over generations. Like the Brown campaign's claim that Warren's lack of Native American ancestry can be "seen", "blood quantum" depends on the idea that an authentic identity doesn't change-- although it can be mixed with other, equally coherent, "blood".

Warren is relying on family recitals of tradition. In the Atlantic, she is quoted as saying

"Being Native American has been part of my story I guess since the day I was born... These are my family stories, I have lived in a family that has talked about Native American and talked about tribes since I was a little girl."

This is not a claim either about legal enrollment in a tribe, or of a particular blood quantum. It reflects instead the idea that authentic identity is what your own people know and tell you.

One of the most puzzling things about Warren's responses to questioning has been that she continually restates versions of this statement-- that she knows she has Native American ancestry because she has been told this since childhood-- and yet there is little evidence that she ever attempted to participate in Native American cultural events and practices.

Except for once; the Atlantic notes that

in 1984 she contributed five recipes to the Pow Wow Chow cookbook published by the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee, signing the items, "Elizabeth Warren -- Cherokee."

Kevin Noble Maillot, while noting that Warren never acted on her self-identification as Native American in the small circle of Native American law faculty, clearly finds her claim of identity more understandable than the idea of authenticity that the Brown campaign is using. He wrote

And now the Brown campaign wants to dictate Warren’s own belief in her identity. According to the Brown campaign, Warren could not be Indian because she is blonde, rich and most of all, a Harvard law professor.

Elizabeth Warren has a "belief in her own identity" that goes back to childhood, and that she values so much that she is holding to it even when it is a political liability. It isn't a claim about legal membership in a tribe. It isn't based on blood quantum. It isn't falsifiable by looking at her.

It is identity as lived, as an attribute of an individual person and their ancestors, as private feeling, not public assignment. This kind of identity can change without losing its connection to a past.

In the land of the melting pot and the mixed salad, this personal experience of identity contradicts an idea of minority identities as fixed and unchanging that sees transformed identity as somehow inauthentic.

Paradoxically, it is this capacity for identity to change without becoming unmoored that lets Warren assert that her identity is more fixed than it looks:

"This is who I am, and it’s not going to change".

Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.

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