For almost a week—ever since the Massachusetts Senate debate between incumbent Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren last Thursday—I have been pondering this quote from Sen. Brown:

"Professor Warren claimed she was a Native American, a person of color—and as you can see, she is not."

"As you can see." Let's leave aside the question of how Elizabeth Warren has identified herself, or been identified. Let's instead focus on what Scott Brown is saying here.

Can you really "see" Native American identity on the surface?

OK—here's a little quiz. Select the Native American out of the following group:

According to Scott Brown, you should be able to just look and "see" which of these three is Native American.

The correct answer: all of them.

Of course, that answer should really be a bit more complicated.

Susan Thompson identifies herself as a Penobscot basketmaker. Her website describes her as the child of a Penobscot woman, an artist, and a "red-haired Mainer," and the sister of another recognized Penobscot artist. Her work is included as Penobscot in the collection of the Abbe Museum in Maine.

Thressa Tate is featured on a poster that reads "We Are Cherokee," described there as "Cherokee-Irish." "We Are Cherokee" is a project that presents the Cherokee Nation's perspective on an ongoing dispute about constitutional changes that would eliminate citizenship in the Cherokee nation for Freedmen—descendants of African slaves—unless the descendants had at least one Cherokee ancestor enrolled in the "Dawes Rolls" records made between 1898 and 1906. The poster and a video on the "We Are Cherokee" website, deliberately present Cherokee Nation citizens with a wide range of physical appearances.

Cedric Cromwell is the chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, which won federal recognition in 2007 after initially being denied approval—in large part because Wampanoag tribal members have ancestors who converted to Christianity and married their non-Wampanoag neighbors.

This was the case famously explored by James Clifford in his book The Predicament of Culture. As Clifford wrote,

During the fall of 1977...the descendants of Wampanoag living in Mashpee...were required to prove their identity...these citizens of modern Massachusetts were asked to demonstrate continuous tribal existence since the seventeenth century....Modern Indians, who spoke in New England-accented English about the Great Spirit, had to convince a white Boston jury of their authenticity.

Among those testifying against the Mashpee Wampanoag was historian Francis Hutchins. Like Scott Brown, he treated Native American identity as something visible and obvious. Drawing on his testimony, an author on Wikipedia wrote:

Without accounting for cultural change, adaptation, and the effects of non-Indian society, Hutchins argued the Mashpee were not an Indian tribe historically because they adopted Christianity and non-Indian forms of dress and appearance, and chose to remain in Massachusetts as "second-class" citizens rather than emigrating westward (note: to Indian Territory) to "resume tribal existence." Hutchins also noted that they intermarried with non-Indians to create a "non-white," or "colored," community.... Hutchins appeared to require unchanged culture, including maintenance of a traditional religion and essentially total social autonomy from non-Indian society.

The concept that Scott Brown is invoking is not simply identity—it is authentic identity. What is at issue in the idea that you can just "see" someone's ancestry is a very constraining concept of authenticity as inborn, continuous (unchanging) essence. It becomes inauthentic when it changes in any way—including by contamination through marriage outside of a notional closed culture.

Native American authenticity is the subject of contemporary scholarly debate:

Attempts to confine “Indian” groups to essentialized spaces [are] resisted by some Native writers, while others recognize a need for essentialist categories as a key strategy in the struggle for social justice and a perpetually renewed sense of Native sovereignty... a politics of cultural sovereignty, which demands a notion of “Indian” essence or “authenticity” as a foundation for community values, heritage, and social justice.

In this debate, Scott Brown, by questioning Elizabeth Warren's physical appearance, is demanding that Native Americans conform to "essentialist categories." This stands in tension with an emphasis on "community values, heritage, and social justice."

The Abbe Museum brings together thoughts on identity and authenticity from tribal members, including authorities, themselves. Roldena Sanipass, a Micmac woman, is quoted there as saying:

"Identity is learned. It’s a seeing thing, it’s a knowing thing. Everything that is passed down is identity because that’s all we’ve got!"

This is a different kind of "seeing": not seeing some authentic essence in a person's face, but learning how to see, in a community that reproduces its culture, including changing it over time.

The Abbe Museum website also has a section that applies more clearly to what Scott Brown is engaged in: stereotyping. They write:

Many people are familiar with negative stereotypes about American Indians, including the drunken Indian, being violent or war-like, receiving government handouts, or being lazy and living on “Indian time.”

This is where we may begin to make sense of this attack by the Brown campaign, what he thinks will resonate with voters and turn them away from Warren's popular, and populist, message of economic justice.

His insinuation, apparently contrary to any facts, is that Warren gained something by reporting her family's traditional belief that they had Native American heritage.

By gesturing to her face, and claiming that "as you can see, she is not" Native American, Brown taps into skepticism in contemporary U.S. culture about Native American survival.

If you don't obviously look like an "authentic" Indian (read: unchanged, "pure blooded," outside history and time) then you may have Native American predecessors, but you are inauthentic.

If you are an inauthentic Indian and profit from it, then you are fulfilling that negative stereotype of getting things you don't work for handed to you.

Warren, for her part, expresses a position based on individual heritage rather than group identity:

Warren responded that she had learned of her heritage from stories told by her family. “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.

For her, as for many U.S. citizens, being "part" Native American is a personal and family identity.

Media reports cite, with frustration, a New England Historic Genealogical Society statement that says they could verify that members of Warren's family considered her great-great-great-grandmother O.C. Sarah Smith Cherokee. That isn't tribal identity of any kind; but that doesn't mean it is inauthentic as family tradition and personal identity.

But that kind of personal history is not only insufficient to support the normative view of Native American "identity" as imagined by the majority population: it is by definition inauthentic because it exists in history, entangled with other historical actors and moments, instead of being confined to a separate space and unchanging time.

Part of what Scott Brown is doing is obvious: encouraging resentment of imagined, unearned advantages claimed by people who are not authentically entitled to them.

But more than this, the comment suggests that you cannot "really" be Indian without it showing on the surface.

That means it's not merely impossible for Brown to imagine Elizabeth Warren actually having Delaware and Cherokee ancestors.

It would also be impossible following this logic to recognize any Harvard law professor as Native American, since by definition that position and practice is not traditional, not unchanged since the 18th, 19th, or early 20th century.

And that implication in the claim to be able to "see" authenticity on the surface says a lot more about Scott Brown than about Elizabeth Warren.

About the Author

Rosemary Joyce

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

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