SIOUX CITY, Iowa –– Nearly a year after Sen. Elizabeth Warren commissioned a DNA test to “prove” her Native American ancestry, she asked tribal leaders for forgiveness.
And it worked.
“I want to say this: Like anyone who’s being honest with themselves, I know that I have made mistakes. I am sorry for the harm I have caused. I have listened, and I have learned a lot,” the Democratic senator from Massachusetts said immediately after taking the stage at a presidential candidate forum in Sioux City on Monday dedicated to Native American issues.
“I am grateful for the many conversations we’ve had together. It’s a great honor to partner with Indian Country,” she said.
Ever since that DNA test, Warren has fought criticism that she’s a fair-weather, if not tone-deaf, ally to Native American people. The move was widely panned by Native American leaders, and Warren later apologized publicly and privately to them, saying that she didn’t mean to cause “harm” to indigenous communities.
But at this forum, in a state where Warren has impressed Democrats with her ideas and policy credentials, all appeared to be forgiven. The panel of moderators –– tribal leaders, journalists, and lawmakers –– all greeted Warren like family at the candidates forum.
“I just got a hug from the next president of the United States,” one moderator said, presumably irking the seven other Democratic candidates scheduled to appear next.
Another referred to her as “Madame President.”
And when Warren stepped out on stage, she received a standing ovation.
Seeing her star rise in national polls –– Warren now sits comfortably in second place behind former Vice President Joe Biden –– the senator has aggressively worked to be “a good partner” and ally to Native Americans.
A 9,000-word plan
That has included weeks of wooing Native American leaders and publishing a 9,000-word policy plan that proposes making major investments into infrastructure on tribal lands, and adding Cabinet-level positions dedicated to representing the political and economic interests of Native American tribes.
Warren also proposed revoking permits for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, two projects that Native American tribes say will disrupt their water systems and sacred ancestral land, and creating a national alert system for missing indigenous women, who are murdered at a rate 10 times the national average.
“Over and over, I’m struck by the women who go missing and it doesn’t make a headline for a week or month,” Warren said on Monday. “A problem that is not seen is a problem that is not fixed.” On the pipelines, she said, “the permits should not have been issued in the first place.”
And for attendees of the forum, all that work appeared to pay off.
“Elizabeth knows she’ll be attacked, but she’s here to be an unwavering partner in our struggle, because that’s what a leader does,” said Deb Haaland (D-NM), one of the first Native American women elected to Congress, and who has stumped for Warren this campaign season, to thunderous applause. “I say the president who worships Andrew Jackson, who coddles white supremacists, is no match for a woman with a plan.”
“Where is your destination, Mrs. Warren? Where are you headed?” one tribal leader asked Warren partway through the panel.
She responded with an impish smile: “To the White House?”
The crowd erupted in cheers.
“My family stories”
Warren, an Oklahoma native, has claimed Native American heritage for decades, saying she grew up hearing stories from her parents about her Native American ancestors.
"These are my family stories. This is what my brothers and I were told by my mom and my dad, my mammaw and my pappaw. This is our lives. And I'm very proud of it," Warren said in 2012.
The issue came to a head during her 2012 run for the Senate, when Republican opponent Scott Brown said that Warren had falsely claimed Native American heritage to further her career.
Ostensibly to ward off criticism before she announced her candidacy for president, Warren commissioned a DNA analysis that concluded she had a Native American ancestor six to ten generations ago. Warren discussed the results from that test in a video that’s still on her campaign website. (Her aides told CNN last week that they plan to take it down.)
Voters have said that the debacle — a rare misstep for a candidate who has otherwise been at the forefront of progressive issues — has been one of the biggest marks against her.
After publishing results from the DNA test, Warren swiftly got flak from Native American leaders, including the Cherokee Nation. "Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong," Secretary of State of the Cherokee Nation, Chuck Hoskin Jr., said in a statement at the time.
President Trump used the debacle as an opportunity to lob racist attacks against Warren, referring to the senator as “Pocahontas.”
But Warren apologized publicly and privately for the misstep, and the executive director of the Cherokee Nation, Julie Hubbard, issued an olive branch to Warren earlier this year.
"We are encouraged by this dialogue and understanding that being a Cherokee Nation tribal citizen is rooted in centuries of culture and laws not through DNA tests," Hubbard said in a statement earlier this year. "We are encouraged by her action and hope that the slurs and mockery of tribal citizens and Indian history and heritage will now come to an end."
Cover: Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) addresses a crowd at a town hall event on August 17, 2019 in Aiken, South Carolina. Warren has held more than ten 2020 campaign events in the early primary state. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)