Invisibility of Native peoples to most of America threatens our fundamental rights and the well-being of our children. We are invisible within government, Hollywood, the news media, and in our schools. It’s the reason that the president, lawmakers, and the media use derogatory racial stereotypical language about Native people with impunity. Our invisibility and erasure is seen as normal.
Then I watch and read about Elizabeth Warren and her DNA test. It feels like an alternative reality and its own horror show. I am reading tweets dripping in racism from President Donald J. Trump and his supporters co-opting quotes from the Cherokee Nation and other Native advocates about Warren for their own political agenda that has nothing to do with protecting tribal sovereignty.
Tucker Carlson of Fox News opened his segment two nights ago stating that “Fauxcahontas is on the warpath,” “Lieawatha is having her own trail of tears,” and “Elizabeth Warren appointed herself as the head of the #MeSioux Movement.” Carlson said all of these racist jibes in the same segment where he acknowledged the outrage felt by Native Americans.
The outrage is that these racist taunts have spread like wildfire across social media in the most hurtful ways. But where is the concern, or even outrage, when Native women go missing and murdered at rates higher than any other population, or that a federal court has ruled that the Indian Child Welfare Act is unconstitutional which will result in a policy that will take away our children?
For the first time since Standing Rock, tribes and Native people are all over the news and social media. However, the dominant coverage and national conversation is not about the Supreme Court and its sanction of North Dakota voter suppression.
Nor are there many stories about GOP Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s in-laws who made millions from government contracts by claiming membership in the Northern Cherokee Nation, an organization that falsely trades on the political status of tribal nations.
Instead, the national conversation is about Elizabeth Warren, her family story, and a DNA test taken in response to attacks by Trump. It’s a political war in which tribal citizens are not directly involved.
Trump and the media have conflated the language of ancestry and heritage to mean Native identity. So we must devote precious time and resources to make political statements about tribal citizenship because to most Native people, Native identity is directly tied to tribal citizenship.
Warren only ever claimed ancestry based on family story, she never claimed citizenship in a tribal nation nor has she in my research ever traded on her family story of having Native ancestry. This issue of ancestry and its tie to a political identity is different for Natives and non-Natives. It’s complicated and nuanced and doesn’t fit into 26 characters of a tweet or an op-ed.
Warren’s DNA test reveal is being equated by some as one of the biggest attacks on tribal sovereignty in recent memory. Others feel deeply mixed emotions about her claims, what she did on Monday, and how it was done without seemingly thinking about the consequences to tribal nations.
Others hear the simple fact that all Warren did was lay claim to a DNA test that some would argue supports her family story. She’s not claiming tribal citizenship. But the majority of Americans don’t know enough about Native people to understand this distinction.
The Reclaiming Native Truth project, a $3.3 million public opinion research and strategy setting project is the largest of its kind conducted by and for Native people. Its goal is to change perceptions, introducing America to its own history, to tribal sovereignty, and to issues important to us.
This two-year project took a hard look at the data. We mapped the dominant narratives and perceptions of a diverse group of people across the country, including members of Congress, judges, law clerks and influencers within philanthropy, business, media and civil rights.
This is what we found:
- The majority of Americans know little to nothing about Native Americans, our issues or contributions. Many Americans are not clear how many Native peoples still exist or at the very least they think we are a dwindling population in decline.
- A 2014 study found that 87 percent of schools do not teach about Native peoples past 1900.
- Representation of Native people in entertainment and media is less than 0.4 percent.
- Many Americans are informed by stereotypes and myths that all Native Americans receive federal government benefits [because they are “Indian”], are enriching themselves off of tribal gaming and are dysfunctional due to poverty, alcoholism and corruption.
- Many of the judges and law clerks interviewed admitted to knowing little about tribal sovereignty and Federal Indian Law.
- Some members of Congress shared that they believe that invisibility is a major issue and that the narrative about Native peoples and issues are still very much defined and controlled by non-Natives.
These public opinion findings show how invisibility, erasure, stereotypes and false narratives fit the stories being told right now about Elizabeth Warren, Donald Trump, and Native people in the 21st century.
Reclaiming Native Truth’s research was also able to identify a few ways to change the story. A poll conducted in 2017 found that 72 percent of Americans support significant changes to K-12 curricula about Native history, culture and contemporary issues. A second poll in April 2018 found that after Americans surveyed were given some basic, accurate facts about Native history and issues, that a majority were supportive of tribal sovereignty, the Indian Child Welfare Act, and would take steps to end racist mascots. And 78 percent of those polled said they wanted to know more, to learn about Native people. This finding is incredibly significant as Hollywood, the media, policymakers, philanthropy and others have always used our small population size to justify a lack of representation, media coverage, inclusion and investment.
Reclaiming Native Truth also identified segments of the American population that are likely to be allies or can be moved to become allies. Of these segments, 36 percent of Americans polled, claimed to have some Native ancestry. This is potentially a powerful bloc, allies who could demand support for tribal sovereignty or for more accurate stories from Hollywood or the news media.
Now we come back to Elizabeth Warren. She is one of millions of Americans who have family stories about her Native ancestors. Millions of people who are potential allies at time when tribal sovereignty and our basic rights are under siege.
We need good allies to partner with us to amplify our voices and to show up with us and support tribes on key issues.
We need to show up for our allies as well. The research shows that we will continue to struggle to protect our rights unless we make a concerted and intentional effort to change the story, to stop being invisible.
I believe Elizabeth Warren has made some real mistakes and she needs to do a lot better. I will support her while also holding her accountable.
As a tribal citizen of the Pawnee Nation, I will support her because she has never claimed tribal citizenship and she clearly supports tribal sovereignty and the inherent rights of tribes to determine our citizenship.
She is an ally who has lifted up on a national stage the issue of violence against Native women by asking Trump to donate his $1 million pledge to the National Indian Women’s Resource Center.
My experience working with the Reclaiming Native Truth Project Research has taught me that we have more to gain from working with allies and educating them than trying to destroy them.
Let’s build a house Indian Country that stands strong for tribal sovereignty, but also has plenty of room for those who are ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with us. We need allies because Standing Rock reminded us how powerful we are when we all come together, organize, and mobilize.
It’s past time for Native Americans to be visible.