Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Indigenous Identity and Elizabeth Warren

Cherokee NC--West of Asheville
One of the big controversies now circling around this upcoming election is from Massachussets where Scott Brown is trying to smear working people's financial advocate and Harvard Law School professor, Elizabeth Warren. The big reveal is simply the fact that she has listed her racial identiy as Native American and claims a grandmother of Cherokee/Delaware descent. Warren was born in Oklahoma, a place with a very large indigenous population.

Native American ancestry is pervasive in this country and is, probably more than other ethnicities, a complicated business. Tribes, who sometimes share profits from gambling enterprises and other financial stipends, have a convoluted system of "enrollment" which involves things like percentage of native blood and other markers for inclusion.

As a full-blooded, not quite passing, member of the Russian-Jewish tribe, I have attended many pow-wows and other indigenous gatherings. At these events it is impossible not to notice the large number of people of all colors who identify themselves as having native ancestry. While some folks resemble relatives of the chief with the feathered headdress on the US nickel, many more do not.

When I was a young person in the feminist movement, we talked a lot about race. Ther was one woman, my age, who identified herself as Native American. She had pale skin and light brown hair and looked like any other WASP to me. I asked her about her identity one day after a meeting. She said simply, "I grew up on a reservation in North Dakota." I realized then that when it comes to racial identity, visual perception is only a small piece of a much larger story.

The toll of passing should not be underestimated. In accounts of Jews in Europe during the Nazi era, many who later suffered the greatest amount of psychological damage were those who "successfully" passed for Aryan. With the definition of Jewish descent consisting of only grandparent, I'm sure that Jewish faces were not readily apparent. The entire concept of "race" in modern society is no more than a social construct, albeit an extremely powerful one.

Elizabeth Warren's work in setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Agency has been dedicated to helping families decimated by foreclosures and unemployment has been absolutely stellar. She stands up to the hegemony of big business with a clearly populist voice. As far as her ethnic ancestry is concerned I need only to quote Rhett Butler, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."