Sen. Elizabeth Warren sought Sunday to bolster her shaky claims of Cherokee ancestry with the story of how her racist grandparents drove her parents to elope.
But Cherokee genealogist Twila Barnes says that account has its own credibility issues.
Ms. Barnes, who said her research into Ms. Warren’s family found “no evidence” of Native American ancestry, has challenged key elements of the senator’s tale of how her parents, Pauline Reed and Donald Herring, defied his parents by running off to marry.
“The problem with Warren’s story is that none of the evidence supports it,” said Ms. Barnes in a 2016 post on her Thoughts from Polly’s Granddaughter blog. “Her genealogy shows no indication of Cherokee ancestry. Her parents’ wedding doesn’t resemble an elopement. And additional evidence doesn’t show any indication of her Herring grandparents being Indian haters.”
Faced with renewed scrutiny over her heritage, however, Ms. Warren appeared Sunday on three morning news shows to give context to her claim of minority status made during her stints on the Harvard and University of Pennsylvania law faculties.
“You know, my mom and dad were born and raised out in Oklahoma, and my daddy was in his teens when he fell in love with my mother,” said the Massachusetts Democrat. “She was a beautiful girl who played the piano. And he was head over heels in love with her and wanted to marry her. And his family was bitterly opposed to that because she was part Native American.”
As a result, “eventually my parents eloped,” Ms. Warren said on “Fox News Sunday.”
The Berkshire [Massachusetts] Eagle called last week on Ms. Warren to take a DNA test, a suggestion seconded by Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi, saying she “has nothing to lose but her Achilles’ heel” as the issue comes back to haunt her reelection campaign.
Ms. Warren deflected the DNA question Sunday by saying “I know who I am.”
“I know who I am because of what my mother and my father told me, what my grandmother and my grandfather told me, what all my aunts and uncles told me, and my brothers,” Ms. Warren said. “It’s a part of who I am and no one’s ever going to take that away.”
The senator is not an enrolled member of any tribe, but has cited family lore to support her claim.
While Ms. Warren may genuinely believe the story of her star-crossed parents, Ms. Barnes has argued that the documentation doesn’t back it up.
She cited the friendship between Grant Herring, Ms. Warren’s paternal grandfather, and Carnall Wheeler, who was listed on the Cherokee Nation roll and mocked in his Virginia Military Institute yearbook as an “aboriginal.”
Documents show that the two played golf together and that Mr. Wheeler attended a 25th anniversary party for the Herrings in 1936.
“Clearly, Wheeler experienced some degree of racism in his life due to his being Indian,” said Ms. Barnes. “Despite this, there is one person we know who did not have a problem associating with him — Grant Herring, the grandfather of Elizabeth Warren, the same grandfather she claims was racist against Indians.”
The post was headlined, “Did Warren invent the story of racist grandparents?”
After Ms. Warren said in the Globe that her mother told her “nobody came to her wedding at all,” Ms. Barnes looked it up and found that her mother’s friend witnessed the ceremony, which was performed by a prominent Methodist clergyman, not a justice of the peace.
“This marriage does not look like an elopement. It looks very much like a Depression-era marriage ceremony instead,” said Ms. Barnes in an August 2012 post. “Sometimes people didn’t have a lot of money to spend on a wedding so they just obtained their license, got married and then went back home.”
She also found a detailed wedding announcement posted in the local newspaper in Wetumka, Oklahoma.
“If Ms. Warren’s parents eloped due to her mother being ‘Cherokee and Delaware’ and it was such a disgrace, why did they rush back to Wetumka the same day they were married and proudly announce it to everyone?” asked Ms. Barnes. “If there was shame associated with the marriage and it caused so many problems, why was it happily announced in the local paper?”
Given that Ms. Warren’s father had just turned 21, the age after which he could legally marry in Oklahoma without his parents’ permission, “Maybe his parents feared if he got married, he would drop out of college. And according to the evidence, that is exactly what happened,” she said.
Cornell Law School professor William A. Jacobson vouched for the credibility of Ms. Barnes’ fact-finding.
“I have never seen anything that called into question the integrity of Twila Barnes’ research,” said Mr. Jacobson, who runs the Legal Insurrection blog. “To the contrary, she has meticulously researched Warren’s family lineage demonstrating no Native American ancestry, as well as facts rebutting Warren’s family lore stories.”
Accusations that Ms. Warren gamed the system to advance her legal career have dogged her since her first Senate race in 2012, although she has insisted — and the universities have backed her up — that she received no preferential treatment in hiring by citing Native American ancestry.
President Trump has drawn attention to the issue by dubbing her “Pocahontas,” prompting Ms. Warren to accuse him of making racial slurs and increase her focus on Native American issues.
“I went to speak to Native American tribal leaders, and I made a promise to them, that every time President Trump wants to try to throw out some kind of racial slur, he wants to try to attack me, I’m going to use it as a chance to lift up their stories,” Ms. Warren told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
She pointed to the high rates of violence against Native American women.
“Native women are subjected to sexual violence at rates much higher than any other group in our country,” Ms. Warren said. “We need to put some focus on this, and we need to make some changes on this. We owe it to people living in Native communities.”
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