Liz Warren's $10 Billion-Plus Bid to Gain Cred with Native American Tribes

elizabeth warren speaks at town hall

On Friday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a leading candidate for the 2020 Democratic nomination, unleashed a policy plan sending at least $10 billion to Native American tribes in what seems a bid to recover from her DNA test fiasco. Her policy also comes ahead of a presidential forum on the topic Monday.

Her 9,000-word policy paper calls for America to address centuries of broken promises to Native Americans and to "reinforce the solemn nation-to-nation relationships with Tribal Nations. Accomplishing this will require structural change."

She explicitly promises $8.3 billion for this structural change, although it is reasonable to estimate at least $10 billion for reasons given below.

Warren has a long history of claiming Native American status. She reportedly notified law school administrators that her family tree includes Native Americans in the 1980s. She called herself "Cherokee" in a local Oklahoma cookbook in 1984. She listed herself as "American Indian" on a registration form for the Texas State Bar in 1986. The Association of American Law Schools listed her as a minority law teacher from 1986 to 1994. During that time, she taught at the University of Texas, the University of Pennsylvania, and then Harvard University in 1995. In 1996, a Harvard Law School spokesman cited her as Native American.

A Harvard professor who interviewed her for a job at the law school said the claims never came up in the hiring process, but critics have long suggested Warren gained the prestigious teaching position in part due to her "minority" status.

Last October, Warren launched a video about her heritage and a notorious DNA test purporting to show that she had a remote ancestor who was Native American. The test found evidence of Native American DNA six to ten generations in her past. It was meant to corroborate her claims, but it backfired.

"A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship," Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement. "Current DNA tests do not even distinguish whether a person’s ancestors were indigenous to North or South America."

"Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation," Hoskin explained. The pride of individual Native American tribes matters a great deal to the Cherokee Nation, for good reasons.

But Hoskin did not just defend the pride of his tribe or Native American tribes in general. He also suggested that Warren's DNA test belittled DNA tests in general.

"Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong," he added. "It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage."

Warren issued an apology for the DNA test, and it seems now she's making a bid to show solidarity with Native Americans.

Under her plan, the federal government would spend $800 million on health for Native Americans and Tribal governments; $5 billion in federal grants for broadband internet access; $2.5 billion for housing "to build or rehabilitate 200,000 homes" through the Indian Housing Block Grant; and $50 billion in grants to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Minority Serving Institutions, and Tribal Colleges and Universities.

It seems reasonable to estimate that at least $1.7 billion of the $50 billion would go to Tribal Colleges and Universities — the actual number would likely be higher.

As a bonus, Warren pledged to stop construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, which she claims threaten tribal water supplies, tribal boundaries, and federal treaties with native tribes.

This $10 billion-plus bid to show solidarity with Native American tribes is indeed ambitious. But it seems unlikely the Cherokee Nation will reconsider.

Warren already wounded the pride of Native Americans once. Now critics might say she's at it again.

Follow Tyler O'Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.