Thursday, September 12, 2019

Chief Running Bear, Racial Politics and Elizabeth Warren

“What are you writing now, Kerry? “asked Chief Running Bear, as I sat down near him in my back yard to write this blog. 

Many years ago, my wife Leila spotted Chief Running Bear in a going-out-of-business tobacco store.  She rescued him and presented him to me as a no-occasion gift.  The Chief had spent the first 40 or 50 years of his life standing majestically at the doors of a various tobacco stores, relegated, like many of his artfully hewn brothers, to that humble position by clever entrepreneurs aware of the relationship of tobacco and American Indians. Colonists borrowed the use of tobacco from the Indians and then stole the land upon which it grew. What remained for the Indians was the dubious honor of being sculpted in wood and placed at the entrances of tobacco stores throughout the nation.  

Having acquired the Chief, there arose an immediate problem.  Where was he to dwell?  “Not in our living room,” said Leila, and suggested, “take him to your office.” Thus, he took up residence in my law office, where he remained, standing next my desk for nearly 20 years.  The Chief and I spent many late nights together as I prepared for trial or key depositions. Often, fatigued by a long day’s work, I would sit back and recite my legal arguments and read my briefs to the Chief, who listened and never orally responded but I could always tell whether he approved or not.  

When I retired, I sold all my law office assets, but the Chief and I had so bonded that I could not leave him behind.  I brought him home and he now resides in my back yard next to the fence, partially hidden by a row of closely spaced Carolina trees.  He feels right at home there. The other day, having noticed that his face has taken a beating by the weather and has grown a whitish beard of mold, I promised him a shave and facial when I return from vacation.

I am sure that fate and genes brought the Chief and me together.  Leila knows that Cherokee blood runs in my veins and thus the purchase of the Chief. I often share my ancestry with friends, casual acquaintances and, frankly, with anyone who will listen.   My great-great-great grandmother was Cherokee. As related to me by a relative with whom I share the art of exaggeration, she was a Cherokee princess. Like the Chief, I am usually disbelieved by my smirking listeners—and perhaps by you.  I learned later that great-great-great grandma was just an ordinary Indian maiden.  But as far as I was concerned, being Native American elevated her to nobility. To this day I do not hesitate to inform anyone who will listen that my great-great-great grandmother was an Indian princess.

That makes me 1/32nd Cherokee.  Too little to qualify me for any tribal privileges, benefits or nobility but enough to make me proud of my heritage.

Now you are asking, if indeed you have borne with me this far, “what does this have to do with Elizabeth Warren?” 

It’s all about heritage.  As early as 1986 Ms. Warren identified herself as an American Indian of Cherokee ancestry.  Her political opponents accused her of lying, leading her to have her DNA examined. The examination determined the existence of an unadmixed Native American ancestor in [her] pedigree, likely in the range of 6–10 generations ago. 1 If it were 6 generations, that would make her 1/64th Indian. I’m 1/32th. We could be distant relatives, perhaps second cousins, five or six generations removed. Blood brother and sister.

The brouhaha over her claim of Indian ancestry—ancestry which was proven, mind you—led her to acknowledge that her Native American ancestry was not at all tribal citizenship and she apologized to the Cherokee Nation "…for furthering confusion over issues of tribal sovereignty and citizenship and for any harm her announcement caused."2 

There is more that should have been said. From colonial times to the present even a minuscule amount of ancestral blood has been sufficient for racial identification. For decades one tiny drop of Negro blood flowing in the veins of a white appearing person made him or her officially and legally a Negro.  The whitest looking person, even with pale pink skin, freckles and red hair, for example, was disqualified from the rights and privileges of white society once it became known that at some time, even in the distant past, he or she had a Negro ancestor. Such a person might easily pass as white but would always be fearful of being stripped of the privileges of whiteness if her ancestry were discovered. 

When Ms. Warren claimed a few drops of Cherokee ancestry she was lambasted.  Her political opponents claimed that her motivation was suspect, a shameful attempt to obtain favor from a tiny minority of voters by claiming racial identity.  They pilloried her for asserting her Cherokee heritage.  Of course, bigots will play the race card in any way possible if it serves their purposes.  If Ms. Warren gets the nomination, the same hypocritical persons who cried out “She’s not Indian!” will do an about-face and shout, “We don’t want a Native American President,” just as they railed against Roman Catholic Kennedy and African American Obama. My reply, “What could be more American than a person with Native American blood coursing proudly through her veins?”

Yes, Ms. Warren was accused of having used her Native American ancestry for political gain, but in the final analysis, she told the truth. She is of Cherokee ancestry. She is entitled to be proud and to assert her Native American heritage.  Unfortunately, we live in a society where race is used or abused for personal and political gain.  Race should not play a part in our elections nor in our societal institutions.  But it has for hundreds of years and as illustrated by Ms. Warren’s case, it still does and will continue to do so until and so long as racism and bigotry are embraced and promoted by bigots, xenophobes and others of that ilk.  

I am proud of my bit of Cherokee ancestry. I’m part of the melting pot. As is Ms. Warren.  We are a diverse nation, individually and collectively and our diversity has served us excellently.   Let’s keep that in mind as we approach the 2020 elections. Chief Running Bear agrees. 

©Kerry Gough 2019
2 Ibid.

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