WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Elizabeth Warren said Wednesday that President Donald Trump is disrespecting Native Americans by referring to her as “Pocahontas,” and that while she does not claim membership in any tribe, she has never used her ancestry “to get a break” or advance her career.
In a surprise appearance before the National Congress of American Indians, the Massachusetts Democrat said her mother’s family was part Native American and her father’s parents “were bitterly opposed to their relationship.” Her mother was born in Oklahoma in 1912 and married her father in 1932, Warren said.
“The story they lived will always be a part of me. And no one — not even the president of the United States — will ever take that part of me away,” she said.
Warren, 68, is running for re-election to the Senate and is widely considered a possible 2020 presidential contender. She frequently has sparred with Trump, who derisively refers to Warren as “Pocahontas” to mock her claim about being part Native American.
Pocahontas was a native woman who lived in present-day Virginia in the 1600s and agreed to marry an English colonist to help ensure peace and protect her people.
Warren said she understands why Trump and other political opponents “think there’s hay to be made here.” She added: “The joke, I guess, is supposed to be on me.”
In her most expansive public remarks on her ancestry, Warren told the Native American group that she respects the distinction between Native American heritage and membership in a tribe.
“I understand that tribal membership is determined by tribes — and only by tribes,” she said.
But contrary to claims by opponents, “I never used my family tree to get a break or get ahead,” Warren said. “I never used it to advance my career.”
Questions about Warren’s ancestry first surfaced during her 2012 Senate run, when she ousted Republican Sen. Scott Brown to claim the seat once held by the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy.
During the campaign, law school directories from the Association of American Law Schools from 1986 to 1995 surfaced that put Warren on the association’s list of “minority law teachers” when she was teaching at the University of Texas and the University of Pennsylvania. Warren said she listed herself with Native American heritage because she hoped to meet people with similar roots.
Jefferson Keel, president of the tribal congress, said his group was “deeply honored by the courage” Warren showed in addressing a topic that has vexed her for nearly six years.
“We appreciate her candor, humility and honesty and look forward to working with her as a champion for Indian Country,” Keel said.
But Mike Reed, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said Warren “failed to apologize to the actual Native Americans in the audience and continued to insist that she really is a Native American, despite the long list of evidence that indicates otherwise.”
If Warren believed she deserved Native American status when she started checking the minority box in 1986, “why did she stop claiming minority status once she made it to the Ivy League in the 1990s?” Reed asked.
In a 2012 interview with The Associated Press, Warren, then a Harvard Law School professor, said she and her brothers were told of the family’s heritage by their parents.
Warren, who was raised in Oklahoma, said her father’s parents objected to her parents’ marriage because her mother “was part Cherokee and part Delaware.”
The family dispute was “something my brothers and I grew up with. We always understood the difference, between our father’s family and our mother’s family,” she told the AP.
Warren repeated much of that family history on Wednesday, although she did not mention any specific tribes in referring to her mother.
Warren told the Native American group that Trump’s taunts had led her to a decision: “Every time someone brings up my family’s story, I’m going to use it to lift up the story of your families and your communities.”
She said the story of Pocahontas has long “been taken away by powerful people who twisted it to serve their own purposes.”
While Pocahontas played a key role in mediating relations between the tribes ruled by her father and early white settlers, she later was abducted, imprisoned and held captive and died at about age 21, Warren said.
Warren called it “deeply offensive” that Trump keeps a portrait of President Andrew Jackson hanging in the Oval Office, “honoring a man who did his best to wipe out Native people.”
The type of violence Jackson and his allies perpetrated on Indian tribes “remains part of life today” for Native Americans on and off Indian reservations, Warren said, noting that more than half of Native American women have experienced sexual violence.
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