A walk on a cold winter day with my grandfather

Tom Witosky, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, reflects on threats to tribal sovereignty and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claims to Native American ancestry. -promoted by Laura Belin

One cold winter day, my maternal grandfather, Cliff King, and I went for a long walk.

Late afternoon in Wisconsin with sunlight fading and snow crunching under our feet, we talked about a lot of things as a bracing breeze out of the north slapped our faces red. This walk was a necessary one for Cliff, who liked to walk outside because it was the only time he could get a chaw of tobacco out of from under the watchful eye of my grandmother and my mother.

He offered me a chunk and – having done a bit of it during my summers in an Idaho logging camp – I accepted. We walked quietly for a while, this man who had been born in the Indian Territory before Oklahoma had become a state and before he was recognized as a U.S. citizen and his grandson, now a college student.

He had spent his lifetime working as an educator for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs first inside the Arctic Circle at Point Hope Alaska in 1938, then over the years in Nevada, then Iowa, and then on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota. Around those reservations, he was known as “Mr. King.” My grandmother, who became a social worker in Todd County, SD, was known as “Miss King.”

During the summers on Rosebud, Cliff taught me to fish, shoot a rifle, ride a horse, and drive a car. Days were often spent playing baseball with Sioux boys and evenings often included going to local Pow-wows. My memories include being mesmerized by an elderly Sioux gentleman wearing a real buffalo headdress.

Dinner table conversations always were lively with discussion of politics, sports, and family issues. After dinner, there always was a game of pitch or hearts with accusations of cheating flying across the table as quickly as the cards were played.

Television was simple back then – one channel. “Saves having arguments,” my grandfather would say with a wry smile.

But this walk turned to questions that had been burning inside me since I started researching the treatment of my tribe, the Cherokees, in the 1800s. The questions revolved around what a Cherokee was to think about having tribal members illegally removed from their ancestral home under the guise of a treaty negotiated with non-elected tribal members. What should I think about the Trail of Tears—where more than 4,000 tribal members died—and what did my family think about it?

Cliff’s father and mother, both one-quarter Cherokee, had been born in the Indian Territory in the 1870s after their parents had lived through the Cherokee civil war of the 1840s and the War Between the States following that. They had settled on land southeast of Park Hill—the original Cherokee Nation capitol and a little further from Tahlequah, which is now the capitol of the nation. My great-great grandfather, who had fought for the Confederacy as a sergeant in the 2nd Cherokee Mounted Rifles under the command of Gen. Stand Watie, had been elected a tribal district court judge in 1890.

My questions were simple: “Does it make you angry how the Cherokees were treated? Is it worth even getting angry about it? Shouldn’t we still be fighting what they did to us?”

Cliff gave me the look a grandfather gives a grandson in need of instruction.

“There’s too many of them to fight,” he said quietly. “That’s been the problem all along.”

At the same time, he made it clear that he wanted his grandchildren to be proud of their heritage and their citizenship in the tribe. He told me to vote in tribal elections and stay up on tribal affairs.

What he didn’t mention, but what’s become clear to me over the last several years as controversies—legal and political—have arisen over tribal sovereignty, Native American tribes may well be as much under threat now as they were when my grandfather was born in 1902.

Back then, President Theodore Roosevelt led the effort to force Native American tribes into disbanding their governments and force them to assimilate into white society through a variety of actions. He forced the allotment of tribal lands to individual tribal members (my family still owns land allotted to it) and had the Commissioner of Indian Affairs issue a variety of edicts mandating that all Native Americans would no longer be able to have long hair and that “Indian dances and so-called Indian feasts should be prohibited.”

Those attempts failed mostly as a result of the stubborn resiliency among the tribes who refused to abandon their cultures, their languages, and their governments. The tribes that suffered financially for years from unemployment, criminal behavior and blatant racism, have only recently grown more solvent, largely the result of their governments having the legal right through treaties with the federal government to operate casinos. The economic strength within the Native American national boundaries generally is stronger among those tribes lucky enough to collect gambling profits.

But the challenge to tribal sovereignty this time around is more subtle than in Roosevelt’s time and, in some ways, more insidious. And, frankly, it relates to the Elizabeth Warren’s unfortunate claiming of Native American heritage and at one time suggesting she had Cherokee and Delaware ancestors, which she no longer claims.

For the record, I view Warren’s claims as I have the many others who have claimed the same thing to me over the years. Prove it or stop talking about it. If it’s not true, move on.

Warren had no chance of gaining membership in the Cherokee Tribe because she has no ancestor on the Dawes Rolls. This group of census rolls were taken between 1899-1906 and were used to allot land prior to Oklahoma statehood in 1907. Cherokee Nation citizenship is dictated solely on that criteria and has no minimum blood quantum requirement.

But Warren’s refusal to drop the subject, instead using DNA testing to support her claim, continues to fuel the efforts to erode tribal sovereignty, something the tribes have been fighting to prevent for decades.

Those who object to tribal sovereignty argue Warren is simply using her heritage to claim membership in a race to gain some kind of personal advantage – like getting a job. This is evidenced by the most frequent claim coming from Warren’s critics that she attempted to use her heritage claim to gain an advantage while seeking employment at various law schools. In other words, she attempted to claim a racial membership for affirmative action purposes when she couldn’t prove it.

No evidence exists that she actually used a claim of tribal citizenship to get a job, but that doesn’t matter to those individuals who want to end tribal sovereignty –a cardinal ordinance among those who believe ultimately that white majoritarian rule must be preserved even as the country’s demographics change.

Ironically, last October, the Los Angeles Times disclosed that the brother-in-law of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy used a claim of membership in a Cherokee tribe, to obtain several million dollars’ worth of special Small Business Administration contracts awarded to minority businesses. That so-called tribe—the Northern Cherokee Nation –is not federally recognized and is considered a fraud by the members of the federally recognized Cherokee Nation, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees, and the Eastern Band of Cherokees.

Warren’s transgression can be defined simply: She waited too long to acknowledge publicly she never could become a member of a recognized tribe. She added to it by insisting that a DNA test indicates a distant ancestry despite the fact that DNA tests with regards to Native American heritage are considered unreliable by federally recognized tribes, which rely on documentation to grant citizenship.

Why is this a transgression? Because such claims provide fuel for those who want to destroy tribal sovereignty by denigrating her in a stereotypical fashion that reflects on all Native Americans as wanting something for nothing.

Does Warren’s transgression disqualify her from bidding for the Democratic Party presidential nomination? No. First, she is no different than thousands of other whites who daily claim Native American ancestry and have no more evidence to support that claim than she does. Second, as an Oklahoma native, it certainly is possible that she has some distant heritage.

What’s more serious are the efforts to destroy tribal sovereignty inspired by President Donald Trump and others to attack through government policy or legal action.

Two recent controversies –both virtually unnoticed except in the Native American media – illuminate that well.

Last week, the Trump Administration backed off an attempt to redefine Native Americans as a race when it acknowledged it would not force members of federally recognized tribes to accept work requirements to be eligible for Medicaid. Medical health services traditionally have been the subject matter of the various treaties between the tribes and the federal government.

In backing down, the Trump administration termed it a compromise, but more likely stepped away because there would be a long, drawn out court battle based on the treaties signed by the federal government with the individual tribes.

Similarly, a federal court judge in Texas declared the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 unconstitutional on the grounds that the law was a “race-based statute” and violated the Equal Protection clause by requiring that the biological family of Native American child, the child’s tribe, or other Native American families be given preference when the child is placed in foster or adoptive homes.

Adopted more than 40 years ago, the law has been under attack by conservative groups representing white families that enter into the adoption process of Native American children. The point of the legislation when passed in 1978 and now is the same: preservation of the tribes and tribal sovereignty.

The judge, U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor, is the same judge who would later declare the entire Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. His argument was simple: Native Americans are using heritage as a proxy for racial classification and are doing so to discriminate against other races who want to adopt Native American children. (The court ruling is available here.)

What O’Connor ignored were the arguments that, given the historical attempts to force assimilation on Native Americans, the ICWA was adopted because tribes clearly have a rational basis to want to preserve their culture and their sovereignty. In addition, recent evidence collected by the tribes in preparation for appeal to the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals shows Native American children are removed from their homes by state welfare services at a much higher rate than white families even though incidences of abuse and neglect are about the same.

The push to have Native Americans defined as a member of a race rather than as citizens of a sovereign nation is simply the new tactic used by conservative groups in the centuries-old strategy to force assimilation of the tribes against their will.

My grandfather died in 1976. Since his death, I’ve thought about that wonderful winter walk again and again, wondering what he meant by his simple but cryptic thought. Then, this week watching the imbroglio at the Lincoln Memorial and the videos of the high school student standing in front of the Omaha tribal elder as he beat a drum and sang, I figured out what my grandfather meant.

There are more of them, but they still fear us after all of these years. They want what we have – a large family connected by ancestors and not sullied by the white settler and government history of slaughter, land theft, and subjugation of others. They want Native Americans to be like them so they won’t be reminded of what they did.

Tom Witosky, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, retired from the Des Moines Register after 33 years as one of the paper’s investigative reporters. He is also the co-author of Equal Before the Law: How Iowa Led Americans to Marriage Equality.

Top image: Land allotted to the King family in 1907 as part of the federal government’s effort forcing statehood of Oklahoma on the Indian Territory. The hill in the background is known locally as King Mountain. Photo by the author, used with permission.

  • Great essay

    This was a pleasure to read. Gave me lots to think about!

  • Good explanation of the controversy

    Thanks for your essay. I had no idea you had a native American background including time growing up on the reservation. You gave a good explanation of the controversy over Elizabeth Warren releasing the results of a DNA test. It seems like listing on the Dawes Roles is no less arbitrary than any other method. But I now understand better why a scientific claim to ancestry is controversial. The history of Americans’ genocide of Native Americans is a terrible stain on our country. I can understand why Native Americans continue to fight in every way possible to retain control over their culture and what remains of their tribes and families.

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