Commentary: Trump's "Pocahontas" comment wasn't a racial slur

Last Updated Nov 29, 2017 12:28 PM EST

I was a Boston radio talk host in 2012 when the Elizabeth Warren/Native American heritage story broke, and I had the perfect nickname for her: 

"Faux-cahontas."

I knew it was perfect because it stuck.  Mocking Elizabeth Warren for her unsubstantiated claims of minority status has been a staple of the Talk-Right ever since. This helps explain President Trump's cringe-inducing non sequitur about "Pochantas" during a ceremony honoring Navajo "Code Talkers."  He knows there's an audience for it.

Trump's critics are wrong to claim Trump was being racist by dropping the "P" word. Rude? Insulting to his guests? Totally inappropriate? Absolutely.

But "Faux-cahontas," "Lie-awatha," "Rides In Limos" and the other nicknames Warren's been given by the Right aren't slurs against Native Americans. They're attacks on Warren and her play at identity politics (her claim of Cherokee heritage remains unproven).

Is she a Native American?  There is literally no evidence of any kind to substantiate her claim. Native American genealogists like Twila Barnes say that they are confident Warren, who was born and raised in Oklahoma, has no Indian connections going back as far as the Andrew Jackson administration.  The senator herself has only offered hearsay evidence: she has recounted that her aunt said of Warren's father that he had "high cheekbones like all the Indians do." That's it.

And yet, when Harvard Law School found itself under fire for a lack of racial diversity, their spokesperson told the Harvard Crimson newspaper that "Professor of Law Elizabeth Warren is a Native American."

Where did Harvard get that idea? And how did Warren spend a decade on the American Association of Law School's list of "minority" professors?  

There is only one source for that information: Elizabeth Warren.

Warren defenders argue that it's all just a mistake -- mere "family lore." Her family told her she was Native American, and she believed it. What's the big deal?  And since there's also no proof her questionable claims got her a job as a "minority" candidate over another qualified applicant, we'll never know if Warren did anything wrong.

Except, in my opinion, we already do. Elizabeth Warren was wrong to ever claim to be a Cherokee in the first place. And I know—because I am one. Well, more than Warren is, anyway.

nancy-hill-u.jpg

Undated photo of Nancy Hill, Cherokee ancestor of Michael Graham.

Provided by Michael Graham

My grandfather, Ray Futrell, was born in Tulsa, OK. His grandmother, Nancy Hill, was a Cherokee Indian living in what was the Oklahoma territory. As a kid growing up in rural South Carolina, I would occasionally brag about my Cherokee heritage to my friends.

Later I attended college in Tulsa, and spent time with my cousins in rural Oklahoma. They lived in an area where being a Native American mattered, where the poverty still plaguing the Indian community was in evidence.  At a local community rodeo, I heard my first (and, I'm happy to report, last) racial slur directed at a Native American.

And here's what I learned: I am absolutely not an "Indian" in any meaningful sense. Whether I'm genetically 1/4th or 1/400th Cherokee doesn't matter.  I have never spent a single minute of my life living as an Indian in white-majority America. My family has never suffered a single slight, endured a single insult.  Even if I could claim native status via some technical loophole, it would be a lie.

And the same is true of Senator Warren.

So why did she make the claim in the first place? Warren said she only did so "to connect with other people like me" on campus, meaning actual Native Americans.  But because the AALS's directory didn't break down what minority group each professor fell into, this explanation never made any sense.

But what if it's true? What if Professor Warren had "connected" with, say, Bonnie HeavyRunner, founder of the Native American Studies program at the University of Montana? What would this suburban white woman from a middle-class background have had in common with Professor HeavyRunner, who grew up as one of 12 children on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation? Whose life was shaped by the challenges and issues that come with this experience?

This is the reason why the mockery of Sen. Warren has power: She has yet to own up to the fact that her claims of minority status were false and unfair, even if no true minority applicant ever lost a position because of them. If her motive wasn't to game the system, she could have owned up to the truth when the story first broke five years ago.

Instead, she tried to defend it with embarrassing claims about cheekbones, and now-debunked stories about parents forced to marry in secret over racial tensions, and plagiarized recipes for "crab with tomato mayonnaise dressing" in the family's "Pow Wow Chow" cookbook.

Yes, President Trump's "Pocahontas" comment was off-putting and out of place. But criticism of Sen. Warren's fake-identity politics is right on point.

  • Michael Graham

    CBSN contributor Michael Graham is a conservative columnist for the Boston Herald.