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Who Gets to Say If Warren’s Apology to Cherokee Nation Is Enough?

Critics of the Massachusetts senator's DNA gaffe remain unsatisfied with her response—and the establishment media has no idea how to handle it.

Stephen Maturen/Getty

On Tuesday, Politico published two pieces about Senator Elizabeth Warren’s tumultuous DNA test. One featured Native voices and served as an interesting insight into the still-ongoing criticism of Warren’s controversial decision; the other was a tired piece that dredged up establishment GOP and Democratic strategists to contemplate all the kinds of Beltway questions that people of their ilk will forever be paid gobs of money to answer. Setting the latter aside, the piece on Warren’s Native detractors did well in that it placed the Cherokee voices—namely, those of podcaster and writer Rebecca Nagle and Stony Brook University Assistant Professor Joseph Pierce—front and center, and allowed them to make their case for why the book cannot yet be closed on the senator’s DNA test.

And yet, in the execution of the piece itself and the reaction to it among progressives, there exists a reminder that the national media was never prepared to handle a story on this subject at this magnitude.

Full disclosure, I am among those who have criticized Warren, initially for believing the DNA test was in any way a good idea, and later for her subsequent responses and apologies. I have also openly praised her recent plan for Indian Country as groundbreaking. For me, it has not been difficult to admit that Warren is among the best available options for Indian Country and also simultaneously believe she still has some making up to do. And that is why, ten months after her test was dropped, it feels frustrating that the media and political commentators continually fail to cut through the shopworn “wisdom” and call the situation for what it is: a mess.

Reality is such that Warren can’t come out and call her grandparents liars and profess the fact that she’s white and knows she always has been, both because that would be harmful to her campaignwhich has gained a tremendous amount of steam over the past six monthsand because nobody, politician or not, is going to publicly, posthumously, call out their grandparents. If anything, falsely claiming Native ancestry simply makes her more relatable to the hordes of white people who continue to do so, as made clear by a February report in The New York Times. But, to her critics’ point, all her apologies thus far have felt either overly calculated or forced upon her, to a degree that undermines the genuine nature she typically exudes.

For instance, her vague apology—Warren did not explicitly reference the DNA test—at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum was preceded by an introduction by Representative Deb Haaland, one of the first Native women to be elected to Congress and an avid Warren supporter. Haaland’s speech notably included an admonishment of any who would dare continue focusing on the test, and the ensuing hour Warren spent among the panelists did not include a single question about it. She was one of four candidates to receive a standing ovation, much of it owed to her plan for Indian Country (referenced above), which she rolled out two days before the event.

When I spoke about the DNA test with O.J. Semans, the co-director of Four Directions, one of the groups behind the forum, he offered two succinct, common-sense responses—responses I felt best encapsulated the forum’s approach to the matter. “Why wouldn’t you believe your mother, your father, your grandparents, your great grandparents if they told you you had Native ancestry?” Semans asked. “Everyone wants to be an Indian if you don’t have to be an Indian.”

The forum was a safe space, and not one where serious inquiries on Warren’s past actions were going to be posed. But where they have been asked, the responses have not inspired confidence.

In May, during an appearance on The Breakfast Club, Warren was stiff when the radio show’s hosts broached the subject, trying to pivot to African American issues multiple times before host Charlamagne tha God finally squeezed in a reference to Rachel Dolezal, a sound-bite that would dominate headlines and overshadow Warren’s prior, stale responses. Her first public apology, in February, came only after The Washington Post uncovered her 1986 registration card for the Texas bar, on which Warren had identified as “American Indian.” A month before that revelation, Warren’s admission at a Sioux City, Iowa campaign event in that she was “not a citizen of a tribe” was brought on by someone in the crowd pointedly asking her why she decided to take the test. And last December, she declined to apologize for her actions when pressed by The New York Times, responding only, “I put it out there. It’s on the Internet for anybody to see. People can make of it what they will. I’m going to continue fighting on the issues that brought me to Washington.”

Save for the Times interview and the Iowa stump speech, all of these instances featured apologies. Warren said the words, or some variation of, “I’m sorry, I messed up.” For those with a vested interest in seeing Warren succeed in her push for the White House—including, especially, Native politicos—it is clearly enough to consider the test issue to be water under the bridge.

But does that mean it has to be enough for those outside of the political realm? And moreover, how much attention should the press continue to grant the DNA test as opposed to her Indian Country platform—or, for that matter, the ongoing issues facing Native populations? These should be easy answers: “No” to the first, because wooden political apologies should never appease anyone. And as for the second, the ideal response would be that mainstream outlets have the range to cover both the test and the expansive field that encompasses “Native issues” in a respectful and honest manner.

That is not the reality we live in. The American media is not adequately invested in covering Indian Country seriously, and the stories it produces make this plain, even if they are slowly improving. There is no major mainstream outlet with a tribal affairs desk, or anything close to a dedicated Indigenous beat reporter. For serious coverage by reporters in and of Native communities, readers have to look to Indian Country Today and High Country News, and similar topic-specific and regional shops.

Unlike the premise of the maligned HuffPost piece that dropped in January, which did everything in its power to minimize Cherokee Nation voices in favor of Native voices that fit its narrative, this failing is not one of the media creating outrage where there was none. A cruise through any one of the responses that poured out in the days following the test’s release proves as much. But now, nearly a year later, the media seems stuck in a holding pattern—outlets understand that a mention of Warren and any Native topic warrants at least an explanatory paragraph covering the DNA test, but when faced with covering the ongoing criticisms, outlets still appear unsure of where the case is and what it’s about. If you just read the first Politico piece, you’d think it was about tribal sovereignty and hollow apologies; if you read the latter, it concerns a political gaffe that must be smoothed out before the general election arrives.

Both are true, but that the coverage has to be split into two separate pieces is an excellent example of how the popular press continues to be ill-equipped to cover Indian Country. And the reason is simple: There exists absolutely no institutional knowledge of Native issues at any of the gate-keeping media outlets. While the features and magazine desks publish narrative takes on the latest Supreme Court case related to Native children or land rights, there is a lack of connective tissue. There are not nearly enough authentic, evolving source relationships being made with the on-the-ground community members who constitute the five million Natives living in the United States and the sovereign nations within it.

Due to this lack of Native representation in the newsroom, the DNA test story looks to many outlets like an easy lifeline, an opportunity for them to show that they’re in tune with Native issues. Reporters, no doubt on deadline, call up a couple of non-Native political strategists, search Twitter for Warren’s critics, interview them—or just summarize their tweets—crank out two stories, and sit patiently as they wait for another chance to plug the words “Pocahontas” and “Warren” and “DNA” into their SEO generators. Meanwhile, the critics remain as correct in their assessment as they were last October: Warren continues to climb the polls as the controversy drags on, and the media is as confused as ever about what to make of any of it.