Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is resolutely trying to put the controversy over her handling of Native American ancestry claims to rest. During an event in Sioux City, Iowa, on Monday, she offered up her latest apology on the subject, and followed it with an expansive discussion of policies aimed at Native American communities.
“I know I have made mistakes. … I am sorry for the harm I have caused. I have listened and I have learned a lot, and I am grateful for the many conversations that we’ve had together,” she said, stopping short of explicitly mentioning her widely panned use of a DNA test to prove her Native American ancestry. Just last week, she rolled out a comprehensive proposal addressing Native issues. The messaging suggests a major attempt to quiet blowback about the DNA test.
“It is a great honor to be able to partner with Indian Country, and that’s what I’ve tried to do as a senator, and that’s what I promise I will do as president of the United States of America,” Warren added as part of the Iowa forum, which was run by the voting rights group Four Directions.
She went on to focus on a wide-ranging plan she’s introduced that would target the dearth of federal funding that tribal nations have historically received. Her proposal would also enable tribes to enforce laws against non-tribal members and permanently establish a Cabinet-level position that focuses on Native American policies.
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The proposal serves as a direct response to a 2018 report by the United States Commission on Civil Rights, which found that the federal government had “backslid in its treatment of Native Americans,” and was continuing to underfund fundamental services tribal nations rely on, including health care.
“The federal government’s history with tribal nations is one of broken promises,” Warren said, echoing a dominant theme in her campaign. “It’s going to take big structural change [to fix].”
Warren’s Monday statements and her latest policy plan demonstrate just how focused she is on overcoming the prior stumble over her Native American ancestry. While a good deal of the backlash to her DNA test has been fueled by attacks from the president and others on the right, polling from Morning Consult has shown that her use of the test could affect her electoral chances with some independents.
If the 9,000-word policy announcement is any indication, it’s clear Warren wants to neutralize this vulnerability as she makes the case that she’s the candidate best equipped to defeat President Donald Trump.
Elizabeth Warren’s plan addressing tribal nations and indigenous peoples, briefly explained
Warren first introduced her plan to address Native American issues last week in a Medium post, and as Politico’s Alex Thompson noted, it’s more than double the length of any other proposal she’s put out.
The plan seeks to tackle an expansive set of policy areas including infrastructure, health care, and the environment. One of its foremost goals is to make sure the federal government allocates much-needed funding to tribal nations for everything from nutrition assistance to broadband internet.
“Congress regularly acts as though programs serving Indian Country can be left to the whims of yearly decision-making or cut to make up ground elsewhere in the budget,” the plan notes. “Funding these programs is not optional. It is required in order to fulfill the United States’ trust and treaty obligations.” This funding push is part of legislation Warren is introducing alongside Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), one of the first Native American women elected to Congress.
Warren would change the current funding setup by ensuring that money for Indian Country is either made part of the mandatory funding process, in the same way that programs like Social Security are, or treated as part of a multi-year funding package.
Additionally, she would make permanent a White House Council on Native American Affairs, which was first set up by former President Barack Obama, that has seen little action under Trump. The head of the Council would be a Cabinet-level position, helping elevate the concerns that tribal nations have.
Another subject that Warren’s plan tackles extensively is criminal justice and the ability for tribal nations to have jurisdiction over their own territories. Because of a Supreme Court ruling in the 1978 Oliphant v. Suquamish case, tribal governments have had limited criminal jurisdiction over the actions of “non-Natives on tribal lands.” Warren aims to change this by proposing a full “Oliphant fix,” so tribal leaders can fully prosecute crimes that take place. She also intends to set up a federal database and alert system to track the number of indigenous women who have gone missing, which exceeds 5,000.
Warren’s plan would also roll back the permits for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, both projects that have seen massive backlash among Native American communities for their destruction of the environment and the impact they could have on the quality of drinking water on tribal lands.
Other candidates that have unveiled policies dedicated to indigenous peoples’ issues include former US housing secretary Julián Castro and Sen. Bernie Sanders, although Warren’s plan is perceived as the most sweeping approach so far.
Her proposal hits several of the demands that Native American activists have had for some time, including the Oliphant reform, for example, but it doesn’t go further in challenging some of the systemic inequities that are in place, says Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marco.
“[It’s] fairly comprehensive as far as addressing indigenous native nations across a broad spectrum of bureaucratic concerns … but there’s nothing new about that,” she told Vox. “The structure of the relationship between the federal government and tribes is not being challenged by any of these people.”
Polling has found that Warren’s use of the DNA test hurt her favorability
Warren has some substantial reasons for trying to quash the controversy over her DNA test, which was viewed as an attempt to appropriate tribal membership and an effort that validated Trump’s attacks.
Since her announcement about the DNA test — and the criticism that followed — Warren has apologized repeatedly, including to a prominent leader of the Cherokee Nation, noting that the test does not reflect any membership in a tribe.
The saga has hurt her favorability among a small section of Democratic voters, according to May polling by Morning Consult, and could affect her electoral chances among certain independents. Her willingness to confront the issue head-on could help address these concerns, however.
Less than a fifth of Democrats said her decision negatively changed how they perceive her, and just 12 percent say they are less likely to back her in the primary as a result. Independent voters were a bit harsher: Thirty-four percent said it made them see her less favorably, and 20 percent said it would make them less likely to vote for her in the primary.
Trump has also said he plans to continue levying racist attacks about Warren’s heritage in a general election. “Like, Elizabeth Warren — I did the Pocahontas thing,” Trump said at an August rally in New Hampshire. “I hit her really hard, and it looked like she was down and out, but that was too long ago. I should’ve waited. But don’t worry, we will revive it.”
Attendees at the Iowa event lauded Warren’s overall handling of the fallout. “A person has to admit their mistakes and move on,” Manny Iron Hawk, a resident of the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation, told the Washington Post.
“She’s trying to humble herself, she gets credit for that,” says Gilio-Whitaker. “I’m willing to cut her some slack if she’s got a fighting chance when it comes to defeating Donald Trump.”