By Annie Linskey and Holly Bailey / The Washington Post
SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Sen. Elizabeth Warren opened her remarks at a Native American presidential forum with a more straightforward version of the apology she has offered in the past for identifying as a Native American for two decades while she was a law professor.
“I want to say this, like anyone who’s been honest with themselves, I know that I have made mistakes,” Warren said. “I am sorry for harm that 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.”
The remarks mark her latest effort to navigate what has been a politically fraught subject dating back to her first run for Senate in 2012. In that race, her Republican opponent criticized her for identifying as a Native American during her career as a law professor.
Warren said she did so because of family stories that she had Cherokee and Delaware ancestry, but critics accused her of lying to advance her prospects, even though there has been no evidence she benefited professionally.
Warren further angered many in the Native American community months before announcing her presidential bid by releasing a DNA test that she said proved she had a distant Native American ancestor. That upset leaders of tribal nations who set their own affiliation rules based on culture and proven heritage, not DNA.
In the past Warren has offered a more legalistic apology. “I am sorry for furthering confusion on tribal sovereignty and tribal citizenship and harm that resulted,” Warren said in a February interview with The Washington Post.
Warren used her appearance at the forum Monday to try to pivot toward policy — she recently released a lengthy proposal about how she would try to help close health, income and wealth disparities in Native American communities. The bulk of her appearance focused on parts of that plan, which would provide tribal leaders far more influence than they now have over federal policy that affects their land.
But the appearance also showed how Warren has been able to build relationships among native activists.
She was introduced by Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., one of the first two Native American women to be elected to Congress and a lawmaker who has worked with Warren on part of her proposal. Haaland called it the “boldest” plan yet to “address the promises that have been broken and the need in our communities.”
Haaland, who has endorsed Warren’s presidential campaign, briefly addressed the controversy over her heritage.
“Some media folks have asked me whether the president’s criticisms of her regarding her ancestral background will hamper her ability to convey a clear campaign message,” Haaland said. “I say that every time they asked about Elizabeth’s family instead of the issues of vital importance to Indian country, they feed the president’s racism.”
Aaron Payment, a tribal chairperson with the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said he and Warren had spoken about her ancestry on “a very personal level.”
“I urged you to tell your story, and I appreciate that you did,” Payment said. “And what I would say is, from here forward, because now we’re in a presidential election, that we take Michelle Obama’s advice and when, when he goes low, you go high.”
He called Warren “one of our heroes.”
O.J. Semans, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota and co-executive director of the voting rights group Four Directions, which hosted the multicandidate forum, said ahead of Warren’s appearance that he did not expect moderators to ask her about the controversy over her ancestry. He called the issue “trivial” compared with more pressing issues facing Native Americans, including health care and voter suppression.
“This forum is not meant to be a gotcha moment,” Semans said. “This is about Native American issues, not about a candidate’s history.”
Ahead of Warren’s appearance, Semans took the stage and urged the few hundred people in attendance to treat all the candidates who appeared with “respect.”