Addressing the National Congress of American Indians on Wednesday in a surprise speech, Ms Warren did not back down from her claims of Native American heritage. She told the audience of tribal leaders that her mother’s family had Cherokee blood, and that the issue had upset her fathers’ parents so much that the pair were forced to elope.
“They’re gone, but the love they shared, the struggles they endured, the family they built and the story they lived will always be a part of me,” she said. “And no one – not even the president of the United States – will ever take that part of me away.”
The Massachusetts senator has previously claimed to have Cherokee ancestry, but exhaustive reporting on the subject has found no evidence of such a tie. Mr Trump has seized on this discrepancy, referring to her multiple time as “Pocahontas” – including during an event honouring Native American war heroes.
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Ms Warren has previously said that her mother’s Cherokee roots were well known in her family growing up. Apparently based on this knowledge, the former law professor listed herself as a minority in an Association of American Law Schools directory from 1986 to 1995. Her former employer, Harvard Law School, even singled her out as an example of the school’s diversity in 1996.
Several members of the Native American community have accused Ms Warren of disrespecting their history and using her self-proclaimed minority status to get ahead. In her speech on Wednesday, the senator sympathised with these criticisms.
“I get why some people think there’s hay to be made here,” she said. “You won’t find my family members on any rolls, and I’m not enrolled in a tribe. And I want to make something clear: I respect that distinction. I understand that tribal membership is determined by tribes – and only by tribes.”
The Senator added that she had never used her family tree to “get a break or get ahead,” and denied ever using it to advance her career.
Ms Warren has not listed herself as Native American since joining the Senate in 2013. Her claims of Cherokee ancestry were a point of controversy in her 2012 campaign, and some Democrats fear it could cloud a possible run for president in 2020.
Towards the end of her speech, Ms Warren signalled how she might handle the issue in future campaigns
“For far too long, your story has been pushed aside, to be trotted out only in cartoons and commercials,” she told the audience. “Every time someone brings up my family’s story, I’m going to use it to lift up the story of your families and your communities.”