I Read Elizabeth Warren’s Speech to the NCAI So You Don’t Have To

And it wasn’t half bad.  Sure, she oversimplified the Pocahontas story considerably, and in ways that would give historians of the Powhatans and early Virginia pause, but she raised some critical points.  “Indigenous people have been telling the story of Pocahontas–the real Pocahontas–for four centuries. A story of heroism. And bravery. And pain,” Warren said.   And, she added correctly, “for almost as long, her story has been taken away by powerful people who twisted it to serve their own purposes.”

The Clown Prince of Mar-a-Lago, of course, has been referring to Warren as Pocahontas every time he speaks of her, an attempt to debunk Senator Warren’s claims to Native American ancestry.  And Warren addressed those claims directly. She did not back down.  She was unapologetic.

“I get why some people think there’s hay to be made here. 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. I never used my family tree to get a break or get ahead. I never used it to advance my career.

But I want to make something else clear too: My parents were real people.”

It was good that Warren drew that distinction, and it was good that she stuck to her guns.  Senator Warren told the audience her parents’ story.

My parents struggled. They sacrificed. They paid off medical debts for years. My daddy ended up as a janitor. They fought and they drank, but more than anything, they hung together. 63 years — that’s how long they were married. When my mother died, a part of my daddy slipped away too.

Two years later, I held his hand while cancer took him. The last thing he said was, “It’s time for me to be with your mother.” And he smiled.

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. And no one — not even the president of the United States — will ever take that part of me away.

In many ways, it was a beautifully written speech.

Our stories are deeply woven into the fabric of who we are. The stories of immigrants and slaves, of explorers and refugees, have shaped and reshaped our country right up to the present day. For far too long, your story has been pushed aside, to be trotted out only in cartoons and commercials.

So I’m here today to make a promise: 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.

Your story is about contributions. The contributions you make to a country that took so much and keeps asking for more, contributions like serving in the military at rates higher than any other group in America.

It is a story about hope. The hope you create as more Native people go to college, go to graduate school and grow local economies.

It is a story about resilience. The resilience you show as you reclaim your history and your traditions.

And it is a story about pride and the determination of people who refuse to let their languages fade away and their cultures die.

I honor that story.

But it was not the only story.  Warren wanted to talk about obligations, and morality, and the “story of our country’s mistreatment of your communities.” This was, for Warren, more than “a story about casual racism–war whoops and tomahawk chops and insulting Facebook memes.”  It was, rather,

a story about greed. For generations — Congress after Congress, president after president — the government robbed you of your land, suppressed your languages, put your children in boarding schools and gave your babies away for adoption. It has stolen your resources and, for many tribal governments, taken away the opportunity to grow and prosper for the good of your people.

Even today, politicians in Washington want to let their Big Oil buddies pad their profits by encroaching on your land and fouling your rivers and streams. Meanwhile, even as the economic future of your communities hangs in the balance, they want to cut nutrition assistance, cut Medicaid, and cut other programs that many Native families rely on to survive.

It’s a story about violence. It is deeply offensive that this president keeps a portrait of Andrew Jackson hanging in the Oval Office, honoring a man who did his best to wipe out Native people. But the kind of violence President Jackson and his allies perpetrated isn’t just an ugly chapter in a history book. Violence remains part of life today. The majority of violent crimes experienced by Native Americans are perpetrated by non-Natives, and more than half — half — of Native women have experienced sexual violence.

This must stop. And I promise I will fight to help write a different story.

Warren, sounding like a Senator fully informed on issues of concern to native communities and, perhaps, a presidential candidate hoping to secure Native American votes in an existentially important election next time around, spoke of the obligations of the United States government to help native nations “build stronger communities and a brighter future–starting with a more prosperous economic future on tribal lands.”  Where the Trump administration, and especially Secretary of Interior Ryan “Kill and Drill” Zinke can speak only of mineral extraction and bringing in outside corporate development, Warren spoke in essence about economic sovereignty.


Banking and credit are the lifeblood of economic development, but it’s about 12 miles on average from the center of tribal reservations to the nearest bank branch. Meanwhile, Native business owners get less start-up funding than other business owners.

And when it comes to crucial infrastructure, Native communities are far behind the rest of the country. Rural broadband access on tribal lands is worse than anywhere else in America, and more than a third of those living on tribal lands don’t have high-speed broadband at all. Without it, Native communities are simply shut out of a 21st century economy.

It’s time to make real investments in Indian country to build opportunity for generations to come.

And that’s only part of the real change we can make.

• We can stop giant corporations from stealing your resources.

• We can expand federally protected land that is important to your tribes.

• We can protect historic monuments like Bears Ears from companies that see it as just another place to drill.

• We can take steps to stop violence against Native people – including passing Savanna’s Act to fight the plague of missing Native women and girls.

Most of all, we can fight to empower tribal governments and Native communities so you can take your rightful seat at the table when it comes to determining your own future.

And we can fight to make sure that all Americans who have been left out in our economy, left out in our democracy, and left out in our history can take their rightful seat at that table.

Warren’s speech, I suspect, accomplished much of what it was intended to do.  Some of her supporters have been uncomfortable about her claims to Native American ancestry. Like them, I wanted Warren to address the controversy directly, and to not allow Our Bronze Creon to define her as an ethnic fraud.  Warren likely answered her critics in Democratic circles.  As for the Racists and the Dingbats and the Deplorables, they will never let the issue rest,  but Warren showed that more than any of the potential Democratic nominees in 2020, she understands the issues afflicting Native American communities, and that she is publicly committed to confronting directly the most racist presidential administration in the last fifty years.


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