Steve Chapman
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I can really empathize with Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Massachusetts Senate candidate who may owe her connection with Harvard to the school's belief that she was Native American. I don't say this because I'm a particularly empathetic person. I say it because I may owe my connection with Harvard to the school's belief that I was Native American.

It seems that the school started claiming it had a Native American on the law faculty when Warren arrived as a visiting professor in 1992 and kept doing so once she got a tenured job.

The claim strikes some people as odd, since she doesn't look Indian, doesn't have an Indian name, didn't grow up on a reservation and is not a registered member of any tribe. But Warren says it has long been a part of family lore.

_She had said she was not aware the university was identifying her as a minority, but after weeks of unflattering publicity, she issued a statement Wednesday acknowledging she had told Harvard officials she had Cherokee roots. She also says -- and school officials confirm -- that her purported ethnic makeup played no role in her hiring, even though Harvard was under pressure to boost its minority numbers.

I can only say I have good reason to prefer Warren's version. Back in 1971, in my senior year of high school, I took the SAT. When the results came, they included my score along with name, birth date, home address and the like. There was also a line for ethnicity -- and mine was "American Indian."

This came as a surprise to me, a green-eyed Presbyterian suburbanite with an English name. Now, it's true that, like Warren, my relatives have been known to say there was a Cherokee way back on our family tree, but it's one of those things that no one has ever bothered to verify for fear that it might be untrue.

I got a laugh out of my racial classification but figured it was a harmless clerical error. I didn't know how I could get the SAT folks to correct the mistake, which didn't seem worth the trouble anyway. I went ahead with my college applications, and the following April, I found myself unexpectedly admitted to the Harvard class of 1976.

Unlike Warren, I never told anyone at Harvard about my great-uncle Runs Screaming from the Room. After applying, I had to undergo an interview with a local alum, who didn't ask me if I was Indian. I may have figured the answer was obvious and that the admissions folks were smart enough -- I mean, this is Harvard, right? -- to realize I wasn't.

And truth is, I didn't really want to go there. I applied only because my sister pestered me to. Not until the day the letter arrived did it cross my mind that the admissions people would actually let me in.

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Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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