Elizabeth Warren's Tribe, and Mine

Steve Chapman

6/3/2012 12:01:00 AM - Steve Chapman
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.

I have often wondered why I was accepted. People familiar with my high school GPA and SAT score have asked me the same thing, usually in a tone of exaggerated incredulity. I was not an academic whiz. Nor was I a star athlete or musical prodigy. I had no relatives who were alumni.

I naturally assumed the admissions officials had identified some intangible quality that would profoundly enrich the intellectual environment of Cambridge. Or that I had impressed them with the looks and charm that had been lost on my high school classmates, particularly the female ones. But maybe Harvard was just determined to boost its minority numbers and saw that I could help.

Why my ostensible American Indian heritage didn't count with the other schools I applied to, I can't say. Four of the other five rejected me -- including Dartmouth, whose website claims it was "founded in 1769 with a mission to educate Indian students."

Maybe the people running Dartmouth had secretly abandoned that mission. Maybe they had enough Native Americans already. Maybe they took me for a brazen fraud.

No one at Harvard had that reaction to me, or to Warren. She is sticking to her guns, saying in her Wednesday statement, "My Native American heritage is part of who I am, I'm proud of it and I have been open about it."

That sounds like the right approach. Maybe it's not too late for me to try it.