The humid days of late summer have always been a difficult time of year for me. The purple August sunsets have acquired a valedictory undertone in the decade since my grandmother’s death, but even before that, the annual transitional confusion and temporal dislocations made for a heady and disorienting brew of endings and beginnings. The merry excess of the season reaches its climax, and the succeeding diminuendo often relies on torrid, bone-dry heat and damp, clammy farewells for dramatic effect.
It was in anticipation of this inevitable interlude that I received word of my great-uncle’s passing several weeks ago, so although I was deeply saddened by the news, I was not altogether surprised.
It is an unappreciated reality that people have the most impact on the lives of others by their absence, and it would be hard to overstate the implications of the Kiowas’ most recent loss. As the oldest living man among his people, Matthew Whitehorse acted as a custodian of tradition both literally and metaphorically, safekeeping the physical grails of the O-ho-Mah Lodge as well as the cultural tenets of its credo. The texture of any life is a predicate of the social landscape in which it is lived, and Uncle Mac acquitted himself flawlessly for six decades as the leader of the only Kiowa warrior society to continuously observe its ceremonial gatherings in defiance of federal United States edicts designed to effect Indian assimilation. Appropriately enough, some degree of dissonance arose over the question of proper burial practices in the days after his death, a succinct and breathtakingly apt articulation of modernization’s synonymy with metaphysical diaspora.
For countless millennial Natives, many of the prescripts of their respective communities are the customs of another country. To be sure, the anthropological erosion is far from complete, and the celebration of tribal tongues and rituals ensures the preservation of indigenous histories for epochs to come. However, it is not unreasonable to wonder if such ways will eventually become, pragmatically speaking, obsolete. After all, the vaults of the past are lousy with dead languages and ruined cities.
So, when prominent public luminaries like Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic nominee for Senate from Massachusetts, popularize a problematic interpretation of racial legacy as an abstract constructs assumed at will, they hasten a Native cultural corrosion originally instigated by formal early twentieth-century American government policies of acculturation. Although Professor Warren has issued few public statements on the subject of her claims to Cherokee heritage other than to promote the validity of superficial racial profiling and improvise a dubious yarn about the circumstances of her parents’ marriage, she continues to simultaneously maximize and minimize the significance of her hypothetical roots. In June, she declared that she would be the “first Senator from Massachusetts with a Native background,” but then subsequently refused to meet with four Cherokee women who had traveled to Boston to request an audience with her and alleged, absent any evidence, that they were financially motivated right-wing operatives enlisted to derail her candidacy. All the while, she has declined to engage with the Native media apparatus, but has consented to interviews with the Boston Globe and Time, in which she derided the concerns of her Indian critics as “non-substantive.” In Warren’s model of ethnic distinction, neither practical experience nor community affiliation applies; one can simply appropriate the mantle of Cherokee lineage at personal discretion. Per this formulation, the disparities between discrete cultures are meaningless, and Professor Warren is effectively championing a subtle variety of spiritual genocide.
A November victory for this pathological revisionist will legitimize abjectly appalling notions about indigenous identity. Considering how reluctant the Professor has been on the campaign trail to engage with the minority to whom she contends she is so “proud” to belong, it is unlikely that she will prioritize an advocacy for legislation related to its concerns in the Senate. However, Warren’s conduct does not occur in a vacuum, and the alarming ideas she has disseminated will reverberate in the public consciousness long after Election Day for Natives irrespective of whether or not they reside in Massachusetts.
If you disagree with Professor Warren’s assault on the Indian landscape, please consider recording a brief statement on your mobile phone or laptop for the Natives United Against Warren campaign and submitting your message (warrendoesnotrepresentme@gmail) via e-mail. The professor’s actions demand a vigorous and unmitigated response lest her destructive and assimilatory species of racist ruse—an increasingly grotesque variant of intellectual blackface—prevails.
Educated at Dartmouth College and Columbia University, Cole DeLaune is a native of Oklahoma and Tennessee. He currently resides in Atlanta, and has contributed editorial content to Vogue and Elle, among other publications. He is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma.