Elizabeth Warren's Other Cherokee Scandal: Her Fight Against Tribal Sovereignty
Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 presidential aspirations may have ended before they began this week thanks to her team’s bizarre decision to proudly broadcast the results of a DNA test that shows she may have had a relative 10 generations removed that was of indigenous American heritage. As Senator Warren was once promoted as “Harvard Law School's...first woman of color,” the results seem to only confirm that she misrepresented her ancestry in her past career as a law professor.
Not only has the decision been met with a blistering condemnation from the Cherokee Nation, but it has once again made her the butt of President Trump’s jokes.
Lost in the laughing at Warren’s expense however, is a larger issue exists over how American politicians continue to treat tribal sovereignty.
After all, if Warren had used her position as senator to serve as an advocate for the Cherokee Nation’s right to self-determination, her history of misrepresenting her genetic connection to the tribe would perhaps be more excusable. Say what you will about Rachel Dolezal, she at least cared enough to be an advocate for the African American community. Instead, Warren’s political record is one that has regularly promoted the continued imperial rule of Washington on land that is tribal in name only.
Though never officially serving as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Warren has been widely credited as being the guiding force behind the creation of the agency. The CFPB was created as part of the Obama Administration’s response to the financial crisis, a powerful financial regulator that lacks the traditional checks of other executive agencies. Under the lead of former director Richard Cordray, the CFPB went to work becoming a heavy handed regulator in its fight against "unfair, deceptive and abusive” practices.
Soon, various tribal financial services businesses found themselves in the cross hairs of the enthusiastic CFPB. The result is that the agency has been described by Dr. Gavin Clarkson, a tribal finance expert, as “the most hostile federal agency towards Indian tribes since Indian Affairs was in the War Department.”
One example is a variety of short-term lending operations that various tribes started up to try to capitalize on the growth of e-commerce. In theory, tribal sovereignty should have given these ventures a competitive advantage over other US lenders who had to deal with the Washington red tape. Unfortunately Obama’s Justice Department decided these operations represented a “national security risk” and worked with the CFPB to shut them down as part of Operation Choke Point – in spite of pleas from tribal advocates that doing so would be economically devastating.
While it would be unfair to blame Elizabeth Warren for any and all actions taken by the CFPB and DOJ, she served as a primary defender of Operation Choke Point when legislative pressure mounted to end it.
Similarly, she has been the chief voice in the Senate attacking the pay day lending industry, which became a point of particular emphasis under the Cordray CFPB. This has put the Warren-Cordray camp into ongoing legal conflict with various tribes over whether federal financial regulation should apply to tribal land, leading the CFPB to sue various tribal lenders.
While the Supreme Court refused to take up the case, which could have provided a legal precedent in favor of tribal sovereignty, the suit was eventually dropped earlier this year after Mick Mulvaney took over as the CFPB’s acting head. Warren wrote a letter to Mulvaney criticizing the decision.
Warren’s indifference to the cause of tribal sovereignty appeared again this year with a vote on the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act.
The issue here was whether tribal-owned businesses should be forced to follow federal labor laws on collective bargaining. The issue has been a major one for a number of American tribes, upset that tribal governments are subjected to labor laws that state and federal governments are exempt from.
As Jefferson Keel, the President of the National Congress of American Indians, wrote in The Hill:
Sovereignty means tribes should be allowed to make their own decisions about their own workforce policies. The truth is that many tribal nations openly welcome labor unions into the businesses that they own; others choose not to. And a growing number have designed and enforce their own labor regulations. But the NLRB ignores all of this and, instead, forces tribal governments to adhere to the NLRA. Just us. No one else. This is a plain violation of our inherent rights as sovereign nations and governments.
Unfortunately Senator Warren’s loyalty lay with labor unions over tribal sovereignty, and she joined with 41 other Senators to successfully kill a vote on the bill.
While Warren has made it easy to laugh at about “fauxocahontas” and 1/1024th memes, her political contempt for tribal self-sovereignty is what should make her false claims to Cherokee heritage truly insulting.
Elizabeth Warren and her fellow progressives believe Native Americans are better off following her rules, rather than granting tribes the political self-determination to make such decisions for themselves. It’s a form of ideological imperialism, driven by their own belief in their moral superiority and the belief on “the right side of history.” The progressive person's burden is to use to the power of the state to impose social justice, regulate “fairness” in the market, and impose egalitarian social norms.
This is precisely why it’s important for those who recognize the dangers of federal overreach and political centralization should take the issue of tribal sovereignty so seriously. The goal for a more civil and free society should not be the aim of some grand universal political order, but a respect for political self-determination. To that end, a respect for tribal rights is just as important as any other fight in favor of political decentralization.