The Media Did Not Make Up Native Anger Over Elizabeth Warren

I am still so very tired.

On Friday, HuffPost published a piece headlined “Mainstream Media Is Blowing Its Coverage Of Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Test.” I encourage you to read it in full.

The thesis of the piece, written by Jennifer Bendery, essentially boils down to this: The mainstream media failed to talk to some tribal chiefs and Native leaders when covering the fallout from Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s decision to take a DNA test, and thus failed to realize that the test, the six-minute video reveal, and the subsequent fallout over both are all overblown issues that people in Indian Country don’t really care about that much.

The mainstream media’s coverage of this controversy should obviously not be trusted at face value, and it’s good that HuffPost — a semi-mainstream outlet that undoubtedly stands above the rest of the field on covering Native issues — is taking a skeptical look at their choices. But the piece winds up feeling like little more than a half-baked statement dump rather than a nuanced exploration of the opinions held by Native people on Warren’s DNA test.

There are a myriad of structural and foundational cracks within the piece, but the central issue is this: In attempting to dictate to readers which Native voices actually matter, HuffPost willfully ignores scores of Native-written op-eds and outcries, instead opting to highlight a cadre of Native leaders whom the site categorizes as the definitive voice of Indian Country, rather than as the political actors they are.

The fifth paragraph makes this conclusion abundantly clear. The following comes after four paragraphs of selectively quoting from articles on the DNA test published in the Washington Post (emphasis mine):

Wow, this sounds bad! Let’s see what all these tribal chiefs and Native people are saying about Warren’s DNA test and why her decision to release it was so outrageous.

[Crickets]

The piece notes that Bendery and contributing reporter Daniel Marans spoke to a dozen “tribal chiefs, Native politicians, researchers and influencers” and that the consensus among these twelve individuals is that the outrage over Warren’s DNA test is “incredibly overblown.”

I will note here that HuffPost did not initially quote officials of the Cherokee Nation, the tribe Warren attempted to claim as the one belonging to her ancestors, but instead decided that quoting the principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee and the principal chief of Delaware’s Lenape Indian Tribe — both of whom say they don’t much care about the issue for what are very clearly political reasons — was good enough for an Official Indian Country Take.

The piece doubled down on this by attempting to discredit a critical statement made by Chuck Hoskin, Jr., the Cherokee Nation Secretary of State, that was widely quoted following the release of Warren’s video and DNA test. After initially being published with no comment from the Cherokee Nation, the article was later updated to include the following statement, undermining Bendery’s insistence that Hoskin was “speaking only for himself.”

“As any Secretary of State’s role is, he is our primary ambassador to other tribes, the state of Oklahoma and the federal government,” said Clinton.

One major facet the article fails to address is the truth that elected chiefs are political actors; they are leaders faced with the reality that only a half-dozen senators would ever return their calls. As Warren is one of those senators, they are (understandably!) not all that interested in burning their bridge to a presidential candidate. Not only that, but Bendery’s criticism that the comments by the Eastern Band and Lenape, along with supportive comments from new Rep. Deb Haaland, “haven’t gotten much play” is belied by the fact both were cited by the New York Times.

Screenshot: New York Times

Then there’s the decision of HuffPost to delve into the tired trope of Natives having bigger fish to fry, as though we aren’t capable of dealing with multiple issues at once:

George-Kanentiio said he recently attended the American Indian Justice Conference, which brings together tribal leaders, judges and lawyers to work on policies related to drug abuse, tribal security and tribal youths. Nobody talked about her DNA test at all, he said, because they were focused on tribes’ serious problems with domestic abuse, youth suicide, environmental contamination, loss of territory and horrifying levels of missing and murdered Native women.

The article’s constant reminder that there are more pressing issues than the DNA test that Native leaders are trying handle is meant to engender a sense of scale, to bring the reader back to earth and remind them that Warren’s fancy 23andMe reveal holds little weight on the daily life of Native people. And that is true — there is little consequence in the form of physical reactions that have come from Warren’s decision to take and release her DNA test.

But there’s a sinister ickiness afloat here, one that folks who have followed Native coverage by non-Native outlets will recognize almost instantly as a repeat from the ongoing issue over racist sports mascots. Using the issues of missing and murdered Indigenous women and high suicide rates as a cover, it attempts to convince the reader that something as flip as a DNA test reveal hardly registers on the radar of Native peoples.

Allow me to say something very obvious: The reality of the situation surrounding Warren’s DNA test is that there are plenty of justifiably pissed-off Natives and plenty of apathetic Natives and plenty of Natives who are keeping quiet for reasons of their own.

White people might find this hard to believe, but Indian Country is not a single mass. We are many. We are different. On hot topics, we have varied views, none of which outweigh another. And in the right hands, this piece could have been an interesting look at what happens when tribal politics overlay with national American politics. But that was never the interest of the HuffPost editors, at least not in this case, which brings me back to that fifth paragraph.

When Bendery uses the words “tribal chiefs and Native people,” it is plain that the publication was not interested in exploring the variety of views from all Native people. It offhandedly acknowledges that there is some very real anger out there about Warren, which it does by mentioning two Native-written op-eds, but its constant refrain is that that the mainstream media is ignoring an apathetic consensus in favor of manufactured rage. And the insistence on creating that consensus leads me to ask — am I not a Native person? Is Rebecca Nagle not Native? Is Dr. Adrienne Keene not? What about Graham Lee Brewer? How about Nick Estes? Or Simone Moya-Smith? Or anyone else on the literal syllabus crafted by three Native writers and activists meant to assist non-Native media outlets and curious individuals? Is our rage not real? Does it not count?

The answer to all of these questions is, obviously, no. Our voices, our rage, and our refusal to kowtow to the idea that only a handful of tribal leaders that speak to a publication speak for all of Indian Country, are widely published, and thus they cannot be erased.

But they can, as HuffPost proved, be ignored if they prove inconvenient.