Donald Trump thinks of himself as the comedian-in-chief reprising Elizabeth Warren as the butt of his pointed political satire. To her consternation, he draws chuckles if not guffaws calling the Massachusetts senator “Pocahontas,” the celebrated squaw of early American history, needling her for inventing Cherokee ancestors just to claim a diversification slot on the Harvard faculty. “Fake ancestry,” he might call it.
Now a real Indian, one from India, has stepped up to steal his comic thunder in Massachusetts, where such wit may count for real votes.
“Only a real Indian can defeat a fake Indian,” says Shiva Ayyadurai, a Bombay-born biological scientist with four academic degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who says he’s plotting to run against her next year as an independent. The Republican field looks to be too crowded.
The senator said she claimed Cherokee heritage because her Aunt Bea told her back in Oklahoma that her pawpaw had high cheekbones “like every Indian.” Mr. Ayyadurai, whose cheekbones are not particularly high, sent her a DNA testing kit for her birthday. She sent it back without a thank-you note. The exchange exploded on social media, as such exchanges do these days, but Mr. Ayyadurai insists he’s in earnest in running against her, scorning her from the left for her identity sensitivities.
“What do you know about the journey of a person of color,” he mocks the senator in an account in The Washington Times. “You know nothing about the journey of a person of color. This is all theory to you. Because you did lie. You took advantage of affirmative action.”
It’s not clear that Elizabeth Warren’s claim to being a Cherokee helped her become a tenured professor, but it smoothed the image of Harvard Law School, which had been criticized for its lack of diversity until it listed her in their faculty directory under “self-identified minority.” Her “self-identity” is raising fresh scrutiny today after President Trump repeated his Pocahontas needling in a ceremony in the Oval Office honoring Navaho code talkers from World War II. The president’s calling her Pocahontas might have been in suspect taste, but it was anything but “a racial slur,” as she called it. Claiming American Indian ancestry is a source of racial pride, and if there was a slur it was the senator’s.
What apparently offends certain Native Americans (or Indians) is not necessarily “ethnic fraud,” but her stereotyping with her high-cheekbone remark (though high cheekbones are often envied in the white world, like blue eyes or red hair). Nevertheless, it’s the kind of stuff Irving Berlin made fun of in the lyrics of the popular 1946 Broadway musical “Annie Get Your Gun.” Annie tried to endear herself by singing to Chief Sitting Bull of the Sioux tribe, who has just adopted her: “Just like Rising Moon, Falling Pants, Runny Nose Like the Seminole, Navaho, Kickapoo like Battle Axe, Hatchet Face, Eagle Nose, I’m an Indian too, A Sioux, A Sioux.”
Tastes change. The song was a great success when it was first performed on Broadway, but decades later certain descriptions were cut, or the number was scrapped altogether, because the lyrics were thought to be insulting to some of those who now call themselves Native Americans.
While few can doubt that Elizabeth Warren identified herself as Cherokee only to polish her bona fides in an age when white ancestry doesn’t count for much, she invites ridicule from left and right. That’s a bad sign for a challenged senator with presidential aspirations. But if she waits long enough tastes might change again.
Last week, she was laughed at on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” hosted by Trevor Noah, a South African man (black mother, white father), whose audience plays big with the 18 to 49 demographic. Mocking her for the crabmeat recipe submitted to the 1984 Cherokee cookbook, “Pow Wow Chow,” Mr. Noah says, “I have no African blood and yet I wrote the book “Snacks for Blacks.” The senator was accused of swiping her crabmeat recipe from The New York Times, and a traditional Cherokee crabmeat recipe seems a stretch, since her native Oklahoma is hundreds of miles from the sea.
David French questions her ethnic scholarship in National Review as “progressive fraud,” and when he discovered her claim to be the first “nursing mother” to take the New Jersey bar exam, he speculated that she might want to claim to be “the Jackie Robinson of lactating lawyers.”
Making sure that his lampooning of Elizabeth Warren gains traction, Shiva Ayyadurai says he’s giving himself a DNA dance party in Cambridge, Mass., to celebrate his birthday and hopes the senator will be there. No doubt he hopes she will bring a present of not only her crabmeat recipe but her DNA test results, too. Who says politics have to be mean and dull?
• Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.
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