One of the greatest controversies surrounding Elizabeth Warren was her claim to be Native American, specifically Cherokee.
The controversy was sparked in late April 2012, when the Boston Herald revealed that in the late 1990s Harvard Law School had promoted Warren as a Native American faculty member. The public was unaware that Warren claimed to be Cherokee. When confronted by reporters, Warren claimed not to know why Harvard was promoting her as Native American.
Over the ensuing weeks, information was uncovered by a law professor that starting in the mid-1980s, when she was at U. Penn. Law School, Warren had put herself on the “Minority Law Teacher” list in the faculty directory of the Association of American Law Schools but dropped from that list when she gained tenure at Harvard. When confronted with this information, Warren admitted she had filled out forms listing herself as Native American, claiming she wanted to meet other Native Americans. That explanation was irrational because the faculty directory only listed her as “minority,” not as “Native American,” so putting herself on that list was not a way to meet other Native Americans.
Later, reporters uncovered that Warren had represented herself to both U. Penn and Harvard for federal reporting purposes as Native American. Warren, however, did not meet the two part test under Harvard and EEOC definitions of Native American, a definition which likely was on the page when she checked the box. Warren has refused to release these records.
Detailed genealogical investigation by Cherokees showed that Warren had no Cherokee or other Native American ancestry. Initial claims by a genealogist in Boston that Warren was 1/32nd Cherokee were withdrawn as lacking evidence. Her own nephew, when documenting family genealogy, called claims of Native American ancestry a “rumor.”
Warren insisted during the campaign that believed that she was Cherokee based on family lore, but that family lore (including the famous elopement story) was substantially debunked. Warren’s family always self-identified as white, and her great grandfather even made the local newspapers for shooting an Indian.
Warren’s false claim to be Cherokee, and her comical explanations, such as that her ancestors had “high cheekbones” and a plagiarized entry in the Pow Wow Chow cookbook, have become a large part of Warren’s political persona, and is the subject of widespread mockery.
There was a time when Wikipedia, the source to which so many people refer for basic information, contained a detailed explanation of the controversy under its own subheading, and there was an effort made to document the story.
For example, as of June 16, 2012, Warren’s Wikipedia page contained a subheading and detailed explanation (click image to enlarge):
During Warren’s 2012 senatorial campaign, on April 26, 2012 the Boston Herald reported that in 1996, Harvard Law School had “touted” Warren as Native American based on her claim of that ancestry soon after she was hired. The Boston Globe noted other media reports by Harvard in 1997 and 1998; the Crimson in 1998 said, “Harvard Law School currently has only one tenured minority woman, Gottlieb Professor of Law Elizabeth Warren, who is Native American.” The law school was responding to critics at the time who said it had not hired sufficient numbers of women and minorities.
To that point in the campaign, Warren had seldom, if ever, mentioned her ancestry. Three days later, the Herald reported that Warren had identified as a minority from 1986 to 1995 in a directory of law professors. It was often used as a resource by recruiters to make diversity-friendly hires. The Brown campaign, the Native American Rights Fund, and others have questioned her motives and the propriety of her claiming minority status, which was intended under diversity programs to help historically “disadvantaged” populations. A Cherokee group, made up of fewer than 175 members, protested her trying to gain advantage under affirmative action programs, and said that only the Cherokee Nation could determine tribal membership.
The Globe noted on May 25 that “both Harvard’s guidelines and federal regulations for the statistics lay out a specific definition of Native American that Warren does not meet.” Harvard’s guideline is twofold; it says that a Native Americans is “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of North America and who maintains cultural identification through tribal affiliation or community recognition.” By the end of May, Warren had not documented her ancestry. She is not a member of a tribe and the “current executive director of Harvard’s Native American program has said she has no memory of Warren participating in any of its activities.”
On April 30, the genealogist Christopher Child at the New England Historic Genealogical Society said he had found that everyone in Warren’s family, through her great-grandparents’ generation, has been listed or classified as white in records. He has noted that documenting Native American ancestry can be difficult. Warren said that she had heard family stories about her Cherokee ancestors her entire life. She said she had identified as a minority in the law directory listing (of the 1980s and 1990s) for chances to to meet people of similar tribal background. (The reporter Hillary Chabot noted the directory does not identify the specific minorities.) Warren said she eventually “stopped checking it off”.
Warren said her family talked of links through her maternal grandparents’ lines to the Cherokee and Delaware peoples in Oklahoma. On April 27, the Warren campaign said she had never authorized HLS to claim her as a minority hire. On May 4, Harvard refused to confirm whether Warren was the one Native American minority claimed in its 2011 diversity report, which notes it is based on self-reporting. No gender was indicated.
On May 12, the Boston Globe reported that, in providing federal diversity data statistics, the Harvard Law School (HLS) had reported employing a Native American woman professor in 1992-93, when Warren was a visiting professor; and for at least six consecutive years beginning 1995-96, after Warren had returned as a tenured professor. The diversity census notes: “Race/Ethnicity designations are from self-report data.” The same day, the AP reported that in 1994, the University of Pennsylvania listed Warren as a minority (she was still working there). She had not identified as such earlier in her career, neither when applying to Rutgers Law School nor when teaching at the University of Texas.
On May 25, Alan Ray, the former Harvard Law School administrator responsible for its diversity statistics during the period examined, confirmed that the data came from self-reporting by faculty; he said that Harvard “always accepted whatever identification a faculty member wanted to provide”. (Ray is an enrolled member of the Cherokee nation.)
On May 31, Warren acknowledged for the first time that she had told people at Penn and Harvard that she was Cherokee, but denied that “there was [any] reporting for this”. She said she had learned of Harvard’s diversity census after reading about it in the Boston Herald.
In a campaign appearance in early June, Warren repeated that she had not received any preferential treatment due to her claimed minority status. “I never received any benefit from it. Every single person who has been involved in hiring me has issued a statement to that effect.” In campaign appearances in early June 2012 posted on YouTube, Elizabeth Warren said that, if elected by Massachusetts voters, “I would be their first Senator, so far as I know, who has Native American heritage.” 
Yet as indicated just below the sub-heading on the historical Wikipedia page above, someone has been objecting to such a detailed explanation. Those efforts resulted in a truncated version of the subsection by early September, after which point – on or about September 13 – the subsection was removed and the explanation buried in a few sentences in the 2012 Election section.
The net result of this effort is that there no longer is a Cherokee Controversy subsection, and the entire discussion of Elizabeth Warren’s claim to be Cherokee are three sentences meant to present Warren in the most favorable light possible:
In April 2012, the Boston Herald reported that in the 1990s, Harvard Law School had, in response to criticisms about the lack of faculty diversity, publicized Warren’s law directory entries from 1986 to 1995, which listed her as having Native American ancestry. Warren said she identified herself as a minority in the law directory listing (of the 1980s and 1990s) in hopes of being invited to events to meet people of similar background. Harvard Law professor Charles Fried, who had served as Solicitor General in the Reagan administration  and had sat on the appointing committee that recommended Warren for hire in 1995, said that her heritage was never mentioned and played no role in the appointments process.
The current entry not only is woefully incomplete, it is misleading.
Harvard promoted Warren as Native American because Warren represented herself on federal filing forms to be Native American; the law directory only revealed that she was a “Minority Law Teacher.” Warren’s explanation of why she listed herself that way in the law directory makes no sense, as indicated at the top of this post. Charles Fried’s statement referenced, while accurate in isolation, ignores the fact that Warren and Harvard refuse to release her hiring file, which would be the best evidence of who knew what when. Also, just about everyone else at Harvard seemed to know that she was claiming to be Native American, including the Harvard Women’s Law Journal which in 1993, while Warren was a Visiting Professor, listed her as a Woman of Color in Legal Academia.
The current Wikipedia page has been cleansed of Warren’s most embarrassing ethnic history, a history which is a fundamental part of the political controversy surrounding her.
We will continue to investigate these changes, including attempting to ascertain who it was that engaged in this ethnic cleansing. If there are readers who are savvy in the ways of Wikipedia, we welcome your assistance.