Warren's apology to American Indians was not just the right thing to do. It was smart politics

Warren's apology to American Indians was not just the right thing to do. It was smart politics
Election '20

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren took a hit this week from many Beltway pundits for returning to the controversy surrounding her claim to American Indian heritage and flat-out apologizing for mishandling her entire approach to the issue. Why, pundits asked, would she revisit the lowest point of her campaign as she steadily gains converts and climbs in the polls?

“I want to say this, like anyone who’s been honest with themselves, I know that I have made mistakes," Warren said Monday at a Native American presidential forum in Iowa, “I am sorry for harm that I have caused. I have listened and I have learned a lot, and I am grateful for the many conversations that we’ve had together.”

What Warren's critics misunderstand in the era of Trump—where any admission of wrongdoing is now viewed as weakness—is that Warren's apology came from a place of strength. When she initially rolled out DNA testing last fall showing she had Indian ancestry, she seemed to do so in response to the racial slurs Trump has hurled at Warren, repeatedly referring to her as "Pocahontas." But Warren's remarks this week seemed more of a heartfelt effort to be responsive to the concerns of Indigenous activists, not Trump's repugnant politics. Warren’s sentiments came across as honest, to the point, and were part of what appears to be a sincere attempt to make amends with a core part of the Democratic constituency.

Her remarks came in concert with a detailed 19-page legislative plan she introduced to address the ongoing policy concerns of tribal nations and Indigenous communities. Importantly, the plan wasn't simply the brainchild of political operatives but rather a collaborative effort with New Mexico Rep. Debra Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo citizen and one of the first two American Indian women sworn into Congress earlier this year. In other words, Warren formulated her approach to the issues with someone who has actually lived them. The undertaking built on her efforts to reach out to the National Congress of American Indians last fall, where her remarks to the group drew a standing ovation.

In the eyes of Beltway beholders, Warren's mea culpa this week "put a neon light around her biggest misstep." In my view, she made a genuine connection with a constituency whose support is critical to building a winning voting coalition. Her apology will not win over everyone in the Indigenous community. But if Warren manages to clinch the Democratic nomination, she will likely now have a roster of Indigenous surrogates who can help shore up her support on the left when Trump makes his inevitable play to divide Democrats against her. That's not weak, that's smart politics that also elevates the concerns of a people who have been routinely mistreated, lied to, and taken for granted in a land that was brutally stolen out from under them.

Warren has now committed herself to working to putting an end those injustices. It's a positive step for both her and for the activists who held her and her campaign to account. Forget the Washington pundits, they know nothing of the give and take of real grassroots activism at work and how it can ultimately benefit the whole.

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