Thursday, October 25, 2012

Twila Barnes Interview

I had the opportunity to interview Twila Barnes, a Cherokee genealogist who has become the 'eye of the storm' in the Massachusetts Senate race.

Harvard University professor Elizabeth Warren is the Democratic nominee from Oklahoma who claims she is part Cherokee which has cause a firestorm (I say not enough of one) because it appears she used her purported minority status to gain employment at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania.

Ms. Barnes has painstakingly researched Ms. Warren's ancestry back 188 years and has been unable to produce any evidence that any members of Warren's ancestry are Cherokee.

I have plenty of material in this blog that has covered this controversy:

For those of you who are first time readers of this blog, I am a Massachusetts resident and a Senator Scott Brown supporter. I fully support Ms. Barnes and her fellow contributor's efforts to expose Warren. I hope this helps to defeat her in November and re elect Senator Scott Brown who deserves to be reelected on his merits alone. 

However, the larger issue in play here is the treatment of Native Americans by not only the federal government, but also by the general public at large, or mainstream America. The issues Native Americans face have been neglected for far too long and it's time for America to wake up, recognize and address Native America and Native Americans. 

We like to think of ourselves as a nation of inclusion and tolerance. Truth of the matter is that we have made great strides, witness the fact that a man of African American descent is currently President of The United States. However, the ancestors of the indigenous cultures that were settled here long before our European ancestors continue to suffer indignities, outright bigotry and racism. 

This can no longer be tolerated.

This interview is about Native Americans and what they face day to day and why when someone like Elizabeth Warren makes claims to have Native American ancestry without proof has serious repercussions.

Ms. Barnes was gracious enough to go back and forth for a couple of days answering the questions I sent her.

Here is the interview in its entirety:

Medicine For The Dead: Apart from the controversy surrounding Elizabeth Warren’s claim to be Cherokee, what do you feel are the most important issues Native Americans face today?

Twila Barnes: Poverty due to lack of jobs in areas where large groups of American Indians tend to live; violence against Native women where the rates are extremely high when compared to other racial classifications; suicide, especially among male Native teens (this is epidemic in some areas); and health care because for many, it isn't IF you get diabetes, but WHEN you get it.

MFTD: Let’s breakdown these issues; Starting with poverty due to lack of jobs. Understanding that many Native Americans live on reservations that are government sanctioned, what is being offered as far as education and training? In your opinion, is separation (being on reservations) an issue or is separation necessary because of prejudice?

TB: I can't speak for other nations since I focus on my own, but in Cherokee Nation, they have casinos and such that people could work at, but a lot are so rural and poor, they don't have transportation to get to the locations where the casinos are. And contrary to common belief, not all Indians get per cap checks. For Cherokees, only the Eastern band pays per caps. The other two federally recognized tribes keep the money to be used "in common" or basically for the good of the tribe as a whole. 

The separation isn't what I would say is necessary, but instead, by choice. It isn't based on economics as much as it is based on the desire to live on the land where our ancestors have lived for a long time and to remain in the community of others from our Indian nations. Removing from where our ancestors were, or our tribal lands, in order to survive, IMHO, falls into the area of assimilation which has been detrimental to our tribal customs, traditions and languages. Though for Cherokees, there are good educational opportunities, there is, many times, no job to have with that education unless one decides to leave the Cherokee Nation and many don't want to do that.

MFTD: Can you explain what a ‘per cap check’ is?

TB: Per cap = per capita The Eastern Band of Cherokees pays each individual in their tribe a part of the casino profits this way. It just means each person in the tribe gets a distribution of the income, I believe.

MFTD: The issues of separation and assimilation creates a quandary within themselves for sure. Aside from casino revenues which we've seen go through ups and downs locally here in Connecticut, what would you say are the challenges for Native Americans to balance separation and assimilation while trying to maintain and preserve traditions and heritage?

TB: I don't think there is a balance. If one leaves, they are giving up something and it is usually the cultural and traditional things. For Cherokees, there are some, but very few, satellite communities/groups established by the Cherokee Nation. At large Cherokees (those who live outside the Cherokee Nation boundaries/service area) can join them to stay in touch and to meet other at large Cherokees. But, these groups aren't everywhere. I think for many, no matter what their reason for leaving, or their parents leaving, the desire to "go home" is always there.

MFTD: That may speak to the larger issue that I’d like to focus on later, namely prejudice Native Americans face outside the confines of tribal lands. Let’s go back to one of the earlier points you raised, what can you say about violence against NA women? What do you feel are the root causes?

TB: I imagine the violence against Native women comes in along with the other factors that cause stress in a home, like lack of money to pay bills, alcoholism, depression. I think people overlook the fact it takes many generations to overcome oppression and that generational trauma of things that happened in the past doesn't just go away with the passing of the generation that experienced it. 

I have a friend who is very knowledgeable in the subject of violence against Native women from Canada. She might be better to answer the question, but I know often times, if a Native woman in the northern US or Canada goes missing, the authorities rarely spend time looking for them. I think that is based in prejudice. 

MFTD: Then this is a great time to touch on the main issue, oppression. Let’s start with the historical perspective. What did you learn growing up about the history of your ancestors and what they faced?

TB: Wow. How much time do you have? lol Oppression isn't really historical to me. I feel it everyday, considering I am the first generation of my family born into a non-Cherokee speaking household. The reason for that? My mother was sent away to Indian school and lost most of her Cherokee language there. And of all the things my mother has lost, the loss of her language seems to be the one that bothers her the most.

As for the other part of oppression, I don't even remember learning it or hearing about it for the first time because it has always been there. As a young child, even before I went to school, my mom told me about the Trail of Tears and the suffering. She doesn't remember hearing about it for the first time either, just that she did. I have always heard about the poverty that was widespread in the Cherokee Nation in the 1920s through the 1950s. Many had no choice but to send their children to Indian schools because it was either that or allow their children to starve. I'm sure it was a difficult choice for parents and I know the children did the best they could. My mother said when her parents came to visit, she and her sisters promised each other when their parents left, no matter how sad they were, they would not cry because they knew if they did, it would make their parents cry and they didn't want to make their parents sad.

But that poverty forced families into assimilation. They made a choice to give up the traditions of their ancestors to keep those children alive. It was a matter of survival. And it was during those times many families stopped teaching their children to speak Cherokee. Parents didn't want their children to be whipped or punished while at schools so if the child didn't know the language, they couldn't speak it and therefore get punished.

And, no matter what Elizabeth Warren says about never asking for documentation, i.e. "what child does", it is something we learn about, to a degree, from the time we are very very young. I know I was young, maybe about 4 or 5, and my mother telling me it was important that I always remembered Grandma Nancy's name, that I had to remember Nancy Fisher, because she was on the roll, and that we should always go through her. I heard it over and over as a young child after that. "Remember Grandma Nancy's name....Nancy Fisher. She is on the roll." I had no idea what roll or even what being on the roll meant and I didn't even know who Grandma Nancy was (she died before I was born) but just that it was important and I needed to remember it, so I did.

Later I learned the roll was the Dawes Roll and that I had 9 other ancestors on it as well, but as a child, I was still taught about that roll and the importance, even though I didn't understand all the specifics like I do now. Indian children are taught about things like rolls because it is something we have to know. The reason EW wasn't taught that or given "documentation" of sorts, is because she wasn't Indian.

MFTD: Very powerful. And your point about parents teaching young children about ancestry well before they are old enough to completely understand is well taken. My grandparents were from Sicily and my great grandfather lived with them and us in the same house and he spoke no English. They also made sure we understood about our ancestry. Do you feel there is currently a movement to restore those traditions and the language at least among the Cherokee?

TB: You get it because you have experienced something similar. It sounds like your family has held on to that heritage that helps you have a sense of your own identity. 

There is a movement to restore what has been lost, but we didn't lose it overnight and we won't get it back overnight. It will take a lot more effort, I'm afraid. They have the immersion school to help revitalize the language, but more effort is needed. Our elders are passing faster than we can learn and if we don't do something to preserve their knowledge, it is going to be lost forever.

MFTD: That’s true and I could see how difficult it would be if say, my family wanted to preserve all the old customs and teach us all to speak Italian and assimilate into the culture. The big difference is that even if you grew up in an ethnic neighborhood, preserving Native American traditions and language is markedly different from preserving a European culture in another country. How would you begin to address these issues? Where do you start?

TB: We would have to start with the language. We can't lose that. One thing about our language is there are a lot of fakes learning it now so it is easier to fool people into believing they are authentic when they aren't. Just a few generations ago, one could speak Cherokee to another as a "test", of sorts, to see if one was really Cherokee. Not anymore. Most Cherokees don't speak Cherokee, but there are some fakes who do. Today the only way to tell a real Cherokee from a fake one is the documentation.

MFTD: The issue of fakes and new agers passing themselves off as ‘experts’ in Native American spiritualism and healing has come under recent scrutiny.  How are these pretenders and so-called ‘wannabes’ affecting the perceptions of mainstream America with regard to real Native Americans? Are they doing more harm than good?

TB: Any time a person pretends to be something they aren't, I think they do more harm than good. It doesn't matter if they are a fake military hero or a fake Holocaust survivor or a fake Indian. Their appropriating the experiences of other people is wrong. And it is a way of trying to revise history. That is unacceptable. 

Not so long ago, the man that had the sweat lodge killed people by pretending he knew what he was doing. I don't think he said he was an Indian, but he still tried to use something from Indian culture and killed people. I think it is important the public understand these fakes and pretenders are all over the place and they can be dangerous and harmful.

MFTD: This brings us around to the inevitable question about Elizabeth Warren. You’ve been quoted many times as saying that her claims are harmful to Cherokees. Can you please elaborate on how Warren’s claims are harmful?

TB: This is a really emotional topic for me because it is so sad. Before I went on the trip to Boston, a friend of mine who is Cherokee but grew up in South Dakota on a reservation there, said he has heard of three native youth from there who had committed suicide that week. People take their own lives when they feel there is no hope left. These were young people, our future, and they saw no hope. It is hard to tell them things are changing when white women like Elizabeth Warren get slots at Harvard intended for minorities or real people of color and a lot of people don't even care. I think that is one of the most serious ways what she did or is doing causes harm, but there are others. 

There are only 3 federally recognized Cherokee tribes in the US, but there are over 200 fake tribes trying to pass themselves off as legitimate. People just like Elizabeth Warren who have no proof at all, think they have the right to claim whatever they want, so when they can't join a real tribe, they find other individuals like themselves and form fake tribes that sometimes get state recognized (even though in the Constitution it says Indian tribes are to be dealt with by the US federal government.) and then compete with real tribes for federal money intended for real Indians.

There is a video I can send you a link to that goes into this in more detail.

The "Lost Cherokees" from Arkansas ran a scam where they charged parents something like $60 a head to "enroll" their children in the "tribe" and then these parents changed the race of the children on school records and the schools were helped to apply for grants for Indian children, with the Lost Cherokees getting 5% of the grant money. This all got discovered and was a big deal, but it shows one thing these tribes do. Later, there was a dispute and one leader, Dub Maxwell*, and his wife left that group and started another one, the Ozark Cherokee. They actually tried the scam again! Didn't work the second time. But, I did the genealogy of Dub's wife, Janice, and showed she isn't Cherokee but just an ancestor stealer. She saw my research and STILL claims to be Cherokee and is down there in southern Missouri trying to run more scams.

MFTDWe (meaning mainstream Americans) are barely aware of these issues and that’s why I wanted to go down this road with these questions. I think it is really important to expose why this is so dangerous. While some think that being trendy, hip or they are being spiritual they do not understand the repercussions they may cause by their actions. Understanding that the political aspect of this campaign may well be working against you, do you feel that by taking the stance you have by exposing Elizabeth Warren’s claims this will help to educate mainstream America?

TB: We hope it will. It is hard for us because we are not political therefore, don't have all the funds backing us that Warren and Brown have. Everything we do is done by scraping the barrel to get funds. It doesn't help that the Cherokee Nation just disbanded its task force that used to work in these things. 

Too many people see us as Brown operatives when that isn't true. We don't know either candidate. If he were claiming to be Cherokee, we would be the same way toward him. The reason we wanted to meet with him was because, as a current senator, he now has insight into this issue, and we wanted to explain the things I mentioned above about fake tribes, etc...We hoped to go into more detail with him about these issues the general public is not aware of in the hope, eventually we can get federal laws changed to tighten up the federal definition of Indian. He is just one man and would not be able to do that alone, but just making him aware of these things would go a long way toward our end goal, we believe.

MFTD:  I think these are the first steps toward creating that awareness. And I believe that if Senator Brown is reelected, he will look closely at these issues and hopefully help to make some changes for the better. We're getting close to the end (I promise!!) What did you learn from your trip to Boston earlier this summer?

TB: I thing we all learned that the people of Boston are not as cold and unfeeling as we were made to believe by the remarks of Warren and the Governor. There were people who recognized us from the news reports and they voiced their support. People will claim we are being "paid." But people were very kind and they do care about this issue. I think the more liberal media is making a mistake by not reporting it fairly because they are making it look like a "coverup" and the American public is not stupid. They see it. They know all we want is the truth and not to be represented by someone who is not really one of us. They also seem to believe that EW benefited from her claims and think that is wrong.

MFTD:  Let’s take a look at pop culture, I’m a huge fan of westerns, what would you say are accurate and inaccurate portrayals of Native Americans in movies and TV?

TB: Oh wow! Most are inaccurate. I think the most accurate portrayals are done when Native filmmakers make movies about Natives. One of the best things I have seen done on this subject is the documentary, "Reel Injun". It is on Netflix. I recommend it for further exploration on this. 
Reel Injun Trailer

MFTD:  If you wrote a book or movie about 1800’s America, what would it be about?

TB: If I wrote a book, it wouldn't be about America, per se, but instead, about my own family, ancestors, and the Cherokees who were part of their communities. There are so many stories about them that are waiting to be told.

MFTD: Based on what I've read on your blog, Thoughts From Polly's Granddaughter, I'm sure it would be a great book! 

MFTD: Final question: Now that the election is close, what would you like to say to the voters of Massachusetts?

TB: Good question! I would tell them I have faith in them because they have a history of electing people who stand up for Cherokee rights and sovereignty. Daniel Webster, former Representative and Senator from MA, gave an passionate speech in support of the Cherokee Nation and their right to remain in their homeland. Edward Everett, former Representative, Senator, Governor and Secretary of State from MA, spoke out strongly against the Indian Removal act that eventually led to the Trail of Tears.
The people of MA also sent two memorial letters to Congress, one from the people of the state of MA and one from the city of Boston, in an effort to stand up for Cherokee rights and keep them from having to remove on the Trail of Tears.
In the past, when it has come to doing the right thing by the Cherokees, the people of MA always have. I believe they will do it again.

MFTD:  Well, let's hope the voters of Massachusetts do the right thing in 2012 and send Warren packing. Thank you for your time and effort. Many of us up here in Mass appreciate all the work you've put in.

* Dub Maxwell's claim for Lost Cherokee of Arkansas being certified was denied by the State Of Arkansas December 21, 2005

Final Thoughts

I would like to point out that Mrs. Barnes has put up with a lot of harassment and threats due to her efforts with this issue. She has stood strong and steadfast throughout all the noise and clamor because she knows her work is true and will fight to keep Cherokee and Native American identity pure. 

Native Americans are the lost people here in America. We all know the history of "how the West was won" and the price that was paid by Native Americans, yet not too many people give much thought to how and what Native Americans face today. As you can see by Mrs. Barnes answers, we have a long way to go to deal with these issues.

Electing Elizabeth Warren will do nothing but further damage any progress.

Elizabeth Warren stealing their identity is criminal and should not be tolerated by any American citizen.


Shrinking Native American Lands from 1784 to 1895

Cherokees Demand Truth From Elizabeth Warren

Federally Recognized Cherokee Tribes 

CDC Native Diabetes Wellness Program

NY Times: For Native American Women, Scourge of Rape, Rare Justice

Suicide Among American Indians/Alaska Natives

Native American Heritage

American Indians By The Numbers

Wikipedia: Reservation Poverty

The Dawes Act of 1887

USA Today: Author Found Guilty In Sweat Lodge Deaths

What is a real Indian Nation? What is a fake tribe?


“I listed myself in the directory in the hopes that it might mean that I would be invited to a luncheon, a group, something that might happen with people who are like I am,” “Nothing like that ever happened, that was clearly not the use for it, and so I stopped checking it off.” - Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren refused to meet with Native Americans, the ones whose identity she stole to advance her career. She even refused to meet with another group at this year's Democratic National Convention.

Please, think before you vote.

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