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Who is Native American?

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"Today Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to by me as Pocahontas, joined the race for President. Will she run as our first Native American presidential candidate, or has she decided that after 32 years, this is not playing so well anymore? See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!"

In this February 9 tweet, US President Donald Trump is referring to not only Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren's enduring claims of Native American identity, and the pushback she received from various native communities, but also one of the most infamous and traumatic events in Cherokee history, the Trail of Tears - the forced relocation of Native Americans in the 19th century that caused thousands of deaths.

Trump's tweet sparked much debate over whether it is ever acceptable for a US president to use a racial slur or a genocide reference to attract attention to a political opponent's alleged past indiscretions. However, the public discussions largely left out the very real complexities of Native American identity and history unexplored. The truth is, many Native American nations have struggled to define belonging for decades.

The controversy about Warren's claims to Native American identity first surfaced in the public domain during her 2012 Senate campaign, when her opponent accused her of having lied about her heritage to gain an advantage in her academic career.

Consequently, an investigation by the Boston Herald revealed that Harvard Law School listed her as Native American in its federal affirmative action forms from 1995 to 2004. Further inquiries demonstrated that she also claimed Native American ancestry while working at the University of Pennsylvania in 1989 and identified herself as "American Indian" on a Texas bar registration card in 1986.

In response to accusations that she fraudulently assumed a minority identity for professional gain, Warren maintained that she based all her claims to "family stories" passed down over generations, and that she never furthered her career by using her heritage to gain an advantage. An expansive Boston Globe investigation in September 2018 appeared to confirm that Warren did not profit from the claims she made about her ancestry. However, the expose failed to stop President Trump and other Republicans from continuing to accuse the senator of lying about her heritage.

The storm over Warren's ancestry claim only deepened when she sought to neutralise the attacks by releasing a DNA analysis in October 2018, which said that she had a Native American ancestor "six - 10 generations ago". The Cherokee Nation blasted Warren for the test, which they said was a false claim to tribal membership, leading the........

© Al Jazeera