The difference between him and Warren is he has a direct-line ancestor clearly documented as a Cherokee whom he can name. So far, Warren has only been able to point to family lore.
Asked if Warren were claiming that O.C. Sarah Smith or any other ancestor was Cherokee or if the campaign or Warren had reached out to a genealogist to research Warren's background, Warren spokesperson Alethea Harney said she'd have to look into it, then declined to answer the questions in a follow-up e-mail exchange.
None of this is to say that a Cherokee citizen couldn't look like Warren. Though it confounds many people's expectations, the Cherokee Nation considers being Cherokee as much an ethnicity as anything racial, and given the tribe's centuries-long history of intermarriage, many Cherokee citizens today do not look stereotypically Native American. As well, "there are a lot of folks who are legitimately Cherokee who are not eligible for citizenship," said Krehbiel-Burton, because, for example, their ancestors lived in distant states or territories when the rolls were drawn up, or because they are direct descendants of people left off the rolls for other reasons.
Fractional Native American ancestry is quite hard to prove to the standards of the U.S. government, which in many ways acts as the ultimate "birther" in this regard. Percentage of ancestry or "blood quantum" -- the creepy and antique-sounding term used by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which certifies it for two of the three Cherokee tribes -- is recognized by the bureau based on original documents (such as birth certificates, census records, and death certificates) through something called a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood, or CDIB.
Warren would need to be certified by the bureau as at least 1/16 Eastern Cherokee on a CDIB to be eligible to join the Eastern Cherokee. The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee has an even stricter enrollment cutoff: "a minimum blood quantum requirement of one quarter (1/4) degree Keetoowah Cherokee blood" documented via a CDIB plus a direct descent from someone on the Dawes Rolls. Tribal citizenship standards are set by the tribes themselves, and not the U.S. government.
Warren has never attempted to join a tribe and had no documentation of her Native ancestry claim before the controversy broke, Harney told William A. Jacobson, a Cornell Law School professor, in late April. Instead, Warren has cited the sayings of her Aunt Bea, who was given to complaining that Warren's maternal grandfather who "had high cheekbones like all of the Indians do" had not passed them on to her.
To be sure, the absence of readily located evidence of Native ancestry outside the oral tradition does not mean that Warren has no Native American ancestry. Genealogy is a complicated field, where firm answers are hard to come by quickly. Proof of distant Native American ancestry could yet surface, were Warren to hire a genealogist to do a thorough dive into her own background while she works on riding out the political storm.
But a lack of Native ancestry despite the family stories she's heard all her life would also be consistent with one of the most common genealogical myths in the United States.
"Many more Americans believe they have Native ancestry than actually do (we always suspected this, but can now confirm it through genetic testing)," said Smolenyak in an e-mail. "In fact, in terms of widespread ancestral myths, this is one of the top two (the other being those who think their names were changed at Ellis Island). And someone who hails from Oklahoma would be even more prone to accept a tale of Native heritage than most."
She added, "There's also a tendency to accept what our relatives (especially our elders) tell us."
As for Warren, "I can't confirm or refute Cherokee heritage without extensive research," Smolenyak said. "All I can say is that Ms. Warren's scenario is a wildly common one -- minus the public scrutiny, of course."
Should the genealogists be unable to find supporting documents, Warren could also quietly pursue familial DNA testing, which might confirm Native American ancestry, even if records of individual ancestors or their specific tribal affiliations have been lost to the mists of time. Her onetime Harvard University colleague Henry Louis Gates Jr. has promoted such efforts as part of helping African-Americans learn more about their mixed ancestry, hosting a series of shows on PBS featuring famous figures tracking down their forebears using genetics and genealogy. (He has also pointed out that many African-Americans erroneously believe they have Native American ancestors, especially Cherokee ones, making it "the biggest myth in African-American genealogy.") DNA ancestry tests are not dispositive, and even a positive result would not be useful for tribal affiliation or CDIB purposes. But it would silence Warren's critics, and -- more important -- it would help her learn whether what she had spent her life thinking she knew about herself and her family was true.