Sen. Elizabeth Warren put “Pocahontas” in the past, a slur that President Donald Trump used on her.
Warren delivered her most forceful rebuttal yet during a speech at the National Congress of American Indians in February. The speech opened a new chapter of Warren leaning into her heritage — a move that could help her defuse a political landmine ahead of a potential 2020 presidential run by building goodwill with Native American leaders who could validate her claims and vouch for her advocacy on issues important to their communities.
And her digital team finally solved a two-year-old, Trump-inspired problem: Pocahontas.com no longer goes directly to her campaign homepage.
The “Pocahontas” political controversy is a subplot of a larger issue: Whether Warren materially benefited during her career as a law professor from claiming minority status. For years she has insisted she did not.
Warren’s claims about her ancestry first emerged as a controversy during her first run for office in the 2012 Senate race against Republican Scott Brown.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, as Warren hammered Trump while stumping for Hillary Clinton, Trump shot back with the nickname “Pocahontas.” Trump has kept it up from the White House, even using the slur during a November 2017 event honoring Native American veterans.
Warren consulted with Native American figures about how to respond to Trump before beginning her quiet outreach effort, largely consisting of meetings in her Washington office.
The day before her February speech, Warren met with Melanie Benjamin, the tribal chairwoman of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Indians in Minnesota.
Benjamin said Warren was seeking advice on how to address her ancestry — stories she’d been told about the Native American heritage of her mother’s side of the family while growing up in Oklahoma — when speaking with tribes.
“She did bring up that whole issue about that (Pocahontas) label, and my advice to her — and I used an example — is that in Indian country, we are very community-oriented,” she said. “We are those types of people where we will embrace you as part of our community and then we will recognize you as our community from there on.”
“If you are told from Day One that you are that tribal person and that tribal home, that’s who you are. And that’s the simplest way to explain that,” Benjamin said.
“That’s what I told her. If you respect Indian country, we respect you,” she said. “Go out and do the job, and it’ll be better for all of us.”
Warren ultimately sounded those themes in her speech.
“My mother’s family was part Native American. And my daddy’s parents were bitterly opposed to their relationship. So, in 1932, when Mother was 19 and Daddy had just turned 20, they eloped,” Warren said then.
Warren has also consulted leading Native American figures in Democratic politics.
“Addressing those issues that she hadn’t addressed before has really allowed her to be in a position of speaking more freely and being even more committed to those values,” said Rion Ramirez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee’s Native American Council. “She herself would say it was long overdue. It was something that needed to be addressed.”
Ramirez said he has spoken with Warren multiple times about issues facing Native American country. He said he isn’t sure of her future political plans but said her “heart’s in the right place” and praised her opioid bill.
“She’s long been in a position of being stuck in a corner,” he said, “where she wanted to do stuff but was apprehensive to do it, and now feels unchained.”
Without addressing Warren’s claims about her ancestry, Native American leaders have largely praised her handling of the “Pocahontas” moniker in recent months, saying they are glad to have an advocate, no matter the political implications for Warren.
“The timing is definitely suspicious, there’s no question about that,” said Gyasi Ross, a Blackfeet Nation activist and author.
“At this point, there is a level of skepticism about the intent. But, you know, man — it’s appealing, and if she were to run for president, maybe this might be a good relationship.”
Asked by CNN about her outreach to Native American leaders and organizations, Warren’s office listed the dates of her meetings but declined to comment any further.
In addition to the meetings, in March, Warren’s digital team solved a problem that had lingered since at least June of 2016: The anonymous owner of the website Pocahontas.com had, since Trump began using the nickname, redirected visitors to Warren’s campaign homepage.
In the weeks following her speech at the National Congress of American Indians, Warren’s camp began to automatically send all traffic that came from Pocahontas.com to a new landing page. It features a video of her February speech and urges the anonymous owner of Pocahontas.com to “point their website to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center instead.” The website goes on to detail the captivity and sexual violence the young Native American woman known for her association with the Jamestown colonial settlement faced.