(CNN) — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren defended her claims of Native American heritage and responded to the nickname President Donald Trump uses to refer to her — “Pocahontas” — in a surprise appearance Wednesday at a National Congress of American Indians event.
Warren, a progressive favorite and potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, has long faced scrutiny for listing herself while teaching at Harvard Law School as having Native American roots. She grew up in Oklahoma and has maintained that her mother’s family has Native American ancestry.
“I get why some people think there’s hay to be made here. You won’t find my family members on any rolls, and I’m not enrolled in a tribe,” Warren said Wednesday, according to the prepared text of her remarks, which was first obtained by the Boston Globe.
“And I want to make something clear. I respect that distinction,” she said. “I understand that tribal membership is determined by tribes — and only by tribes. I never used my family tree to get a break or get ahead. I never used it to advance my career.”
Trump has repeatedly invoked the controversy by calling Warren “Pocahontas” — the Native American woman associated with the English colonial settlement of Jamestown, Virginia — in speeches and on Twitter.
Warren offered no apology and defended her claim of Native American roots as central to the story of her parents’ marriage.
“I want to make something else clear too: My parents were real people,” she said.
“By all accounts, my mother was a beauty. She was born in Eastern Oklahoma, on this exact day — Valentine’s Day — February 14, 1912. She grew up in the little town of Wetumka, the kind of girl who would sit for hours by herself, playing the piano and singing. My daddy fell head over heels in love with her.
“But 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 described her parents’ struggles surviving the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression — and her mother taking a minimum-wage job at Sears after her father suffered a heart attack and the family lost its station wagon.
“They’re gone, but the love they shared, the struggles they endured, the family they built, and the story they lived will always be a part of me. And no one — not even the President of the United States — will ever take that part of me away,” Warren said.
She also said she intends to turn “Pocahontas”-style attacks on her into opportunities to highlight the successes and struggles of Native Americans.
“I’m here today to make a promise: Every time someone brings up my family’s story, I’m going to use it to lift up the story of your families and your communities,” she said.
After her speech, Warren tweeted: “I’ve noticed that when my name comes up, @realDonaldTrump likes to talk about Pocahontas. So I figured, let’s talk about Pocahontas. Not the tale that’s been twisted for centuries — but the real Pocahontas, and her story of heroism. And bravery. And pain.”
She described the imprisonment of Pocahontas, saying as a teenager she was “abducted, imprisoned, and held captive. Oral history of the Mattaponi tribe indicates that she was ripped away from her first husband and child and raped in captivity” before being married to a husband who “paraded her around London to entertain the British and prop up financial investments in the Virginia Company. She never made it home.”
“Indigenous people have been telling the story of Pocahontas — the real Pocahontas — for four centuries. A story of heroism. And bravery. And pain,” Warren said. “And, for almost as long, her story has been taken away by powerful people who twisted it to serve their own purposes.”
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