WASHINGTON (CNN) – Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has quietly waged a months-long, behind-the-scenes effort to put “Pocahontas” in the past.
President Donald Trump has used the slur since the 2016 presidential campaign to skewer her claims — passed down through family stories, Warren says — of Cherokee and Delaware ancestry.
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 diffuse 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.
Her outreach to Native American organizations and tribal leaders has continued in the months since that speech — largely unreported and outside the public eye.
Since March, Warren has met 16 times with Native American groups and tribal leaders, at times bringing up the issue in those meetings. Warren also attended Cherokee Day in Washington and toured Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma.
Warren has also signed onto 13 bills directly affecting Native American tribes in the last year and in April introduced a bill that would provide $800 million annually to tribal governments as part of a 10-year, $100-billion package to fight the opioid epidemic.
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.
Warren has also addressed Native American issues in recent speeches.
In a late February floor speech about health care challenges facing Native Americans, Warren lambasted Trump for waiting until mid-February to nominate a commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans. She pointed to delays in making appointments in the Justice and Labor departments in posts that affect Native Americans, as well.
“These vacancies hit native communities hard, and they represent one more broken promise to native people,” she said.
Warren also attended the Native American Indian Housing Council’s annual legislative conference on Capitol Hill in early March.
In a speech there, she said block grants to fund at least 68,000 new housing units are needed on tribal land and complained that Trump had raised doubts about funding for Native American housing block grants.
“The government should recognize that building safe, decent housing for Native people is a way to provide economic opportunity and stability, a way to provide self-determination, a way to provide hope,” she said.
On April 30, Warren and her husband toured Choctaw Nation, an 11,000 square mile territory within Oklahoma’s boundaries with nearly 200,000 citizens.
She toured a regional medical clinic, where she hosted a roundtable discussion on the opioid epidemic with staff from the Choctaw Nation and other tribes. She also visited a wellness center and read to children at a child development center.
“Members of Congress don’t often take the time to travel to Indian Country and we were happy that she did,” said Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton. “Our staff had a great visit with her and we believe we left a lasting impression of the good things we are doing here.”