Elizabeth Warren Accused of Claiming to be Cherokee and Plagiarizing Recipes in ‘Pow Wow Chow’

On September 26 2019, a social media user tweeted out screenshots and text accusing Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) of claiming Cherokee heritage and plagiarizing recipes from the New York Times:

Robinson’s tweet included three screenshots, one ostensibly from the 1984 cookbook Pow Wow Chow and two from what appeared to be the pages of the New York Times. Robinson’s tweet proved popular, and was shared thousands of times. The claim was twofold, implying that Warren affected Native American heritage, and also that the Senator jad plagiarized one of five recipes submitted to a 1984 cookbook.

Although the tweet appeared in September 2019, a cursory search showed that claims about Warren purportedly plagiarizing recipes dated back to at least 2012, and possibly earlier. In May 2012, a post about the claim appeared on Reddit’s r/politics:

That Reddit post linked to a May 18 2012 Breitbart.com post, the headline of which matched the post title. It cited radio show host Howie Carr as a source for the claims, and relied heavily on weasel words to reiterate it:

The credibility of Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren took another hit today as Boston radio talk show host Howie Carr released evidence that appears to confirm Ms. Warren may have plagiarized at least three of the five recipes she submitted to the 1984 Pow Wow Chow cookbook edited by her cousin Candy Rowsey.

Two of the possibly plagiarized recipes, said in the Pow Wow Chow cookbook to have been passed down through generations of Oklahoma Native American members of the Cherokee tribe, are described in a NewYork Times News Service story as originating at Le Pavilion, a fabulously expensive French restaurant in Manhattan. The dishes were said to be particular favorites of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Cole Porter.

The two recipes, “Cold Omelets with Crab Meat” and “Crab with Tomato Mayonnaise Dressing,” appear in an article titled “Cold Omelets with Crab Meat,” written by Pierre Franey of the New York Times News Service that was published in the August 22, 1979 edition of the Virgin Islands Daily News, a copy of which can be seen here [linked].

Carr’s site was no longer active in September 2019, but an archived copy of Breitbart’s source was available here. Breitbart.com linked to an Imgur post that showed the purportedly plagiarized recipe. At the top was a date (August 22 1979) and a source (The Virgin Islands Daily News):

The tweet began by claiming that Warren “not only claimed to be Cherokee,” but also appeared “to have directly plagiarized the ‘Native American’ recipes from Pierre Franey of the New York Times.” The UK-based Daily Mail aggregated Breitbart.com’s claims in May 2012, but didn’t appear to add any additional information.

In its original iteration on Breitbart.com, the site didn’t question Warren’s heritage, but did zero in on the specific origins of the reportedly purloined recipe:

Mr. Franey does not suggest that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor enjoyed Cold Omelets with Crab Meat due to any claim on their behalf of Cherokee ancestry, though it is true that the Duchess was American born.

Breitbart.com also stated that the controversy caused a spike of interest in Pow Wow Chow, that curiosity “vaulting [it] from a lowly 1.2 million ranking book to number 11,289 early this morning [May 18 2012]” on Amazon. It also maintained the recipe in Pow Wow Chow was a “word-for-word” copy of Franey’s; there were indeed multiple similarities in phrasing, but some ingredients were omitted, others added, and the proportions were different:

Pow Wow Chow was not readily available for purchase and appeared to be out of print as of September 2019. Reviews were largely from people who had read articles about the controversy, not book reviewers. What little information about the book we could find suggested that it wasn’t marketed as “authentic Native American” recipes:

[A] collection of recipes from families of the Five Civilized Tribes. (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) Over a thousand recipes covering all kinds of food with sections on appetizer, soups, salads, bread, main courses (meats of every kind), vegetables, and desserts.

Claims about the cookbook and ensuing controversy resurfaced cyclically, in 2016 and again in 2018 when mentioned by Donald Trump, Jr. on Twitter:

However, the original Pow Wow Chow controversy appeared to be an offshoot of an ongoing related debate over Warren’s claimed Native American heritage in general.

On April 28 2012, the Boston Herald published an article regarding Warren’s ancestry and her campaign’s efforts to prove it:

Elizabeth Warren said [on April 27 2012] she is “proud” of her Native American heritage and indicated she had no problem with Harvard Law School using her roots to claim her as a diversity hire, but her campaign still could not produce documents proving her lineage.

“I am very proud of my Native American heritage, thank you,” said Warren when asked if she disapproved of the school counting her as a minority woman on the faculty. “These are my family stories … This is our lives and I am very proud of that.”

The Herald reported [on April 27 2012] that Harvard Law School officials listed Warren as Native American in the ’90s, when the school was under fierce fire for their faculty’s lack of diversity … Her campaign said [on April 27 2012 that] it is still working to produce documents proving that the 62-year-old Oklahoma native, whose maiden name is Herring, is a descendent of the Delaware and Cherokee tribes.

In a June 2012 New Yorker article about the larger, original controversy, Pow Wow Chow is referenced as an example of Warren’s long-held belief that she had Native heritage:

Faced with demands for genealogical proof, the Warren campaign has mainly responded that Warren has long understood herself to be Native American. She contributed to a 1984 cookbook called, “Pow Wow Chow: A Collection of Recipes From Families of the Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole.” (In it, Warren is identified as Cherokee.) The cookbook is out of print, but its Amazon page is now full of spurious reviews, like this one: “Seems that all the recipes by Lizzie Warren call for a bunch of baloney! Q: Why was Warren refused a room at the Marriott? A: She couldn’t prove she had a reservation.”

One month before, in May 2012, a BuzzFeed listicle centered on Warren’s “Native American Heritage Debacle” and “disputable 1/32 Cherokee heritage.” In December 2017, PolitiFact reported that Warren “might never live down the charge of falsely claiming Native American roots,” an article that opened with a suggestion that the Senator had willfully fabricated her ancestry:

That genealogical claim has zero documentary evidence to back it up, according to a PolitiFact review of news and newsletter databases back to 1986.

Those findings conflicted with a subsequent PolitiFact piece in October 2018. With an additional verdict of “experts say [Warren’s claim of Native American ancestry are] credible,” the fact-checking site reported:

“I have read the DNA test report closely, and think that the analysis described therein was conducted properly,” said Theodore Schurr at the University of Pennsylvania.

“These are among the most robust methods today,” said Deborah Bolnick at the University of Connecticut and past president of the American Association of Anthropological Genetics.

Bustamante found five DNA segments that he could say with 99 percent certainty were of Native American origin … According to [Theodore Schurr at the University of Pennsylvania], the most that can safely be said is that Warren’s test results “may reflect a genetic contribution from a tribe living in what is now the United States.”

The DNA test can’t prove every part of Warren’s family story, but the researchers we reached said it is consistent with her account.

To recap, it appears that in April 2012, Elizabeth Warren was accused of fabricating her ancestry; her campaign had cited her contribution to Pow Wow Chow, and in May 2012 attention turned to whether she authored the five recipes she submitted. One of the recipes was similar (but not identical) to an August 1979 recipe published by a wire service, and as of 2019 the claims were muddled on plagiarism as well as ancestry. In 2018, Warren released DNA test results analyzed by experts, who all appeared to be satisfied that her Native American heritage claims were supported by those results.

Claims that Sen. Elizabeth Warren plagiarized recipes for the 1984 book Pow Wow Chow were convoluted and old, stemming from a broader controversy over Warren’s purported claims of Native American ancestry in April and May 2012. Various iterations of the claim spread several times, spiking in 2016 and again in October 2018, with much of the original context lost in the repetition. In its initial form, the primary source indicated the allegations were unproven. As such, we rate the claim Decontextualized.