At the Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City that Warren attended, many students had been told stories about their Native American relatives just as Warren said she had. Garrick Bailey, professor of anthropology at the University of Tulsa, who attended school in Oklahoma City in the 1950s, estimates that as many as 50 percent of the students at Classen possibly had Native American blood, based on an informal census taken at his own school.
Bob Hammack was one of them. A member of the class of 1966 along with Warren, Hammack said he is one-16th Cherokee and his wife is one-16th Apache.
His Cherokee grandmother never enrolled, he said, “because she and others were afraid if they gave their name they would be shot.”
Now president of the Oklahoma City advertising agency New West Group, Hammack recalls that while Northwest Classen students studied Oklahoma’s Native American history, few in the class of nearly 1,000 students talked about their personal link to that history, including Warren.
“Indians were just not on the radar screen,” said Hammack. “At the time, it was not relevant, it was not important.” Today, Hammack’s business card sports a large profile of a red Indian chief. Being Indian, he adds, “is cool.”
Suzanne Pope, a friend of Warren’s from the school’s debate team who now lives in San Diego, had similar feelings back in school. Her father, she said, often “dragged out pictures of the Indian squaw, my great-great-grandmother on my father’s side. Word was she was Cherokee, but we could not prove it. Lots of people in Oklahoma have ancestry, but it wasn’t fashionable to put yourself on the tribal rolls.”
For the small handful of students who looked distinctly Native American, the experience was quite different.
David Yeagley, whose mother was Comanche, said that he and his brother Fred, who was a class behind Warren, were routinely teased for their dark hair and skin. When fellow members of the football team did not feel like playing on a hot day, “they’d say, ‘Fred, do a rain dance. Do a few steps for us,’ ” Yeagley said of his brother, who died in 2000.
“Fred did not like that, and he was in fights every other day. Why would you ever bring up being an Indian if you didn’t have to? You’d just get teased or ridiculed,” said Yeagley. “If you were an Indian woman, you were thought of as an easy mark.”
While Warren did not talk to many classmates about her heritage, she loosened up with her friend Katrina Cochran.
As the two drove in Warren’s white MG to the Charcoal Oven drive-in for lunch in their senior year, they would sometimes have a mock debate about who was more “Indian.”
“She talked about her grandmother being a Cherokee, and I talked about how my aunt by marriage was a Choctaw,” said Cochran, an Oklahoma psychologist. “I was making a totally illogical argument, saying I was just as Indian as she was. It was ridiculous because she had the blood and I did not, but it made us laugh.”
When pressed to discuss conversations she may have had with classmates who had similar stories, Warren declined to elaborate. “It was a different time,” she said.
Forty years later, when the subject of Warren’s heritage erupted on the national airwaves, some of her former classmates smirked to hear her say that Native American blood was central to her identity. Few of them, certainly, had ever heard anything of it. But to Cochran, the timing made sense.
“It did not surprise me one bit that Liz was in her adulthood . . . when she began to embrace her heritage,” said Cochran. “In the South of those days, these issues were just not discussed. We are the buckle of the Bible Belt down here.”
Jeremiah Manion and Noah Bierman of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Sally Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.