By Ros Krasny
BOSTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren has acknowledged for the first time she told two prestigious law schools she had a Native American heritage but disputed suggestions that she used her ethnicity to help gain employment at the universities.
The Democrat later lashed out at Republican Scott Brown, who she is expected to face in the tight race for the U.S. Senate seat for Massachusetts in November, for impugning her parents' truthfulness on the topic of her lineage.
"I let people know about my Native American heritage in a national directory of law school personnel. At some point after they hired me, I also provided that information to the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard," Warren said in an email to supporters on Thursday.
A similar statement was published late on Wednesday by the Boston Globe.
The Native American issue has dogged the Harvard Law School professor and former Obama administration official for weeks, and given Brown a way to challenge Warren's integrity.
When the issue surfaced in April, Warren said she only learned that Harvard counted her as a minority hire in the 1990s when she read a report in the Boston Herald.
"Scott Brown also claims I got special breaks because of my background. That's not true," Warren said.
Warren, 62, hails from Oklahoma, a Great Plains state which has among the highest proportion of people with Native American ethnicity in the United States. She has said her Native American heritage was part of her family's oral history.
"My mother, grandmother, and aunts were open about my family's Native American heritage, and I never had any reason to doubt them," Warren told supporters.
"My heritage is a part of who I am - and I am proud of it."
The Warren campaign has said she is 1/32nd Cherokee, one of Oklahoma's largest Native American tribes. That would be the equivalent of having a Cherokee among her great-great-great grandparents.
She does not have an official affiliation with a Native American tribe or community but contributed to a 1984 cookbook, "Pow Wow Chow," published by the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
Speaking to reporters in Springfield, Massachusetts, on Thursday, Brown suggested Warren's family might have been exaggerating. "My mom and dad have told me a lot of things too, but they're not always true," Brown said.
Warren fired back. "Brown's comments about my parents are totally out of line. I resent him questioning their honesty. My mother and father are not here to defend themselves and should be off limits."
Opinion polls have shown a tight race between Warren, a liberal consumer advocate, and Brown, the centrist Republican who in 2010 won the Senate seat held by the late Edward Kennedy, a stalwart of the Democratic Party for more than four decades.
Democrats see the Massachusetts seat as a prime target to pick up in November as the party attempts to hold onto its slim Senate majority.
Democrats have a 51-47 advantage over Republicans in the 100-seat Senate, with two independents, but are defending more than 20 seats against Republican challengers in November, while Republicans are defending only about half that many.
(Editing by Todd Eastham)