Regardless of why Warren claimed minority status (she said she did it in hopes of meeting people with similar heritage), to be a woman from Oklahoma of working-class upbringing - and to want not only to walk the halls of power but to help build them - you have to press whatever advantage you have.
Doing so might seem distasteful to those who've never had to do it because they were born into privilege and power.
But beyond the question of whether Warren "gamed the system," isn't the question of her identity and its deployment suggestive of something else? Doesn't it show us that whatever its sins, America's virtues have won - that we have become a plural society?
If someone with Indian blood, no matter how little, is a Harvard professor and stands a chance of being elected to the Senate, might that suggest that the American experiment is working and that we live in a meritocracy?
No, not yet. An Indian identity has become a commodity, though not one that is openly traded. It has real value in only a few places; the academy is one of them. And like most commodities, it is largely controlled by the elite.
In the 19th century, the U.S. government, Indian agents and even commercial barons had power over who was and who wasn't identified as Indian. This meant controlling who got annuities, rations of food and clothing, funding, land and trade.
After the passage of the Dawes Act of 1887, which allowed Indians a certain amount of acreage based on tribal enrollment, it meant controlling who got an allotment of land and who didn't. Half-blood Indians enrolled in tribes were allowed to sell their allotments, while full-bloods were not.
So if you were on the make, it was better to classify Indians as half-blood on paper, get them in debt to you and then have them sign their land over to you. Millions of acres were transferred out of tribal control and into the hands of the government - and to timber, mining, farming and railroad barons. Those with power and those in power controlled who could be classified as Indian and how strongly so.
I worry that the same kind of injustice goes on today, but in a different register. Being Indian now is positive. Not everywhere, not all the time - but it is certainly of value in places like Harvard. And just as in the bad old days, who decides what being Indian means is largely controlled by powerful people in powerful institutions.
My father is Jewish, but I didn't really grow up around any of my Jewish relatives, so claiming a Jewish identity - despite that heritage - would feel strange, presumptuous, disrespectful.
On my mother's side we have an ancestor by the name of Bonga, who was African and ended up at Leech Lake in Minnesota, where he married a woman of the Ojibwe tribe, and where I grew up.
Despite this heritage, it would likewise feel very odd to claim that I am African or African American. (I am something like one-156th African.)
I identify as Ojibwe, but the important distinction is that I get to make this choice, and that makes me different from many in my tribe. To be able to control one's identity means you have mastered many social, cultural and economic registers - precisely the ones that can make you a success.
It also means you have the luxury of choice; some people make this luxury themselves, but others are born into it. This is, I think, why one's heritage sometimes smacks of unfair advantage.
For many, to be Indian has meant suffering. For many, to claim it costs very little but can yield tremendous returns.
You risk little when you control the commodity and the market. Indian people have not often controlled both.
That Warren claims she has Indian ancestry means only that America is working, but that it could work better.
- --- -