Suddenly many Americans wonder what it means that Elizabeth Warren, who is vying for Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown’s U.S. Senate seat, has identified herself as having Cherokee and Delaware Indian heritage. The claim wasn’t sudden, but the furor is.

Some 20 years ago, she listed herself as a minority in a directory of law professors. Recently the authenticity of her heritage, and her reasons for claiming it, have been called into question on the campaign trail. However, the debate should not be about whether she deserves this minority status, but whether we live in a meritocracy.

From the mid-19th century, the beginning of the reservation period, up through the early 20th century, regardless of how people identified themselves, being classified by the U.S. government as an American Indian automatically curtailed one’s rights. These included the right to travel, practice religion, and pursue liberty and happiness — by happiness I mean living in step with Indian cultures. This official and de facto persecution persisted through the 1940s, to the extent that my grandfather, who couldn’t have been mistaken for anything other than Indian, put down “white” on his enlistment forms when he volunteered for the Army in 1943. Being white, on paper at least, meant he would have more opportunities.

But during the 1960s, and even more so in the 1970s, Indian cultures and religions earned a kind of cachet. Being Indian finally meant something other than being stuck at the bottom of society. In this period, activists helped force dormant treaty rights — such as hunting and fishing rights, exemption from some forms of taxation, and religious freedom — into court, where they were upheld. Additionally, government money was funneled into tribal programs as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.

For the first time, tribes — not the Bureau of Indian Affairs — had control over housing, jobs assistance and community health-care programs, which they staffed with their members. These advances helped, but for Indian-ness to become a truly valuable commodity, we would have to wait until the 1980s for affirmative action to mature and tribal gaming to blossom.

An Indian identity is something someone claims for oneself; it is a matter of choice. It is not legally defined and entails no legal benefits. Being an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe, however, is a legal status that has nothing to do with identity and everything to do with blood quantum. Members must meet requirements set by the tribe in consultation with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (Elizabeth Warren is not enrolled in a tribe and doesn’t seem to have sought such status. She doesn’t claim an Indian identity, just Indian ancestry.) Indians who are not enrolled in a tribe aren’t eligible for the aforementioned programs and benefits, including casino profits, education assistance, hunting privileges and housing.

Indians make up a spectrum — for some, not claiming an Indian identity would be positively strange; for others, the claim is hard to accept since there is so little blood and possibly no cultural connection behind it. Most Indians exist between these two poles. Claimed or not, to be Indian and to grow up in a tribal community often meant that what you inherited was a lack of adequate health care, education and opportunity.

For decades, federal policies — including war, compulsory boarding schools and relocation programs that moved Indians from reservations to cities — waged a brutal campaign meant to eradicate tribes and acculturate Indians. If that effort had been successful, no one would want or be able to claim a connection to a tribe. Instead, some Indians remain proudly unassimilated — or with only blood to show.

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, what being Indian means is largely decided 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 not only that America is working, but that it could work better.

David Treuer is an Ojibwe Indian from Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. He is the author of “Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life.”

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