In Sunday’s Outlook section, Washington Post political Chris Cillizza awarded Massachusetts Democrat and Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren with the “Worst Week in Washington” award. But the Post also published native-American novelist David Treuer insisting – this is the headline – “Elizabeth Warren says she’s Native American. So she is.”
But the issue is that Warren would use her fraction of native American heritage to list herself as a native-American professor as she was ascending in academe, and then dropped it when she was promoted to Harvard. Why the craven switch? Treuer began by insisting the natives were lucky they weren’t eradicated by the palefaces:
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.
Treuer, who lives on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation near Bemidji, Minnesota, believes in identifying your ethnicity to leverage power, assuming as he does that white skin grants you all the privileges. He's Jewish on his father's side, but identifies with his native American side:
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...That Warren claims she has Indian ancestry means not only that America is working, but that it could work better.
If even Treuer can see that it's politically damaging to manipulate your ethnicity (down to tiny fractions), then what he's arguing is that one should instead applaud Warren for taking control of her manipulativeness. Change your ethnicity box depending on what it gets you. This is exactly what so many hate about so-called "affirmative action," just as they hate the idea that you have 21st century discussions about a Senate campaign by talking about Indian massacres in the 1800s.