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.