Native Acts: Law, Recognition, and Cultural Authenticity

By Piatote, Beth H. | Law & Society Review, December 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Native Acts: Law, Recognition, and Cultural Authenticity


Piatote, Beth H., Law & Society Review


Native Acts: Law, Recognition, and Cultural Authenticity. By Joanne Barker. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. 284 pp. $23.95 paper.

In Native Acts, Joanne Barker wades into the rough waters of intratribal politics, investigating how U.S. legal definitions of categories such as "tribe," "member," and "tradition" shape the discourses and distribution of rights within contemporary Native society. Barker argues that these legal terms extend from and uphold U.S. national interests, and that it is critical to understand how practices such as tribal management of membership rolls, while based in principles of sovereignty, have the potential to reproduce forms of oppression, including gender discrimination and unequal rights. Central to her argument is the assertion that notions of cultural authenticity, measured by blood degree and other calibrations defined under law, thoroughly infuse debates and decisions about Native political rights both externally and internally. Until Native polities challenge these categories of belonging, Barker warns, "the important projects for Native decolonization and self-determination" remain impossible (p. 7).

The book is divided into three thematic sections ("Recognition," "Membership," and "Tradition") that pair contextual chapters with case studies. In "Recognition," Barker sets up the history of the term "Indian tribe" by focusing on two main periods: the early Republic to the Marshall Rulings of the 1830s, and the "selfdetermination" era since the 1970s. It is curious, and somewhat disappointing, that many of the key pieces of Indian law and policy from the twentieth century-including the Indian Reorganization Act (1934), Termination (1950s), Relocation (1950s), and Restoration (1980s)-receive scant or no attention in this or subsequent chapters, particularly because Barker's case studies deal so intimately with tribal structure, membership, and competing authenticity claims. The first case study, paired with "Recognition," involves the conflict over federal recognition status between the Cherokees and the Delawares; the studies that follow address the 1978 Supreme Court ruling, Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez; disenbs rollment disputes within a California gaming tribe; and the adoption of federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) standards by tribes, particularly the Cherokees and Navajos. In general, the case studies are more satisfying than the broad strokes of the contextual chapters, given that their smaller scope allows for more detail, nuance, and analysis. …

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