Tribal Sovereignty and the Historical Imagination: Cheyenne-Arapaho Politics

Tribal Sovereignty and the Historical Imagination: Cheyenne-Arapaho Politics

Tribal Sovereignty and the Historical Imagination: Cheyenne-Arapaho Politics

Tribal Sovereignty and the Historical Imagination: Cheyenne-Arapaho Politics


Loretta Fowler offers a new perspective on Native American politics by examining how power on multiple levels infuses the everyday lives and consciousness of the Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples of Oklahoma.

Cheyennes and Arapahos today energetically pursue a variety of commercial enterprises, including gaming and developing retail businesses, and they operate a multitude of social programs. Such revitalization and economic mobilization, however, have not unambiguously produced greater tribal sovereignty. Tribal members challenge and often work vigorously to undermine their tribal government's efforts to strengthen the tribe as an independent political, economic, and cultural entity; at the same time, political consensus and tribal unity are continually recognized and promoted in powwows and dances. Why is there conflict in one sphere of Cheyenne-Arapaho politics and cooperation in the other?

The key to the dynamics of current community life, Fowler contends, is found in the complicated relationship between the colonizer and the colonized that emerges in Fourth World or postcolonial settings. For over a century the lives of Cheyennes and Arapahos have been affected simultaneously by forces of resistance and domination. These circumstances are reflected in their constructions of history. Cheyennes and Arapahos accommodate an ideology that buttresses social forms of domination and helps mold experiences and perceptions. They also selectively recognize and resist such domination. Drawing upon a decade of fieldwork and archival research, Tribal Sovereignty and the Historical Imagination provides an insightful and provocative analysis of how Cheyenne and Arapaho constructions of history influence tribal politics today.


When explaining the nature of tribal politics or trying to sway opinion in a political context, Cheyennes and Arapahos often tell or allude to the story of two fishermen, one white and one Indian. The following is one man’s version: “An Indian fisherman met a white fisherman. They each had a bucket of crabs. The white man’s kept getting away. The white man said, ‘Mine are getting away; why not yours?’ The Indian said, ‘These are Indian crabs—every time one tries to get away, the rest pull him down.’ That’s what’s happening. That’s tribal politics.” The Cheyennes and Arapahos are native peoples of the Plains who reside in west-central Oklahoma in an area that formerly was their reservation. The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes and their constitutional government are federally recognized, and the tribes have taken liberal advantage of the provisions of the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act of 1975 to contract for the administration of federal programs. In fact, when Cheyennes and Arapahos use the term “tribal politics,” they are referring to post-1975 transformations in tribal government. In linking the image of struggling crabs in a bucket to contemporary tribal politics, Cheyennes and Arapahos make the point that this struggle is not so much to achieve a particular goal as it is to prevent others from distinguishing themselves. The story also conveys the view of many Cheyenne and Arapaho people that intrasocietal rivalry adversely affects the tribes’ struggle for greater sovereignty—that is, the competition among individuals prevents the tribes from escaping the constraints facing tribal governments and native peoples in the United States and from exploring new opportunities for economic and political development. A recent example of the unfortunate effects of this rivalry is the futile attempt of tribal officials to obtain the Clinton administration’s help in land recovery, described in the preface.

In the crab story, the comparison between Indian and white reflects an ambivalence about Indian society and about the nature of Indians. On the one hand, Indians are portrayed as a category distinct from whites, defined in part by a tendency to stick together and, in so doing, to outmaneuver whites; after all, the Indian fisherman is able to continue fishing while the white fisherman must try to retrieve his crabs. On the other hand, in the context of tribal politics, the Indian way of doing things is perceived to be a disadvantage. The narrator suggests that, although native people cooperate with each other, they also compete in a socially disruptive way.

The themes in the story reflect issues about Cheyenne-Arapaho politics that I confront in this study, questions about the processes by which Cheyennes and Arapahos are mobilized, or not, to work toward political goals in various contexts. On one level, my objective is to explain why, since the 1970s, there has been disabling confrontatiotermination Act. More broadly, I look for a relationship between local-level politics and the course of . . .

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