Claiming Tribal Identity: The Five Tribes and the Politics of Federal Acknowledgment

The Journal of Southern History, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Claiming Tribal Identity: The Five Tribes and the Politics of Federal Acknowledgment


Claiming Tribal Identity: The Five Tribes and the Politics of Federal Acknowledgment. By Mark Edwin Miller. Foreword by Chadwick Corntassel Smith. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013. Pp. xiv, 475. Paper, $29.95, ISBN 978-0-8061-4378-1.)

Tribal recognition and the question of who counts as Indian are among the most complex--and controversial--topics in Indian country today. In his new book, Mark Edwin Miller tackles the intersections of identity and sovereignty through an in-depth study of recognition politics in the Southeast and the efforts that tribes make to police the boundaries of their political status. Using government documents, court cases, recognition petitions, and oral interviews to reconstruct detailed histories of Indian-identifying groups, Miller reveals that a variety of factors influence "what established tribes view as bona fide, legitimate Indian communities" (p. 20). At stake in these debates is the very nature of the federal-tribal relationship.

Miller begins with a discussion of the southeastern Indian renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s. During these years, forgotten communities emerged from the biracial world of Jim Crow to reclaim indigenous heritage. This revival, however, also inspired questionable groups to assert Indian identity. "The seeming explosion in the number of self-proclaimed Indians" troubled tribal leaders who feared that these groups would undermine legitimate tribal sovereignty (p. 119). To sort out which claims had merit, the federal government devised a set of criteria that groups had to meet in order to win recognition. In contrast to scholars who critique the federal government's nonindigenous ways of defining tribal identity, Miller argues that the Five Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole) actively participated in the creation of the Federal Acknowledgment Process and that "they view it as the best method available to determine which groups are viable indigenous nations today" (p. 7).

In the chapters that follow, Miller details the recognition sagas of several southeastern groups. "Vetted tribes," like the Poarch Band of Creeks and the Jena Band of Choctaws, achieved acknowledgment either by documenting their descent from a historic Indian community or by pointing to their cultural persistence and high degree of Indian "blood" (chapter 3). …

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