Cash, Color, and Colonialism: The Politics of Tribal Acknowledgment

By Oakley, Christopher Arris | South Carolina Historical Magazine, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Cash, Color, and Colonialism: The Politics of Tribal Acknowledgment


Oakley, Christopher Arris, South Carolina Historical Magazine


Cash, Color, and Colonialism: The Politics of Tribal Acknowledgment. By Renée Ann Cramer. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005. Pp. xxi, 234; $24.95, cloth.)

In 1978 the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) created the Branch of Acknowledgment and Research (BAR) to handle the bureaucratic process of officially acknowledging Native American tribes. Henceforth all tribes seeking government recognition would have to submit a detailed petition to the BAR, which was designed to act as a neutral judge, evaluating each tribe's petition and issuing a decision based solely on the merit of the case. But in Cash, Color, and Colonialism: The Politics of Tribal Acknowledgment, political scientist Renée Ann Cramer questions the objectivity and fairness of the BAR process. In a study of how recognition really works, Cramer maintains that political, social, and economic factors inherently affect the acknowledgment of Native American tribes. Specifically, she argues that reservation gaming, questions of racial identity, and the colonial legacy of Indian-white relations play a vital role in determining whether or not the BAR recognizes a petitioning tribe. Cramer uses two states, Alabama and Connecticut, as case studies for examining the recognition process. Alabama is home to one federally recognized tribe, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, and several other tribes currently seeking acknowledgment. Connecticut contains two federal tribes, the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans, as well as other groups petitioning for recognition.

The author begins her study by broadly examining Indian-white relations from the seventeenth century until the middle of the twentieth century. According to Cramer, understanding the colonial legacy of the relationship between Native American tribes and the U.S. federal government is vital to understanding the current debate over Indian tribal acknowledgment. The author quickly moves through well-known territory for students of Native American history, from the subjugation of eastern tribes in the 1600s to the Red Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In between, she addresses removal, the Dawes Act, the Indian New Deal, and the Supreme Court cases that defined Native American tribes as "domestic dependent nations" within the United States.

After summarizing the historical relationship between Indians and the federal government, Cramer focuses on the recent debate over federal acknowledgment. In the early 1970s, Native American activists complained about fraud and corruption within the BIA, the federal agency supposedly dedicated to serving their interests. In 1976 a government commission issued a scathing report on the BIA that criticized the agency's treatment of unrecognized Indian groups and questioned the fairness of the acknowledgment process. The BIA promised to address the problems and subsequently developed specific criteria for earning federal acknowledgment. A new arm of the BIA, the BAR, would handle the process. According to the new guidelines, in order to be recognized, a petitioning tribe had to prove each of the following: that it had existed since 1900; that it had remained a distinct community; that a tribal government had maintained political influence over its members; that the tribe had a governing document that outlined membership requirements; that the tribe had an official membership roll; that no current members were associated with other tribes; and that the group was never the subject of federal termination legislation. A committee of experts within the BAR evaluated each petition and issued a verdict. According to Cramer, fifty-five tribes filed petitions with the BAR between 1978 and 2004. Of those, fifteen were recognized, fifteen were denied, and the rest are currently still under consideration. …

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