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

Nov 9th, 2014 | By | Category: 26-2: Workforce Development, Media Reviews

University of Oklahoma Press (2013)
475 pages

Review by Charles Cambridge

Historically, treaties, Congress, executive orders, or federal court decisions legalized American Indian tribes’ relationship with the United States. In 1978, the federal acknowledgment process (25 C.F.R. Part 83) within the Department of Interior was created to handle the hundreds of requests from self-identified Indian groups for federal recognition as Indian tribes. Presently, the Office of Federal Acknowledgment (OFA) evaluates petitions to decide whether groups meet the standards for federal recognition as Indian tribes.

Author Mark Edwin Miller creates an imaginary world where the federally recognized Five Tribes (Seminoles, Creeks, Cherokees, Chickasaws, and Choctaws) have an acknowledgment phobia toward southeastern groups wanting to become Indian tribes. The author creates political intrigue and conspiracies surrounding the acknowledgment process, while ignoring the natural desire of recognized tribes to protect their unique sovereign status, and of wanting proof from groups claiming a historical relationship with the federal government.

Miller cites Vine Deloria Jr. as supporting those seeking tribal status. However, Deloria had high contempt for “fake Indians,” and through his network of friends could easily check claims of Indianness. In the book, Ward Churchill is called a “Native scholar,” but he is a proven non-Native whose White Georgia ancestors were probably fighting Indians during the colonial period. The author also hints that Mr. Lee Fleming, head of the OFA, is part of a conspiracy to deny federal recognition of some petitioners since he is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation. This is nonsense and the accusation demeans the author’s attempts for legitimacy of his scholarship.

The book’s redeeming value is the historical discussion of the self-identified Indian groups and their members’ personal life stories. However, the author fails to prove the existence of widespread conspiracies involving individuals and federally recognized tribes denying others seeking tribal status. Miller only has a limited knowledge of the OFA acknowledgment process. I would only recommend the book for its historical content.

Charles Cambridge, Ph.D. (Diné), studied anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, served at the Office of Federal Acknowledgement, and is an enrolled member of the Navajo tribe.


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