Who counts as an American Indian? Which groups qualify as Indian tribes? These questions have become increasingly complex in the past several decades, and federal legislation and the rise of tribal-owned casinos have raised the stakes in the ongoing debate. In this revealing study, historian Mark Edwin Miller describes how and why dozens of previously unrecognized tribal groups in the southeastern states have sought, and sometimes won, recognition, often to the dismay of the Five Tribes—the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles.
Miller explains how politics, economics, and such slippery issues as tribal and racial identity drive the conflicts between federally recognized tribal entities like the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and other groups such as the Southeastern Cherokee Confederacy that also seek sovereignty. Battles over which groups can claim authentic Indian identity are fought both within the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Federal Acknowledgment Process and in Atlanta, Montgomery, and other capitals where legislators grant state recognition to Indian-identifying enclaves without consulting federally recognized tribes with similar names.
Miller’s analysis recognizes the arguments on all sides—both the scholars and activists who see tribal affiliation as an individual choice, and the tribal governments that view unrecognized tribes as fraudulent. Groups such as the Lumbees, the Lower Muscogee Creeks, and the Mowa Choctaws, inspired by the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty, have evolved in surprising ways, as have traditional tribal governments.
Describing the significance of casino gambling, the leader of one unrecognized group said, “It’s no longer a matter of red; it’s a matter of green.” Either a positive or a negative development, depending on who is telling the story, the casinos’ economic impact has clouded what were previously issues purely of law, ethics, and justice. Drawing on both documents and personal interviews, Miller unravels the tangled politics of Indian identity and sovereignty. His lively, clearly argued book will be vital reading for tribal leaders, policy makers, and scholars.
“Claiming Tribal Identity is a highly successful, and very brave, effort by Mark Miller to explain why the Five Tribes of Oklahoma support the controversial Bureau of Indian Affairs Federal Acknowledgment Process . . . Mark Miller is the right one for this task. He is an historian with a strong earlier book, and now he has zeroed in on the problem of false claims. Miller’s work is an exceptional history of U.S. public policy generally and the internal politics surrounding Indian issues more specifically.” —Bruce Ganville Miller, New Mexico Historical Review
“This is a refreshing look at the intricate politics not just of federal acknowledgment of unrecognized tribes (in the Southeast, primarily), but of the process of negotiating identity within group . . . Engaging, enlightening, and provocative, this is bound to become canonical in this field . . . Essential.” —C.R. Kasee, Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries
“[Miller] has established himself as perhaps the leading authority on the complicated, sometimes flawed, and often politicized federal acknowledgment system…this important and timely book deserves a wide audience.” —Thomas Cowger, Western Historical Quarterly
“Miller’s forthright venture into this contested terrain provides much-needed insight into the many competing motivations that undergird these debates. His book is essential reading not only for scholars of Native America but also for anyone interested in southern identity politics.” —Mikaela H. Adams, The Journal of Southern History