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

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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.

ISBN-13: 9780806143781

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press

Publication Date: 08-16-2013

Pages: 490

Product Dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.20(d)

Mark Edwin Miller, Department Chair and Professor of History in the Department of History, Sociology, and Anthropology at Southern Utah University, Cedar City, has published articles on race and ethnicity and on indigenous identity and politics in the Journal of Arizona History, Journal of Mormon History, and Journal of the Southwest. He has contributed a chapter in the forthcoming textbook Utah’s History and has been quoted in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications. He is author of Forgotten Tribes: Unrecognized Indians and the Federal Acknowledgment Process. He and his wife, Gia, have three children, Delaney, Regan, and Gage. Chad Smith was Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1999 to 2011 and helped to grow the nation’s assets from $150 million to $1.2 billion, increased healthcare services, created 6,000 jobs, and dramatically advanced education, language, and cultural preservation. He is now running his own consulting business. Smith holds a J.D. from the University of Tulsa and an M.B.A. from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

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Claiming Tribal Identity

The Five Tribes and the Politics of Federal Acknowledgment

By Mark Edwin Miller


Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4378-1


Indian Renaissance in the Southeast

In 1980 the Baton Rouge State Times ran a front-page story describing a modern Indian "attack" perpetuated by the ironically named Indian Angels. Part of the Red Power movement, formed in the wake of the Indian occupation of Alcatraz in 1969, the pan-tribal organization was described by the press as "angry" and "militant." Whether one agreed with their tactics or not, the Indian Angels were certainly causing a stir in the Bayou State. According to the State Times article, Indian Angel protesters wearing war paint and headdresses had descended upon the governor's mansion with a list of demands. Yelling, "You can tell the governor he doesn't want a Wounded Knee in Louisiana!" and threatening to take scalps, they demanded that Native concerns be heard. They were noticed, though opinions about the protest varied.

While many whites were excited by the appearance of Indian activists in their midst, the generally conservative rural tribes of the state were appalled by the Indian Angels' tactics. They felt that the group's vocal, confrontational style was not at all the "Indian way." Probably unbeknownst to most Louisianans at the time, the Indian Angels were part of a larger Indian groundswell in the southeastern states. At the most basic level, groups like the Indian Angels were alerting local government leaders that Native Americans still existed in the region and that they had needs that were unfulfilled. They also gave notice that there were potential problems associated with forgotten, generally unrecognized Native communities scattered across the southern states.

The Indian Angels' protest in Louisiana's capital capped a momentous era: the southeastern Indian renaissance that began developing after World War II. In the 1960s and 1970s especially, slumbering Native enclaves seemed to awaken, and Indian culture and identity flowered, as reflected in the growth of tribal organizations, economic development projects, and a desire by once-invisible groups to demonstrate their pride in Indian heritage and to preserve, reintroduce, or import indigenous cultural traditions. For isolated Native Americans these were exciting times. The renaissance they helped foster proved central to the continuing survival of Indian cultures in the region, especially for those Native people off-reservation, who had been submerged and forgotten within the popularly perceived black-and-white society of the South. The revival had a more troubling side, however, spawning contentious issues that continue to trouble intertribal and Indian-government relations in the region to the present day. It provided the context and inspiration for the appearance of questionable Indian groups and tribes that served to undermine the aspirations of longsuffering Native communities, ones struggling mightily to preserve their identities and reignite the traditions of their ancestors while gaining acceptance in the larger national community.

The transformations of these years were immense. Southeastern Indians entered the period almost invisible in local and national affairs and ended it as significant forces in each. An Indian alive in Louisiana in 1940 would scarcely believe the changes the next decades would unfurl. By the 1970s, southern Indians had emerged from their second-class citizenship of the Jim Crow era, gaining civil rights and a voice in local politics. They had established formal tribal governments that provided a host of services, joined in intertribal organizations, and become fixtures in local politics. Throughout the Southeast, powwows and other Indian celebrations became anticipated annual events. Once-scorned peoples were now celebrated citizens. By the 1980s, some southeastern Indian enclaves had secured state recognition, and a few had achieved federal acknowledgment. The privileged federally recognized tribes enjoyed a status that allowed them to exercise sovereignty and pursue self-determination in various areas of tribal life. All gained the simple but important public recognition that they were surviving Indian peoples in a region long thought to be devoid of Indians.


After the removal era initiated officially in 1830 and the Seminole Wars of the 1840s, most Americans had the misperception that no Indians remained in the Southeast. Small communities of Indians persisted, however. Largely hidden in isolated pockets of their former homelands, southeastern Indians struggled to survive, both physically and culturally, in the harsh social and political climate of the nineteenth-century South. The groups that remained found refuge in generally undesired places: mountain hollows, swamps, coastal marshes, and pine-barrens were their homes. The survivors varied considerably in community composition, ethnic makeup, and retention of aboriginal culture. There were remnants of the once-powerful Five Tribes that lived scattered about their former homelands, such as the Eastern Band of Cherokees in North Carolina, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, and the Seminoles of Florida. These groups possessed various forms of traditional culture and were generally acknowledged as Indians, both at the local and national level. Before the 1960s, the Mississippi Choctaws, the Eastern Band of Cherokees, and the Seminoles and Miccosukees of Florida had secured federal tribal recognition and small reservations that served as homelands for their peoples. Small tribes such as the Chitimachas and Coushattas of Louisiana had also managed to secure federal recognition by this time. Despite federal acknowledgment, most of the reservation tribes in the region faced efforts by non-Indians to challenge their status. Most communities had intermarried with non-Indians and faced challenges to their racial status as Indians—local and state politicians repeatedly questioned their tribal acknowledgment and tried to break up their reservations. Another class of Indians consisted of lesser-known tribal groups that survived on state-sponsored reservations, such as Virginia's Pamunkey and Mattaponi Tribes, the Catawba of South Carolina, and the Alabama-Coushattas of Texas. The latter two tribes have had on-and-off relations with the federal government but are currently federally recognized. While the state-recognized tribes generally lacked the protections of their federally recognized kin, as land-based groups these tribes were widely acknowledged as Native Americans despite some challenges as to their "racial purity." A third class of southeastern indigenous peoples consisted of refugee multiracial communities tucked away in remote, marginal lands throughout the Southeast. The Lumbees and related groups in North and South Carolina are the most well-known of these groups, but others include the MOWA Choctaw community of Alabama and the Houma Indians west of New Orleans. These Native groups generally have been accepted as Indian, but questions about their tribal origins and true genetic composition have long clouded their histories and identities. The fact that these groups often lack abundant traits associated with aboriginal culture also has prompted non-Indians to question their Native identities. People like the Lumbee, however, have retained an unwavering sense that they are descendants of the aboriginal peoples of the Southeast and have struggled valiantly to challenge those questioning their heritage. There is a final class of people identified today as Indians who survived in the Southeast. Dozens of groups once known by racist names like Redbones and Brass Ankles live dispersed throughout most of the Southeast. Historically they claimed some Native American ancestry, but never possessed a concrete, purely Indian tribal identity. Some of their descendants nonetheless took part in the southeastern Indian renaissance of the postwar years.

Almost all the Native groups that survived in the region did so by retreating to undesirable areas, lands that provided a marginal subsistence lifestyle and left them a legacy of poverty. These haunts nonetheless proved a protected space to maintain their indigenous identity. Like Indians elsewhere, southeastern Indians were rural people, isolated not by formal reservations, as in the American West, but by a host of factors including racial discrimination, poverty, and personal choice. With the exception of the few reservation groups, southeastern Indian enclaves rarely exhibited community characteristics associated with western Indian tribes. Lacking federal reservations, they did not own lands in common. Lacking a relationship with the federal government, they did not have formal tribal structures such as rolls and elected chiefs or councils. As anthropologist J. Anthony Paredes notes, an individual looking for popularly envisioned "tribes," "chiefs," and "Indian villages" will rarely find them among the piney woods and bayous of the Southeast. Centuries of cultural contact and assimilation have left most groups bereft of cultural traits that are clearly aboriginal or Native, a reality that also adds to the invisibility of many southeastern Indian communities. The central fact about persisting Indian enclaves in the Southeast is that they survived by assimilating most of the cultural and economic modes of their non-Native neighbors.

With the exception of multiracial, light-skinned Indian descendants who could pass as rural whites, Indians had a striking uniformity of experience in the post–Civil War Southeast. As nonwhites in a biracial, largely black-and-white world, Native-identified communities felt the sting of Jim Crow segregation and racism throughout the region by the beginning of the twentieth century. From the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Tribes in Virginia to the Alabama-Coushattas of Texas, Indians faced discrimination and lessened economic opportunities in the dark years prior to World War II. The system buttressing white supremacy was all-encompassing, including the realms of social relations, public accommodations, education, and the workplace. As historian Edward Ayers notes, the "New South" of the turn of the century saw little change in race relations and was an extremely violent place, with homicide rates among the highest in the world. In the volatile and racially stratified society, nonwhites had to "know their place"—it was a matter of survival. Until the major changes wrought by World War II, few had the power or ability to resist the system.

Wherever small pockets of Native peoples persisted, they occupied an intermediate position in the racial hierarchy, squarely between whites and African Americans. A long history of interaction, intermarriage, pseudoscientific racial theories, and folklore left Native Americans above African Americans but clearly below the dominant whites. Southerners knew well romantic stories of Indians such as Creek leader William Weatherford (Red Eagle) who fought valiant, if doomed, wars for their beloved homeland before acknowledging their people's inevitable slide into disappearance from the southern scene. This warrior tradition led most southern whites to elevate Indians above their African American neighbors. As racial segregationist Ben Tillman noted in the late nineteenth century, "[W]e all respect the Indians because they were too brave to ever consent to be made slaves while negroes have submitted to slavery and seemed to thrive on it." Despite the respect shown to past Indian warriors and civilizations, the in-between status of surviving Indian groups confounded the black–white color line in both practical and theoretical ways. As a nonwhite minority, southeastern Indians experienced segregation and racism to varying degrees depending on locality. Residential separateness meant that in intimate settings, most Indian people associated primarily with other Indians. Near New Orleans, Houma Indian houses lay on one side of the bayous while African American and white homes were on the other, the muddy water serving as a physical and symbolic barrier between the groups. Indian children were socialized to know which places were "Indian" and thus safe, and which were not. In the Lumbee stronghold of Robeson County, North Carolina, some towns were "Indian towns" while others were the domain of whites and blacks. Local practices determined the limits of interchange in public places, especially in larger towns dominated by whites. It was widely known in rural North Carolina that Saturday afternoons were reserved as time the Indians could come to town. In places like Jena, Louisiana, Choctaws simply stayed out of town most of the time as its Jim Crow segregation served to remind that whites lumped them into the colored category. Segregation was often formal and institutionalized, but could be informal, by long-standing custom. Houma Indians were forced to sit in separate sections of local theaters and in the cordoned-off "Indian section" of Catholic churches. Even after the church railing was taken down by the 1960s, Bruce Duthu recalls that the tradition remained—few Indians strayed from the old segregated quadrant. In Robeson County, Lumbees could not eat in restaurants, sit in "whites only" waiting rooms, or get a soda at the drug store. As Ruth Locklear recalls, her parents rarely took her to these places, protecting her and her siblings from the effects of institutionalized racism.

Although elevated above African Americans in the racial hierarchy, Indians still found themselves near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Despite being among the first inhabitants of their regions, few possessed recognized legal title to their lands, and timber companies and other large enterprises gradually chipped away at the Indian land base. A fair number of Lumbees owned farms, yet most were reduced to tenant farming or sharecropping by the late nineteenth century. Chronic debt and poverty was the common condition of North Carolina Indians. Male members of groups like the MOWA Choctaws that had retreated to once undesired piney woods found work in the timber industry, gaining a reputation as first-rate lumbermen and turpentine workers. The Jena Choctaws became virtually attached to a local white land-owning family's estate, while the nearby Houma Indians lived a freer life off the bounty of southern Louisiana's bayous and the Gulf of Mexico. Houmas generally worked as trappers, fishers, shrimpers, and subsistence farmers at the turn of the century.

During the Jim Crow era, large social and political forces also worked to deny Indians their basic right to self-definition. Native peoples faced constant pressures to force them into the larger "black" or "colored" category, with all the incumbent disadvantages. Their existence as a third "race" in the largely dichotomous, black and white South challenged the seemingly clear-cut racial order of the region. Dozens of communities were known in local parlance by a bewildering array of largely pejorative labels, many of them somewhat generic: Red Bones, Brass Ankles, Melungeons, Creoles, Free Jacks, Yellow Hammers, Red Niggers, and Guineas. Other names were more locally specific: Louisiana had its Sabines, Alabama its Cajans, and North Carolina its Croatans, shortened to "Cro." All these labels implied that the communities were some mixture of Indian, black, and white, often with traditions of shipwrecked pirates or lost Portuguese or Spanish sailors thrown in for good measure. Scholars followed this tradition, labeling these groups "tri-racial isolates," "little races," "racial islands," or the more offensive "racial orphans," "American outcasts," and "WIN Tribe" (for White-Indian-Negro). The position of the dominant sociological and anthropological schools of the 1940s through the early 1970s can be summed up by Brewton Berry in his widely read Almost White: "These are all 'reluctant Indians'—Nanticokes, Chickahominy, Lumbee. Most of them would doubtless prefer to be white. But since that goal is beyond their reach, they will settle for Indian. It is better to be red than black—even an off-shade of red." The economics of this reluctance to confirm their Indian identity is revealed in several examples. In one North Carolina town, businesses had to provide three separate facilities for the three "racial' groups in their midst. As chemical plants began to dot the ports north of Mobile, Alabama, factory owners simply refused to hire local "Cajans" (modern MOWA Choctaws) because doing so would force them to provide another set of bathrooms, locker rooms and other facilities.

Added to southeastern Indian group identity problems, many faced long-standing difficultly establishing or proving to skeptical outsiders a concrete, historical tribal identity. Although in some cases it was a logical product of centuries of colonial contact and disruptions, for individuals more familiar with western tribes the fact that many of these groups did not know their ancestral tribe was baffling and seemed to point to a dubious claim to Indian heritage. For reservation tribes like the Mississippi Choctaws and Florida Seminoles indigenous identity was ironclad and never questioned. Others, however, had only vague and often undocumented traditions tying them to the Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks or other well-known southeastern tribes. Most commonly, nonreservation Indians in the Southeast were known generically as "Indians" by their neighbors and even sometimes among themselves. Some, like a community studied by Louisiana State University student Mary Van Rheenan in northwestern Louisiana, had traditionally been known as Spanish or Mexican, yet had by the 1970s more often identified as Native American.


Excerpted from Claiming Tribal Identity by Mark Edwin Miller. Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Foreword, by Chadwick Corntassel Smith,
1. Indian Renaissance in the Southeast,
2. The Genesis of a Conflict: The Five Tribes and the Birth of the Federal Acknowledgment Process,
3. Vetted Tribes: The Poarch Band of Creek Indians and the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians,
4. Contested Tribes: The Lower Muskogee Creek Tribe and the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians,
5. "Fraudulent Tribes" and "Fake Cherokees": The Five Tribes and the Politics of Indian Authenticity,
6. The Numbers Game: The Lumbees, the MOWA Band, and the Economics of Tribal Recognition,
List of Abbreviations,