Identity comes from numerous places. Many claim their identity comes from their religion, their parents, or some their profession, but no one would deny that the main portion of one’s personal identity comes from their heritage. And having that sense of identity is a driving force to the person you become.
But in Indian Country, that personal identity is slowly being eroded away by what Mark Miller, associate professor of history at Southern Utah University, claims as appropriation of Indian identity by false tribes infringing on the rights of the recognized tribes, a realm that has never been explored.
In his recently published book, “Claiming Tribal Identity: the Five Tribes and the Politics of Federal Acknowledgment,” Miller identifies the reason the Five Recognized Tribes are opposed to the federal recognition of the smaller, possibly illegitimate tribes.
This appropriation of tribal identity is seen in a myriad of ways for the recognized tribes and in his book, Miller claims that it ranges from people merely being told all their lives “great grandma was a Indian princess” or because groups want to legally build casinos and claim federal funds.
“It’s not uncommon for people to claim be part of a Native American tribe when they aren’t,” Miller said. “Many have been told all their life that they come from Indian heritage but more than likely, that’s false. But the conflict isn’t individuals claiming Indian ancestry; the problem lies when groups claim to be an Indian nation.”
These fraudulent acts are manifest numerically when in the 2000 census, 750,000 Americans claimed to be part of the Cherokee Nation; however, only 250,000 Americans are enrolled as Cherokee citizens. Meaning, nearly 500,000 Americans are dishonestly claiming Cherokee citizenship status.
It is these false declarations that Miller addresses in his book, explaining, “The problems arise when individuals use subterfuge to declare to be a legitimate tribe when no ancestral documents prove they’re in fact an American Indian to receive federal funds, which takes away funds for those who have legally proven their Native American heritage.”
But instead of researching from the side of the underdog — the small tribes that are not federally recognized — Miller wanted to look at why the recognition of smaller, possibly illegitimate tribes could wreak havoc for those with documented proof of Native American heritage.
Miller went on to say, “In our nation, stereotypes are breaking down and more people are open to ethnic diversity. And what defines an ethnic group is being questioned; Native Americans are at the forefront of these changes.”
Chadwick Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation who wrote the forward for “Claiming Tribal Identity,” said about Miller’s scholarly work, “This book is an important work for not only the Five Civilized Tribes and those groups seeing an Indian identity, but as a study for all Americans lost in filling a void in their ethnic and cultural identity.”
Smith added, “Miller’s work is well-researched, exhaustive, insightful, scholarly and contributes to the body of knowledge of the already recognized tribes and larger issues of personal and tribal identity.”
Miller, who teaches history of the American West, Native Americans and modern World History at SUU, got his start researching Native American cultural and tribal identity when he had to choose within a matter of minutes what his graduate thesis subject would be while pursuing a master’s degree from the University of Arizona.
“I chose to study Native American history on a whim during my first year graduate school, but that choice has governed the rest of my academic career,” explained Miller.
And since that spontaneous decision, Miller has gone on to conduct exhaustive research on Mormon history, interethnic conflicts, the process of federal tribe recognition and American Indian rights and conflicts.
Miller’s book was published by the University of Oklahoma Press and may be purchased on its site.