What's in a label? Identity problems of Southern Indian tribes

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Greenbaum, Susan. “What's in a label? Identity problems of Southern Indian tribes.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 19.2 (1991):107-126.


Discusses the criteria outlined by the federal acknowledgment process (25 CFR 83), by which tribes can petition the Bureau of Indian Affairs for federal recognition. Although the federal acknowledgment criteria do not specify any blood quantum threshold or place limits on amounts of intermarriage with non-Indians, racial bias can creep into the process through criterion a, which specifies that the petitioning group must have been continuously identified as Indian by external entities such as whites and blacks in the region, federal and local officials, journalists, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and other Indian communities. One way this bias is introduced is through the South's Jim Crow laws, which were major forces from the 1890s through the end of World War II. Such laws imposed three-way and even (in Robeson County) four-way segregation of school systems. Jim Crow laws and segregation sometimes created a caste system so that Indians were intermediate between whites and blacks. Another way in which criterion a can be at odds with the intent of the federal acknowledgement process to be non-racial is by paying attention to the sociological and anthropological literature on triracial isolates, or racial islands. The Lumbee have been included in several of these discussions of “non-white/non-black enclaves” in the South, mid-Atlantic, and Northeast. Gardner provides sound discussion of the explicitly racial nature of the triracial isolate literature, particularly the assumption that the communities developed involuntarily as a result of segregation laws. Gardner observes that another hypothesis -- that these groups are remnants of Indian tribes -- is not considered in the triracial isolate literature; moreover, the formal barriers of segregation laws have been removed, but many of these communities are organizing themselves for federal recognition as Indian tribes.

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