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Reviewed by:
  • Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America
  • Daniel Heath Justice (bio)
Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America by Eva Marie GarroutteThe University of California Press, 2003

Of all the issues facing contemporary Indian country, few are more complicated and controversial than those surrounding American Indian identity. Yet, while often divisive, questions of identity are also some of the most important facing contemporary Indian nations and individuals. They are intimately woven into matters of nationhood, sovereignty, territorial integrity, treaty rights, and access to resources—not to mention the questions that issues of identity raise about personal and familial recognition. [End Page 202] Complicated by ideas about genetics, culture, behavior, language, geography, physical appearance, and legal/political recognition by tribal and nation-state governments, to ask "Who is an Indian?" is to plunge headlong into tangled, contradictory, and deeply emotional terrain.

Cherokee sociologist Eva Marie Garroutte faces these challenges with both candor and sensitivity in Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America. This book joins a diverse body of literature engaging with questions of indigenous identity, recently including Louis Owens's Mixedblood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, Place, Devon A. Mihesuah's Indigenous American Women: Decolonization, Empowerment, Activism, and Circe Sturm's Blood Politics: Race, Culture, and Identity in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. In Real Indians, Garroutte expands the focused analyses of these texts to tackle some of the broader discourses of Indian identity in the contemporary United States, highlighting in the first four chapters the main arenas of debate: law, biology, culture, and self-identification. Whether discussing ethnic impersonation, blood-quantum bigotry, U.S. federal Indian identification policy, or the ambivalent effects of self-identification on Indian nationhood, Garroutte addresses the issues with clear-eyed analysis, always keeping Indian continuity at the center of concern.

For example, in "What If My Grandma Eats Big Macs? Culture," Garroutte begins her discussion with the 1976 trial of the Mashpees of Massachusetts. There, the Mashpee lost a land claims suit not on the basis of law so much as on non-Indian judgments about Mashpee claims to Indianness. Moving from the Mashpee case to a wide-ranging examination of historical accounts, personal interviews, essays, newspaper articles, legal documents and laws, U.S. and tribal government policies, political cartoons, and excerpts from Internet listserv discussions, Garroutte untangles rhetoric from effect, demonstrating with disturbing clarity the far-reaching and coercive influence of non-Indian ideas about Indian cultural stasis on the actual, lived lives of Indian people today. As she points out, "It is an undeniable historical fact that, as Indian tribes encountered changing times and circumstances, they altered the way that they lived out their cultures. Yet evidence of cultural change frequently endangers a claimant's ability to establish a meaningful Indian identity within prevailing cultural definitions. Often, an Indian who is not an unreconstructible historical relic is no Indian at all" (68).

Garroutte does not, however, presume a purely defensive position on the part of tribal nations in the debates over Indian identity; indeed, she consistently emphasizes the agency that Indian communities and individuals exercise in these matters (albeit often with a limited range of viable options, given the economic and territorial implications of tribal enrollment and citizenship). The final two chapters of the book provide a thoughtful, proactive proposal for what she calls [End Page 203] "Radical Indigenism," a broad theoretical foundation for considering questions of identity through American Indian cultural traditions, moral principles, and intellectual values, rather than through corrosive Euro-Western values of commercialization, fragmentation, and desacralized individualism. As indigenousness is far more than just ethnic difference, it requires a different kind of understanding than is typical in mainstream multiculturalism. Radical Indigenism is posited on a reassertion of the central place of kinship, reciprocity, responsibility, and spirituality within the intellectual frameworks of American Indian scholarship. Such a foundation, Garroutte argues, ultimately realigns both the debates and the assumptions about Indian identity, drawing on the indigenous strengths, values, and concerns that have enabled North American tribal peoples to survive the devastation of Euro-Western colonialism for more than five hundred years. Anything less, she suggests, leaves the question of Indian continuity firmly at...


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pp. 201-203
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