- Delaware Tribe in a Cherokee Nation
In 2001 ethnographer and cultural anthropologist Brice Obermeyer moved to Delaware Country in northeastern Oklahoma to do research and to serve as a tribal employee, focusing his efforts on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. An unanticipated project began, however, when he witnessed the judicial termination of Delaware federal recognition in 2004, as a result of which the Delaware Tribe was legally subsumed within the Cherokee Nation. Inspired by the impact of this decision (and the thorny history from which it arose), Obermeyer’s 2009 book Delaware Tribe in a Cherokee Nation explores the Delaware Tribe’s legal and political relationship with the Cherokees. Although federal recognition was restored to the Delawares the year of Delaware Tribe’s publication, the Cherokee Nation still maintains “all authority over the administration of Delaware programs and services provided within Cherokee Nation,” which includes the region considered Delaware Country (265). In this book Obermeyer traces Delaware history and ultimately makes the case that the Delawares should be considered a unique and sovereign tribal nation—that is, one that should not have to submit to Cherokee authority.
The 2009 restoration of official Delaware recognition seems to have occurred when Delaware Tribe was already nearing publication, [End Page 107] and it somewhat fulfilled the goals toward which Obermeyer’s project was directed. Nonetheless, the book remains important for several reasons. First, although a substantial body of ethnographic work makes evident the cultural separation between the Delawares and the Cherokees, Delaware Tribe is the first book specifically about the Delaware effort to gain federal recognition. Additionally, on a broader scale, scholarship has so far insufficiently addressed the phenomenon of Indian communities existing legally as “constituent parts of larger, federally recognized tribes” (11). Obermeyer mentions the Yuchi, for example, who are primarily enrolled in the Creek Nation but are in actuality a “distinct Indian tribe” lacking federal recognition (12). In this way Delaware Tribe forges new ground in exploring a particular tribe’s efforts toward federal recognition but also proves relevant to other unrecognized tribes’ legal situations.
One of the book’s most convincing moments lies in a personal anecdote drawn from the author’s own experience working for Delaware interests. In 2009 Harvard’s Peabody Museum contacted Obermeyer, offering to allow the repatriation of Delaware remains—a proposal exemplifying the success of Obermeyer’s years-long project. Because of the Delawares’ enforced subordination to the Cherokees, however, this effort could only move forward with official Cherokee approval. As Obermeyer sees the issue, in order to proceed, the Delawares would need to submit to Cherokee authority—an act that would risk implying their desire for this formal affiliation with the Cherokees. If, on the other hand, the Delawares refused to work with the Cherokees as an act of resistance, then the museum could not legally permit the repatriation. The means of meeting immediate needs thus conflicted with a powerful means of protesting Cherokee control. This dilemma underscores that Delaware recognition is not simply a bureaucratic formality but instead has meaningful consequences for Delaware people and communities.
Though Obermeyer demonstrates the urgency of this issue in the present, he locates the origins of the difficulty in negotiations that took place shortly after the U.S. Civil War. By the middle of the nineteenth century a series of relocations had moved the majority of the Delawares from the mid-Atlantic region to present-day [End Page 108] Kansas. In 1866 the federal government gave these Kansas Delawares two options. If they relinquished their tribal affiliation and accepted American citizenship, they could remain on their land in Kansas. Alternatively they could agree to yet another removal to northeastern Oklahoma, where they would live within the bounds of the Cherokee Nation. In this scenario they would have to pay for both the right to Cherokee citizenship and for the land they would thereby acquire. In order to preserve the sovereignty of the Delaware Tribe, the majority of the Delaware people agreed to the second option.