- The Big Black Box of Indian CountryThe Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Federal-Indian Relationship
On April 14, 2015, at 5:15 p.m. in a windowless white room, I sighed as I looked across the gray conference table at US Department of Justice (doj) attorney Matt Marinelli. To my right were Deanna Hartley Kelso (Chickasaw Nation) and Lewis Bullock, two attorneys of firms the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations had retained to litigate a major land-claims case, The Chickasaw Nation and the Choctaw Nation v. The US Department of the Interior. Across from us seated next to Marinelli was Mr. Dondrae Maiden, an attorney from the US Department of the Interior (doi). For more than seven hours that day I had given testimony to doj’s Marinelli and doi’s Maiden in support of the plaintiffs in the case, one of which is the tribe in which I am enrolled, the Choctaw Nation, the other, a tribe in which I also have documented ancestry, the Chickasaw Nation. The deposition involved, among other things, an expert report the tribes had hired me to write. Three months after my deposition, the tribes’ lawyers informed me that a settlement had been reached; the case would not go to trial as scheduled. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell publicized the terms of the settlement on October 6, 2015.1 The tribes would receive $186 million—the Chickasaws, $46.5 million, and the Choctaws, $139.5 million. Identifying it as the fifth largest tribal trust settlement in US history, Jewell reported that more than one hundred Indian tribes were in similar settlement negotiations with the federal government.
Probing the histories that informed the sale and attempted sales of large amounts of our tribal homeland and resources, especially timber, after the turn of the twentieth century, doj’s Marinelli posed a number of questions to me during the more than seven-hour deposition. Many of his questions revolved around the nature of the relationship between [End Page 333] the US government and Choctaw Harry J. W. Belvin (1900–1986). I found it difficult to characterize the complex relationship between Belvin and the federal government, as did many Choctaws whom I had interviewed about Belvin. The US president, specifically Harry S. Truman, had appointed Belvin chief of the Choctaw Nation in the mid-twentieth century, a period during which the US government had denied Choctaws our right to select our own chiefs. Belvin served in this position until 1975, five years after our right to select our own leaders was legally restored. As I testified to doj and doi during the deposition, from 1948 through 1970 in his professional capacity as Choctaw chief, presidential appointee Belvin, who sold many of our tribal assets, is best understood as an extension of the US government.
The nature of the relationship between the US government and American Indians is, of course, one of the big questions structuring federal-tribal relations. It is a question that Indians discussed often as I was growing up in Oklahoma, and it is a question that is central in American Indian studies. Anthropological constructions of the federal-tribal relationship undergird nearly all contemporary ethnographies of American Indians, including my ethnography about the Choctaw Nation.2 Many of these works, including mine, characterize this relationship in remarkably simplistic ways, cleaving to a fundamental narrative that powerfully and persuasively constructs the relationship between the US government and American Indians as oppositional and hostile. The story of the Choctaw Nation, for example, is a story in which the US government forcibly relocated Choctaws to what was then Indian Territory on the Trail of Tears; passed allotment legislation and later termination legislation oriented toward ending our tribe’s existence as a sovereign nation; and worked to wrest ownership and control of Choctaw water from the tribe during the late twentieth century instead of, as the federal Indian trust responsibility mandates, protecting our tribal water rights.
Yet, while justifiably prominent in the anthropological literature about Indians, and while critical to explaining American Indian experience past and present, this bedrock narrative of opposition and hostility between the US government and American Indians provides only a...