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Reviewed by:
  • Reservation Politics: Historical Trauma, Economic Development, and Intratribal Conflict by Raymond J. Orr
  • Keith Richotte Jr.
Reservation Politics: Historical Trauma, Economic Development, and Intratribal Conflict. By Raymond J. Orr. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017. ix + 242 pp. Figures, tables, notes, works cited, index. $34.95 cloth.

Anyone familiar with Indian Country has encountered the term "reservation politics." It is a catchall phrase used to denote dissatisfaction with the state of tribal affairs. However, it can also be a mask to disguise that which we are forced to acknowledge, yet do not care to truly reflect upon. Many times internal tribal issues are given no greater analysis beyond "that's tribal politics." Raymond J. Orr's text, Reservation Politics, bravely asks us to look behind that mask, or what he calls a "common secret."

Boiled to the bare bones, Orr's manuscript offers two fundamental arguments. First, that Native America would do well to look in the mirror. Second, that issues of class dramatically affect one's worldview. Were the argument left here, it would have little that was new or innovative to contribute—a situation that Orr acknowledges. However, what makes Reservation Politics compelling is that Orr offers an analytical structure that seeks to understand how issues of class affect not just individuals, but how they also determine structural and governmental choices in contemporary reservation settings.

Orr defines three broad categories, or logics, to describe contemporary tribal political behavior. The logic of communal affect, according to Orr, "values community harmony and social cohesion above individual preference." The logic of self-interest "elevates individual material preferences higher than that of community harmony." Finally, melancholic logic "recognizes the irrational preferences that fit neither communal affect nor [End Page 171] self-interest." Orr then offers three case studies, the Citizen Potawatomi (with whom Orr identifies), the Isleta Pueblo, and the Rosebud Lakota, to demonstrate how his logics explain the current political situation within each tribal nation.

Orr clearly recognizes the reductionist nature of his categories, yet he powerfully asserts their utility as well. Whether other scholars will find these categories useful will depend upon a range of factors. Put plainly, despite Orr's thoughtful and considered approach to difficult subject matter, it is possible that some might find Orr's categories little more than 21st-century versions of the stages of civilization utilized by race "scientists" of the 19th century. Others may find fault with the limited nature of the case studies—particularly as it concerns the Rosebud Lakota. Orr posits the Rosebud Lakotas' choice to refuse payment for the Black Hills as fundamentally irrational—which is eyebrow raising on its own—without also acknowledging that other Lakota communities are part of the decision as well. Yet others will be convinced by an impressive command over the range of sources and methods used to construct the categories.

The success, or lack thereof, of Orr's categories will be determined by future scholars who will either use them or not, and who will demonstrate their utility or not, should they use them. At the very least, Orr does the scholarship of Indian Studies a tremendous service by acknowledging the fear many of us have of studying present-day tribal governmental structures and offering a framework to understand "reservation politics" today. This is truly a multidisciplinary work that should, at a minimum, begin a meaningful conversation within the field, classroom, or book club, and possibly much more.

Keith Richotte Jr.
American Studies
University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill


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pp. 171-172
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