Authentic reservations: The rhetorical war for Native American identity

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

First Committee Member

Leslie Bow - Committee Chair


This dissertation argues that America's Indian policies created an atmosphere of anxiety over authenticity and that the question of authenticity provides the foundation for contemporary Indian literature. With the establishment of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1824, the United States began policies of segregation, assimilation, and extermination that, when implemented, merged into a single policy. The legislation that enforced these goals served to control and even to define Indians in terms of geography, culture, and identity. After centuries of tribal sovereignty, only the federal government could name an Indian "authentic." The debate over authenticity remains at the root of contemporary Indian culture---historically and politically. Although the current debate over who, in fact, is a "real" Indian is more subtle than previous militant demands for tribal sovereignty, the Indians' present-day call for the right to define or claim authenticity is no less a political or subversive act.This project will examine both how native authors represent the authenticity question and what solutions, if any, they offer. It will also question what this debate reveals about the power of the state in creating legal, national identities. I argue that Indian texts are at once complicit with and combative towards authenticity as it has been defined by the federal government, popular culture, and even Indians themselves. This study both complements and challenges previous critiques of Indian literature that too often stop after unearthing a text's "authentic" elements. My project goes further and interrogates the political origins and consequences of positing criteria of authenticity by engaging works by authors including Louise Erdrich and Joy Harjo, and popular films including Thunderheart and Smoke Signals. I will also examine historical documents such as congressional acts and resolutions and legal proceedings that continue to influence the concept of Indian identity. My analysis will address the ways in which contemporary Indian texts work to foreground the crisis of racial categorization facing Indians today and to neutralize the government's ability to dictate the terms of the authenticity debate.


Literature, American; Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies

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