New book examines the politics of American identity

In her book, "Native Acts: Law, Recognition and Cultural Authenticity" (Duke University Press, 2011), Associate Professor of American Indian Studies Joanne Barker examines historical and contemporary challenges to identity within American society. Though the book focuses on the topic as it pertains to Native Americans, Barker notes that the issue of finding and maintaining personal identity is something shared by all Americans regardless of heritage or country of origin.

Book jacket for Native Acts.

“In one way or another we are all defining and redefining ourselves based on changing laws, and economic and social status,” Barker said. She cites the struggle for state and federal recognition of same-sex marriage as an example of a challenge to the identity of gay Americans. "Things like love, marriage and adoption can upset the laws and beliefs that determine identity in the eyes of any government,” she said.

Barker, a member of the Lenape (Delaware Tribe of Indians) of eastern Oklahoma, combed through archives, magazines, newspapers, law books, legal affidavits and public records to show how the identity of Native Americans changes with fluctuations in U.S. and tribal law. She maintains that racism, sexism and homophobia are as much a threat to the dignified personal identity of Native Americans as they are to members of the broader American population. She notes that tribal law has been slow in accepting the rights and contributions of female members, and beliefs within tribes have stalled the acceptance of mixed-race generations and same-sex relationships.

"Until the patterns and influences of these social inequities and injustices are genuinely challenged by native people, the self-determination that defines cultural revitalization in tribes will be impossible," Barker said. "Native peoples must choose strategically and ethically how they will negotiate and articulate culture and identity and legal rights and status."


-- Denize Springer