What happens when American Indians take over an institution designed to eliminate them?
The Bureau of Indian Affairs was hatched in the U.S. Department of War to subjugate and eliminate American Indians. Yet beginning in the 1970s, American Indians and Alaska Natives took over and now run the agency. Choctaw anthropologist Valerie Lambert argues that, instead of fulfilling settler-colonial goals, the Indians in the BIA have been leveraging federal power to fight settler colonialism, battle white supremacy, and serve the interests of their people.
Although the missteps and occasional blunders of the Indians in the BIA have at times damaged the federal–Indian relationship and fueled the ire of their people, and although the BIA is massively underfunded, Indians began crafting the BIA into a Native agency by reformulating the meanings of concepts that lay at its heart—concepts such as tribal sovereignty, treaties, the trust responsibility, and Indian land. At the same time, they pursued actions to strengthen and bolster tribes, to foster healing, to fight the many injustices Indians face, and to restore the Indian land base.
This work provides an essential national-level look at an intriguing and impactful form of Indigenous resistance. It describes, in great detail, the continuing assaults made on Native peoples and tribal sovereignty in the United States during the twenty-first century, and it sketches the visions of the future that Indians at the BIA and in Indian Country have been crafting for themselves.
Valerie Lambert is associate professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina– Chapel Hill. An enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation, she is author of Choctaw Nation: A Story of American Indian Resurgence, winner of the 2007 North American Indian Prose Award.
"Punch line for Native humor, punching bag for Native anger, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has long been staffed by Indians. In this fascinating and groundbreaking study, Valerie Lambert details how BIA leaders and employees have transformed a colonial institution through Indigenous creativity and commitment. Native Agency: rarely has a title captured its subject with such complexity and crystalline clarity!"—Philip J. Deloria, author of Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract
"In this much-needed book, Valerie Lambert provides a fine-grained examination of the role of American Indians in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. By highlighting their agency, her analysis contests notions of acquiescence or cooptation of Natives in the BIA, and her nuanced look at the complexities of Native participation challenges simplistic renderings of the workings of settler state power. Native Agency is a powerful book, certain to reshape our understandings of Native engagement with the BIA and, ultimately, with the settler state."—Shannon Speed (Chickasaw Nation), author of Incarcerated Stories: Indigenous Women Migrants and Violence in the Settler-Capitalist State