McCutchen on Adams, 'Who Belongs?: Race, Resources, and Tribal Citizenship in the Native South'

Mikaëla M. Adams
Jennifer McCutchen

Mikaëla M. Adams. Who Belongs?: Race, Resources, and Tribal Citizenship in the Native South. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 352 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-061946-6.

Reviewed by Jennifer McCutchen (University of Southern Maine) Published on H-Atlantic (April, 2020) Commissioned by Bryan Rindfleisch (Marquette University)

Printable Version: 

Citizenship and Belonging in the Post-Removal Native South

Who Belongs? Race, Resources, and Tribal Citizenship in the Native South by Mikaëla M. Adams seeks to better understand the complex history of Indigenous community membership in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Southeast. Adams, an associate professor of history at the University of Mississippi, focuses on six tribes—the Pamunkey Indian Tribe of Virginia, the Catawba Indian Nation of South Carolina, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida—to explore their diverse experiences in developing requirements for tribal citizenship. With each of her five chapters working individually as a case study, Adams investigates how these tribes uniquely defined who was “Indian” and who was not. The prerogative to determine citizenship, she argues, gave tribes the power to decide who was entitled to the social, political, and economic rights and benefits available to legally recognized Native peoples, which was essential to the exercise and preservation of their sovereignty. While specific themes such as the increasing bureaucratization of Indian Affairs and the racialized environment of the Jim Crow South tie the chapters together, Adams’s work clearly rejects the idea that a universal Indian identity or experience shaped the processes of defining tribal membership during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Instead, her research emphasizes how each tribe looked to its particular community's needs and interests, as well as its unique historical relationships with federal and state governments, to construct citizenship criteria specific to its people and polity. This control over citizenship provided Indigenous communities with the autonomy and authority necessary to successfully challenge settler colonialism in the Native South. 

Adams’s first chapter uses the lenses of land and race to explore how members of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe of Virginia determined belonging. As a state-recognized tribe, the Pamunkeys did not have federally imposed citizenship conditions or an official tribal roll, allowing its members to define inclusion as they saw fit. This benefited the Pamunkeys during the Jim Crow era, when tribal citizens became concerned that segregation along the racial binaries of “white” and “colored” could pose a threat to their landholdings. Adams explores how the Pamunkeys worked to distance themselves from Virginia’s African American populations, pushing state legislators to recognize “Indian” as a third racial category. Native groups throughout the region used similar approaches to push back against state segregation policies, as can be seen in Malinda Maynor Lowery's 2010 work, Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South. The Pamunkeys differentiated themselves through the creation of distinct Indigenous institutions, such as the Pamunkey Indian Baptist Church, and considered involvement in these institutions necessary for tribal citizenship. Pamunkeys also fought state segregation efforts by creating their own Indian school, condemning intermarriage with African Americans, and performing pageants and “Indian ceremonies” for white audiences. But Adams’s discussion of Pamunkey efforts to challenge state requirements that they ride in “colored” train cars is where the chapter really shines. She explores how Pamunkeys used their Native heritage to their advantage, arguing that some of Virginia’s wealthiest families “claimed to be descended from Pocahontas and other historically important Natives, while maintaining a white racial identity” (p. 31). Pamunkeys earned the right to ride in white coach buses, and the tribe began issuing formal citizenship papers denoting their racial status as Indian. Both fascinating and impressive in its scope, Adams’s exploration of the Pamunkey fight against rail car segregation is a valuable and necessary addition to our historical understanding of the Jim Crow South. 

Meanwhile, Adams approaches her exploration of Catawba citizenship through the focus on territory and state-issued financial support. Like the Pamunkeys, the Catawba Indian Nation of South Carolina was a state-recognized tribe, but they were also acknowledged by the federal government from the mid-1940s through 1959 when the Indian “termination policy” took effect (p. 89). Following Catawba land cessions in the 1840s, South Carolina began to distribute annual payments to tribal citizens. To effectively allocate these funds, however, Catawba leadership had to define belonging in ways that guaranteed only legitimate members received a share of the annuities. These efforts were complicated by the fact that a significant number of South Carolina Catawbas had converted to Mormonism and relocated to western states in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Naturally, these Catawbas argued their right to South Carolina appropriation payments on the basis of tribal citizenship. However, Catawbas who remained on tribal homelands depended heavily on these state-issued payments and challenged the claims of out-of-state Catawbas. Consequently, South Carolina Catawbas came to establish citizenship criteria in ways that benefited them financially, reinforced their beliefs about and categories of belonging, and meshed with the goals of the South Carolina government. By the early twentieth century, one had to be an active member of the community to identify as Catawba, joining tribal institutions and participating in the cultural events that took place on reservation territory. Catawbas argued that a physical presence on these lands was a necessary requirement for citizenship because it “provided Indians with knowledge of how to be a Catawba that people raised elsewhere did not acquire” (p. 69). As the twentieth century progressed, tribal membership took on a more rigid form. Catawbas began to construct citizenship criteria that defined belonging through clear descent from members recorded on earlier tribal rolls. These measures ran counter to previous notions of citizenship that were inherently more flexible and inclusive. 

Land similarly shaped the citizenship struggle of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw, a remnant group that did not move to Indian Territory with the rest of the tribe in the 1830s. These Choctaws agreed to become citizens of Mississippi in exchange for state-issued land grants, though the allotments never materialized. This did not pose an issue until the 1890s, when the federal government began granting individual plots of land to Choctaws in Indian Territory. Because the original removal treaty preserved the Mississippi Choctaws’ status as citizens within the larger nation, many argued that they were legally entitled to Indian Territory lands. To determine if Mississippi Choctaws had any rights to Choctaw Nation lands and benefits in the West, both groups had to define the terms of citizenship. Efforts to produce an official citizenship roll proved difficult; Mississippi Choctaws often found the requirements too exclusive, while Oklahoma Choctaws believed they were too lenient. Consequently, Choctaw membership became tied to a strict blood-quantum requirement agreeable to the United States government. Any amount of African American blood, as well as too much white blood, could serve as grounds for exclusion. Adams investigates the problems with this blood-quantum requirement through a well-crafted ethnohistorical lens. She convincingly argues that matrilineal cultural practices shaped the ways Choctaws had long thought about identity, differing from federally imposed blood-quantum requirements. Following the closing of the tribal rolls in 1907, Mississippi Choctaws who met the blood-quantum requirements were required to move to Indian Territory to legally claim Choctaw Nation citizenship. Those who did not, or those who chose not to relocate, remained in Mississippi and eventually gained independent political status. Their experience, Adams argues, illuminates how Native populations “used the lessons they learned about federal perceptions of ‘Indianness’ and particularly ideas about Indian blood to rebuild a legal tribal identity” (p. 97).

Like the Mississippi Band of Choctaw, the Eastern Band of Cherokees remained in the Southeast following removal. Independent from the larger Cherokee Nation, the Eastern Band Cherokees were both a state and federally recognized tribe, affording them unique economic and political opportunities. They benefited greatly from the sale of timber from their lands, though the General Allotment Act of 1887 put their territorial sovereignty at risk. Aimed at privatizing Indian lands and incentivizing capitalistic practices among Native peoples, this legislation authorized the subdivision of tribal territory among Indigenous heads of families, with remaining Native lands opened up to white settlement. By separating Indians from their tribal communities, the General Allotment Act induced Native cultural assimilation and detribalization. Adams explores how individual ownership in severalty “put an economic value on [Eastern Band Cherokee] citizenship, leading outsiders to demand rights as tribal citizens based on alleged claims to Cherokee blood” (p. 167). Fearing federal intrusion and appropriation from “white” Cherokee, Eastern Band members developed “citizenship criteria that reflected older Cherokee values but adhered to the standards and expectations of white officials” (p. 140). New standards attempted to blend historical Cherokee notions of belonging, such as residency on tribal lands, with “legalistic citizenship criteria” like blood-quantum (p. 142). The incorporation of white standards often ran counter to matrilineal inheritance, adoption-based kinship, and other inclusive forms of membership that had defined Cherokee citizenship for generations. Nevertheless, this decision also preserved Indigenous autonomy, allowing Eastern Band officials to dictate and determine who remained on their tribal roll. 

Adams’s final chapter explores the complicated histories of the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes of Florida. Both loosely traced their ancestry to the Creek Confederacy, though they did not share a single tribal heritage. The Seminole, of whom the Miccosukees were a part, emerged as a distinct social and ethnic group during the late colonial period, becoming further displaced as a result of the Second and Third Seminole Wars. In the second half of the nineteenth century, both groups established remote communities in the Everglades, living in almost complete isolation from whites. The difficulty in analyzing Seminole and Micocosukee citizenship is that factions of both groups migrated south at different times for distinct reasons. These disparate entities had little interest in forming a common political identity, did not have a shared language, and did not collectively refer to themselves as Seminoles. Thus, according to Adams, there was no clear definition of Seminole belonging. 

While the Florida Seminoles may not have held a common group identity in the late nineteenth century, “they knew who they were not” (p. 177). Using this lens, Adams skillfully explores how Seminoles separated themselves from other Floridians, both Indian and non-Indian. They preserved important sociopolitical organizing principles, such as matrilineal inheritance, kin affiliation, and clan membership, to strategically navigate the threats posed by outsiders in the years following the Third Seminole War. Like other Southeastern nations, the Florida Seminoles viewed intermarriage with whites and African Americans negatively. They believed interracial relationships, and the children they produced, threatened notions of communal belonging. The Seminoles also defined belonging through the development of specific cultural practices. This included building homes, planting gardens, and constructing canoes in ways that were suited to the swampy terrain in which they lived. They used these unique practices as cultural and ethnic indicators of their Indigeneity, though their ancestors had been migrants to the region themselves. Through these actions, the Seminoles “considered themselves the rightful owners of the land, and they consciously presented themselves as different from the whites and blacks who made their homes there” (p. 177). Despite efforts to remain separate from Florida’s non-Native populations, the Seminoles created strong economic relationships with white traders. Seminoles traded pelts and hides for goods such as guns and sewing machines, but by the turn of the twentieth century these partnerships had begun to collapse. As more white Americans moved to Florida, government agencies began making efforts to resettle the Seminoles and other Native groups onto reservations. Divisions began to emerge between the Seminoles who refused to resettle, many of whom identified as Miccosukee, and those who agreed to move. These divisions widened as the state and federal governments pressured the Seminoles to organize themselves politically. Economic incentives, such as cattle and gaming rights, motivated the Seminoles and the Miccosukees to establish clear citizenship criteria that persist today.

Altogether, Who Belongs? functions as an academic text that graduate students and scholars will find useful. It is well argued, impressively researched, and clearly written. Adams’s choice to focus each chapter on a separate Native group works well in conjunction with the author’s goals, and academics may find single chapters useful as individual readings in graduate seminars or upper-level undergraduate courses. The organization of Adams’s work allows her to dismiss the notion of a comprehensive Indigenous path toward defining citizenship. By highlighting each tribe as a case study, Adams shows how local needs and community-level interests shaped the ways in which Native peoples answered questions about citizenship in the post-removal era, with profound repercussions today. This structure also reveals the complementary nature of these efforts, illuminating common threads in each nation’s struggle to define citizenship and belonging while also emphasizing the uniqueness of their individual experiences. 

Adams’s work is an impressive example of ethnohistorical research. She skillfully mixes anthropological sources with manuscript collections, newspaper articles, legal documents, and oral histories. The author’s use of interviews is strongest in her chapter on the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes of Florida, adding depth, nuance, and accessibility to her exploration of a group within the context of ethnogenesis. The use of oral histories also allows Adams to demonstrate cultural persistence, arguing that Native efforts to define tribal identity in ways that both whites and Indians could understand did not undermine Indigenous perspectives and ways of life. Rather, as the interviews show, many of these cultural practices still exist in present-day Native communities, as do questions surrounding nationhood, citizenship, and sovereignty. 

By detailing how Native peoples created their own enrollment policies and citizenship criteria, Adams places Indigenous agency and autonomy at the center of the narrative. While this is important, her emphasis on Native authority often glosses over the fact that Indian-created citizenship and tribal enrollment standards deliberately disenfranchised many mixed-race members of these communities. Adams’s work might have benefited from a deeper exploration of racial views in the pre-removal Native South to better understand how and why principles like blood-quantum became a central criterion for citizenship in the Jim Crow era. I was also left wondering why Adams did not include a chapter on the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, the only federally recognized Indian tribe in Alabama. I would have welcomed an exploration of their historical efforts to define citizenship, which included strategies similar to those of the Catawbas and Cherokees. 

Atlantic historians might find the chapter on the Seminole and Miccosukee the most useful, particularly Adams’s exploration of a Miccosukee trip to Cuba in 1959. In an effort to pressure the US government into granting them federal recognition, a delegation of Miccosukee leaders journeyed to Havana, where they were hosted by Fidel Castro. The trip was ultimately successful, with the Miccosukee gaining official recognition and access to reservation lands in 1963. I wish Adams would have spent more time unpacking this fascinating event, particularly given the long-standing historical relationship between South Florida Indians and Cuba. Those interested in further reading on this topic might see Harry A. Kersey Jr.'s 2001 article, "The Havana Connection: Buffalo Tiger, Fidel Castro, and the Origin of Miccosukee Tribal Sovereignty, 1959-1962." It would have been interesting to analyze this trip within the context of larger Seminole and Miccosukee efforts to model themselves as indigenous to the lands to which their forebears had migrated.  

Who Belongs? is an insightful and topical work that proves successful in its project. Adams skillfully analyzes issues that remain important to Native communities today, with thoughtfulness and detail. It is a dynamic and valuable contribution to the historiography of the Native South and Native American history/studies more generally. 

Citation: Jennifer McCutchen. Review of Adams, Mikaëla M., Who Belongs?: Race, Resources, and Tribal Citizenship in the Native South. H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews. April, 2020. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.