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Re-Imagining Community: Political Ecology and Indigenous State Formation in the Cherokee Nation


Tribal environmental governance in the Cherokee Nation today is characterized by a complex interplay among community, bureaucracy, and knowledge. The Cherokee Nation is one of the largest American Indian nations by population, and possesses a tripartite government that has operated free of federal oversight since 1971. Although the government has its roots in the historic 1827 Cherokee constitution that in many ways successfully melded "traditional" forms of governance with a state structure, the Cherokee Nation is struggling to reconcile its modern governance structure with the numerous cohesive communities that make up the tribal nation's cultural base. This situation is acutely illustrated in current tribal environmental projects. Despite the Cherokee Nation's sophisticated environmental programs that have been functioning under tribal control since the 1990s, only recently have initiatives attempted to fill the "culture gap" that exists between tribal environmental policy and Cherokee environmental knowledge and practices.

This dissertation addresses these issues through the study of one such initiative. Using ethnographic methods, I follow a tribally-funded ethnobotany project that began in 2004 and has developed into a unique and productive collaboration between a group of Cherokee elders, a Cherokee community non-profit organization, and the Cherokee Nation Natural Resources Department. The formation of this group represents a significant connection between government and community, especially because of its focus on knowledge that is deemed sacred and rarely discussed openly. The conditions of the first group meeting - held outdoors, around a fire at a secluded and wooded meeting space (as opposed to a stark conference room at the tribal complex) - speak to its success as an ongoing initiative, and illuminate changing perspectives on knowledge and authority within the tribal government. I propose that these changing perspectives are brought about through a persistent but fluctuating balancing act between Cherokee communities and their formal, centralized governance structures.

Whereas Cherokee society resists centralization, it nonetheless relies on a central government to present a representative body that can confront external political pressures. In tracing Cherokee political history, along with environmental histories of resource politics and Cherokee ecological knowledge, I arrive at conclusions about tribal bureaucracy, state formation, and the epistemological and political issues of incorporating traditional knowledge into tribal environmental programs. I assert that tribal environmental policy is enhanced when it is approached through sincere collaborative cultural projects like the ethnobotany initiative discussed above. Furthermore, while I acknowledge the problems with imposed forms of political organization in tribal communities, I argue that Cherokee (and, by extension, indigenous) engagement with dominant political structures can articulate new forms that offer the possibility of undermining the forces of colonialism while speaking its language - making use of state structures like bureaucracy, constitutional governments, and environmental policy, while nurturing community, cultural protocol, and traditional knowledge. These new articulations have the potential to transform how we think about global politics, and to offer different standards of governance that are not based in the philosophies of imperial states or centered on imperial control.

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