Indigenous Adaptations to a Changing Social Environment in the El Paso Borderlands and the Tigua of Ysleta del Sur

Review by Scott Comar

Extinction or Survival?: The Remarkable Story of the Tigua, an Urban American Indian Tribe
S.K. Adam
Paradigm Publishers, 2009
220 pages

Examining cultural continuity, sovereignty, agency, and identity, S.K. Adam’s Extinction or Survival?: The Remarkable Story of the Tigua, an Urban American Indian Tribe reveals how the Tigua Indians of Ysleta, Texas negotiated their cultural perseverance amidst dominant American notions of indigeneity. Beginning with an overview of Tigua culture, Adam interconnects the Tigua experience with American expansion, national policies, and contemporary issues, such as Indian gaming and the right to sovereignty and self-determination. Posing that essentialist representations of indigeneity are a prerequisite for social and legal acceptance as being a real Indian, Adam argues that “contemporary Tigua culture is a product of particular cultural responses to various and changing majority rules.”

Using a circular approach that chronologically advances throughout each chapter, Adam concludes with the current debate over Ysleta’s Speaking Rock Casino. As an anthropologist, he blends an eclectic of secondary works into a multidisciplinary synthesis that involves history, cultural theory, anthropology, sociology, and political science. The scholars he draws from include James Axtell, James, James A. Clifton, Vine Deloria Jr., and Nicholas Houser, to name a few. His ethnographic methodology falls into the category of ethnohistory and contributes to Tigua historiography as the most recent scholarly work to discuss tribal identity, history, and contemporary issues in micro and macro perspectives which connect the local with the national. Moreover, Adam connects the past with the present by addressing the extinction dilemma facing the Tigua because of the one-eighth blood quantum criterion for tribal membership. Including an historical overview of Federal Indian policies and explications of American dominant society’s stereotypes of indigeneity, Extinction offers a comparative analysis of local realities and national expectations. For example, Adam contrasts federal and Tigua identity norms by writing that being Tigua “is not tied to legal descriptions or degrees of blood or what outsiders may or may not think about Indian authenticity.” Instead, it is tied to traditional ways of knowing that are passed on to tribal members and descendants, whether or not they are official tribal members.

Adam informs scholars about the benefits of translation, interpretation, and comparison between and within the polemics of identity politics, indigeneity, and historical memory. He also illuminates how primary sources hold multiple meanings in different cultural arenas, i.e. legal, tribal and political. By considering how indigenous identities are cultural responses to majority perceptions of Indianness, Adam suggests that ceremonial Indian performances serve dual purposes: they maintain indigenous cultural continuity and negotiate public acceptance of the performing group as Indian. In this way, Adam effectively deconstructs Tigua identity politics. Although Adam discussed New Deal Indian policy at the national level, he missed the bus to the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition, where the Tigua made President Franklin Delano Roosevelt an honorary cacique. Yet Adam does mention the trip to Dallas when discussing the tribe’s adaption of special uniforms for public ceremonies. Revealing that the Tigua dressed one way for public ceremonial performance and another for private, shows how the tribe adapted to public perceptions of Indianness.

Ultimately, Extinction or Survival elucidates that historians need to consider the power dynamics of indigenous identity formation when examining their primary source materials. As such, public historical stereotypes of Indianness, anachronistic expectations, and romanticized notions of historical memory should all be considered in relation to the competing policy agendas that exist behind the curtains of indigenous ceremonial performances. In closing, Adam informs scholars of the need to consider multiple views and comparatively assess primary sources, imploring them to look beyond the source and into the socio-political context within which it was written. Thus, Extinction or Survival is a must read for historians and anthropologists alike, and is a great addition to any Americanist’s library.

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