Valerie L. Lambert is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, President of the Association of Indigenous Anthropologists (a Section of the American Anthropological Association), and an enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation
I was reared in Oklahoma and am an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation. I am also of documented Chickasaw ancestry. My first book, Choctaw Nation: A Story of American Indian Resurgence (University of Nebraska Press 2007), is a story of tribal nation building in the modern era. It is the winner of the North American Indian Prose Award and was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award. In this book, I treat nation-building projects as nothing new to the Choctaws, who have responded to a number of hard-hitting assaults on Choctaw sovereignty and nationhood by rebuilding our tribal nation. Drawing on field research, interviews, and archival sources, I explore the struggles and triumphs of our Tribe in building a new government and launching an ambitious program of economic development in the late-twentieth century, achieving a partial restoration of our former glory as a significant political and economic presence in what is now the United States.
I have completed the manuscript for my second book, American Indians at Work: An Ethnography of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This study is based upon sixteen months of participant-observation field research that I conducted while employed as an American Indian and a cultural anthropologist at the BIA. The BIA, together with the Indian Health Service, is the largest employer of American Indians in the United States. My ability to secure a position at this institution was made possible by the fact that, in addition to possessing certain qualifications, I am an Indian eligible for Indian preference in employment at the BIA. As an enrolled citizen of a federally-recognized tribe, I am a member of the category of people over whom the BIA exercises its “protective” authority and to whom it administers cradle-to-grave, also known as womb-to-tomb, services. The Indian perspective presented in my book has been shaped by my personal experiences growing up in Oklahoma with knowledge and awareness of BIA abuses.
By chronicling life and work inside the 8,000-employee BIA only two generations after Indians assumed control of the agency, then became more than 95 percent of its workforce, I describe and analyze the ways these Indian bureaucrats struggle to come to terms with the agency’s stomach-turning history and forge a new trajectory for the twenty-first century. Many of the Indian bureaucrats I portray seek a massive overhaul and reconfiguration of federal-Indian relations, hoping to replace longstanding relations of paternalism and animosity with relations of mutual respect and partnership. The stories told in my manuscript are stories of these bureaucrats’ heartfelt efforts to improve conditions on Indian reservations, strengthen tribal governments, avert crises that threaten the continued existence of tribes as sovereign nations, and survive the betrayals that come from within and without. These and other stories told in my ethnography bring to life a number of talented and well-meaning but also occasionally misguided and flawed individuals. Fueling their actions are fierce and noble convictions to create a better future for our people.