by Sara-Larus Tolley. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006. 304pp. Cloth. $29.95. ISBN: 9780806137483.

Reviewed by John R. Wunder, Department of History and Journalism, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Renvall Institute, University of Helsinki. Email: jwunder [at]


QUEST FOR TRIBAL ACKNOWLEDGMENT, by Sara-Larus Tolley, is a difficult book to review. It clearly has value, and it represents a contribution to the literature on the evolution of federal Indian policy and Indian law and the history of California Indians. But there are fundamental problems that go to the book’s very core. These problems throw into question its ultimate value. In many ways, this book offers some excellent insight, particularly into the acknowledgment process as a colonial concept, but the way Tolley reaches conclusions is often problematic. This reader has weighed the pluses and minuses and believes the book does indeed have some merit, but it was not an easy sorting process.

This book involves the recent history of a group of California indigenous peoples, the Honey Lake Maidus, who have unsuccessfully attempted to achieve federal recognition of their tribe. The Honey Lake Maidus of rural northeastern California are a small group that has in many ways slipped through the cracks of the state and federal Indian hierarchy. It would have been easy for the Honey Lake Maidus to have been absorbed by various Indian rancherias in California or with other tribes through intermarriage, but they have maintained their separateness and identity against extremely difficult odds and circumstances. Tolley conducted significant fieldwork with the Honey Lake Maidus and ultimately was hired to help write the petition for the acknowledgment process. Out of this activity came her monograph.

There are fundamental flaws that permeate this book. First, it is basically an autobiography. The title might actually read, “My Life with the Honey Lake Maidus and the Federal Government.” Oddly, the author makes herself the primary subject in the Honey Lake Maidus acknowledgment process. It is Tolley’s ups and downs that seem to generate the most intense writing, even to the point of revealing petty internal struggles that broke out during this emotional moment for her and the Honey Lake Maidus. She reveals her own personal dislikes of various Maidu leaders. Perhaps because she was ultimately unsuccessful with her petition, she felt free to include these personal respites.

Second, Tolley seems intent on adding and applying methodologies and analyses that have little to do with the acknowledgment process. The book reads like a dissertation where a professor has forced upon a student some pet theories that have little to do with the subject at hand. In fact, the author writes, “Observing how [Michel] [*295] Foucault’s and [Antonio] Gramsci’s ideas intersect one another on their routes to different places casts light upon the Honey Lake Maidu experience as petitioners” (p.15). Worse, the theories injected are post-colonial concepts that indigenous scholars and a number of non-indigenous scholars have rejected as both irrelevant and false. They argue that Indians cannot possibly be living within a post-colonial framework when colonialism is alive and well, thank you. Even though Tolley recognizes that the acknowledgment procedure is a colonial process, fundamental inconsistencies become imbedded as a basic part of this book which is littered with such unenlightened phrases as “decentered,” “techniques of the self,” and “broad discourses.” The reader wonders, “Is this the Honey Maidus’ story?”

Third, Tolley, who is a very honest writer throughout, states in her introduction that “Some names and facts have been changed to protect people’s identities” (p.xviii). This is amazing. Is this then fiction? Or, that anomaly – historical fiction? Or, an old goodie – fieldwork fiction? What names and/or facts are false are not identified. Given this uncertainty, how do we know what is true and what is false? This startling admission makes one wonder whether this book is a fantasy. To be fair, social science method often allows the conduct of surveys or interviews in which the participants are not identified. But it does not allow for made-up facts or giving participants false and misleading names. The credibility of the book is undermined before it even proceeds.

Fourth, the research for the book is minimal. It fails to consult a variety of works on Indian law that might have helped avoid false statements. By not using the many federal court cases on this subject, and the courts have approved their own acknowledgment requirements that differ from the federal government bureaucracy requirements, or the numerous applicable law review articles (including AMERICAN INDIAN LAW REVIEW, ironically out of the University of Oklahoma School of Law), ignorance is not always overcome. For example, Tolley states, “The famous phrase that defined the Indian nations as ‘domestic and dependent’ quasi sovereigns comes out of Supreme Court [Chief] Justice [John] Marshall’s decision in CHEROKEE NATION v. GEORGIA (1831), a case in which the Cherokees requested the Court’s protection from the predations visited upon their lands by the state of Georgia” (p.42). Here the Court’s actual language is slightly twisted and not quoted accurately, and many subsequent decisions have hinged on Marshall’s true words. Or take an example from the following page when Tolley allows that in California is found “the creation of the nation’s first modern reservation system.” This is simply false. Tell that to the Powhatans of 17th century Virginia, the Narragansetts of 18th century Rhode Island, the Lakotas of 19th century South Dakota, or the Yaquis of 20th century Arizona.

And fifth, the author really does not like her subject. She seems to emerge from her experience as bloodied and bruised. Early on, she gives us a hint of her feelings. On page 13, she allows that [*296] “the Honey Lake Maidu sense of belonging seems to come from finding a sustainable antagonism.” Identity, therefore, comes from who they are not, and not from who they are. This is a damning statement that some federal official might latch onto to deny the Maidus tribal status. If this is how the author felt, why then did she work for the Maidus to try to obtain tribal status? Autobiography is clearly the way to perceive of this book, and for the Honey Lake Maidus who may try again to become federally recognized, it is how this book should be read.

Still, through it all, what is best about this book is the author’s sense of outrage. There is a stiletto-like quality to some of her observations and syntheses. When characterizing the connections between 19th and 20th century California Indian history, she writes, “yesterday’s genocide has given way to ethnocide” (p.39). And she then concludes, “After the government’s sanction of murder, hangings, and rape after the forced marches, forced indentures, and then the neglect and bureaucratic ‘extinction’ of California’s tribes, it now asks them, by way of the Federal Acknowledgment process, to prove to the state that they are Indian peoples.” Incredulous. And well put. Tolley is correct to pull these historical forces and treatments together and ask how this can really be happening. For the Honey Lake Maidus, it is the chilling reality.


© Copyright 2007 by the author, John R. Wunder.