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Ethnicity and the Spaces of Control: The Impact of the Reservation System on Native North-American Ethnic Identity

Part 1 Dissertation 1998
Rod Heyes
London Metropolitan University | UK
The system of 'reservations' has been and remains a powerful tool in the interaction between Euro-American and Native American culture in the United States. This system was established and consolidated as American government policy in the nineteenth-century, and the role of the reservation has been transformed and reinterpreted since it's inception, existing simultaneously as a coercive tool, assimilative device, economic straight-jacket and vehicle for cultural renewal. This dissertation explores the ways in which notions of ethnic identity (both Euro-American and Native American) have had territorial implications and, vice versa, the manner in which land and it's use have affected identity.

While consistently fascinating, the ebb and flow of ethnic identification amongst both Native North Americans and Anglo-Americans has never been merely an intellectual exercise. Rights, lands and in some cases considerable economic advantages are conferred on those who affiliate with particular Native American groups, and failure to assert tribal identity can have costly repercussions. My work looks broadly at notions of ethnicity in America and locally at the history of the Saginaw Chippewa 'tribe' in Michigan which culminated in a visit to the Isabella reservation. The intent of this visit was to see first hand the socio-spatial results of two centuries if ideological debate, acculturation and strategies for ethnic revitalisation. The final chapter of this dissertation describes the situation on Isabella since the arrival of an enormous and lucrative casino.

I was aware throughout researching this subject that it crosses the boundaries of ethnography, anthropology, geography and architecture. However, issues of authenticity, nation and identity crop up in architectural discourse at all levels and they must be understood, negotiated, dismantled and sometimes undermined. This dissertation could be seen as a critical description of a particular place with an emphasis on it's position in the history of American ethnic ideology.


Bhabha, Homi, The Location of Culture, Routledge, London, 1994

Clifton, J. (ed.), The Invented Indian, Transaction Press, New York, 1990

Montfort, Margaret Mary, "Ethnic and Tribal Identity Among the Saginaw Chippewa of Nineteenth Century Michigan", Unpublished Anthropology Masters Thesis, Michigan State University, Michigan, 1995

Pearce, Roy Harvey, Savagism and Civilisation, University of California Press, California, 1988
Rod Heyes

The subject of this dissertation is a design topic in a special, inventive sense. Ethnic identity is a construction, partly foisted on, partly granted to, partly affirmed by, Native American 'tribes'. Much of the shaping this particular identity has been spatial - the reallocation of space to Native Americans has been a main means of reconstructing their identities. The core of the essay is a subtle and thoughtful explication of the 'reservation', it's invention, further evolution and continuing effects. This piece is one of the most convincing things I have read on culture as spatial, and one of the best pieces of reasoning I have seen in a dissertation. The student makes effective use of the striking material he has found with no fuss and no waste; he illuminates dilemmas like that of what totem to assign to children born of British fathers and native mothers in a wonderfully understated way. Reporting a visit to a reservation in Michigan he uses some of the tools of the novelist to evoke the contradictions of contemporary Native American spaces. It is a chilling tale, more powerful because the writer avoids overheated language.

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