The Double Bind of American Indian Need-Based Sovereignty

Peer Reviewed


This essay examines a double bind that faces indigenous peoples in the Anglophone settler states, the double bind of need-based sovereignty. This double bind works as follows: indigenous sovereigns, such as American Indian tribal nations, require economic resources to exercise sovereignty, and their revenues often derive from their governmental rights; however, once they exercise economic power, the legitimacy of indigenous sovereignty and citizenship is challenged within settler society. Through analysis of Florida Seminole gaming and the threatened severance of Seminoles’ governmental status by mid-1900s federal “termination” policy, I show how economy-linked limits to indigenous sovereignty and citizenship rest on debates over culture, over what it is that renders American Indians distinctive as individuals and as collectives. Today, as during termination debates, Seminoles and other American Indian peoples struggle to position their economic well-being not as an anomaly or an abandonment of indigenous ways but, rather, as the result of an ongoing commitment to collective self-governance. With the sounds of termination echoing in gaming debates, it is possible to identify the reemergence of need-based sovereignty as a key modality of settler colonialism in the United States.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays that examine how indigenous groups have been positioned in the United States.  See Pauline Turner Strong and Barrik Van Winkle’s “Indian Blood” (1996); Theresa D O’Nell’s “Telling about Whites, Talking about Indians” (1994); and Sara Ciborski and Gail Landsman’s “Representation and Politics: Contesting Histories of the Iroquois” (1992).

Cultural Anthropology has also published a wide range of essays that examine indigeneity more generally. See for example Andrea Muehlebach’s “’Making Place’ at the United Nations” (2001); Hanne Veber’s “The Salt of the Montaña: Interpreting Indigenous Activism in the Rain Forest” (1998); Faye Ginsburg’s “Embedded Aesthetics: Creating a Discursive Space for Indigenous Media” (1994) and Liisa Malkki’s “National Georgaphic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees” (1992).

About the Author

Jessica Cattelino is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles.  Her first book, High Stakes: Florida Seminole Gaming and Sovereignty, explored how Seminole tribe members negotiate gaming-related economic shifts, and the implications of these changes for their social and political lives.  She is currently working on a book project about Florida Seminole and local non-Seminole forms of political belonging in relation to land and water, and the history and ethnography of Everglades reclamation and restoration.


In 2008, the Seminole Tribe finalized the $965 million purchase of Hard Rock International, which operates Hard Rock Cafes, casinos, and resorts in 45 countries around the world.  This was the largest purchase of a multinational corporation by an indigenous nation.  Pictured are Bobby Henry (in red) and other Seminole representatives at the press conference in Times Square, New York City.

Steve Chernin/Getty Images, "Hard Rock Cafe Purchase." December 8, 2006.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. What is the double bind of American Indian need-based sovereignty, as described by Cattelino?  How does it operate?  Why does Cattelino insist upon the economic component of the double bind?

2. What are the “structures of expectation” to which the Seminoles are subject?  How do these expectations shape federal policy and Seminole self-representation?  How has gaming wealth affected such expectations?

3. Discuss the 1953 federal termination policy, why the Seminoles were recommended for termination, and the outcome of the controversy.  How do threats of termination play out today?

4. Discuss the history and politics of indigenous sovereignty in the United States.  How do Seminoles articulate and exercise their sovereignty?

5. Describe the relationship between citizenship and economic productivity that Cattelino argues is part and parcel of US cultural politics.

6. What possibilities and limitations for economic and political power does tribal gaming engender for the Seminole tribe?

7. Discuss Seminole "refusal" in relation to federal government interventions and official and popular expectations for indigenous groups.

8. How does Cattelino imagine an escape from the double bind?  Discuss her use of Bateson's "clues" for thinking through this problematic.

Related Readings

Biolsi, Thomas. 2005. "Imagined Geographies: Sovereignty, Indigenous Space, and American Indian Struggle." American Ethnologist 32(2):239-259.

Cowlishaw, Gillian. 2003. "Disappointing Indigenous People: Violence and the Refusal of Help." Public Culture 15(1):103-125.

Cramer, Renee Ann. 2005. Cash, Color, and Colonialism: The Politics of Tribal Acknowledgment. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Deloria, Philip. 2004. Indians in Unexpected Places. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

De la Merced, Michael J. 2006. "Florida's Seminole Tribe Buys Hard Rock Cafes and Casinos."

Simpson, Audra. 2007. On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, 'Voice' and Colonial Citizenship. Junctures 9:67-80.

Editorial Overview

In her article “The Double Bind of American Indian Need-Based Sovereignty,” Jessica Cattelino explores a central dilemma faced by the Seminole Tribe of Florida: economic success is simultaneously necessary for the tribe to maintain its sovereign status and yet is the very condition used to challenge that sovereignty.  Drawing from the congressional termination debates of 1953 and termination-type discourses of the contemporary gaming era, Cattelino examines the enduring centrality of economic productivity to notions of sovereignty, citizenship, and rights in the United States.  Her analysis reveals the complications posed by indigenous wealth to mainstream cultural expectations of American Indians. 

Unsettling recent anthropological theorization and popular discourse that might characterize the “wealthy ‘gaming tribe’” as an “emergent form of life,” Cattelino instead asks, “Why does indigenous wealth so often appear to be emergent in the United States relative to indigenous poverty?  With what effects and antecedents?  And what might this tell us about structures of expectation—especially economic ones—that face indigenous peoples in settler states?”  Cattelino demonstrates through intricate historical and ethnographic analysis how Seminoles have negotiated and “refused” such expectations by asserting that economic prosperity, cultural distinctiveness, and tribal sovereignty are not mutually exclusive but essential to their “collective self-governance.”

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