Professor Wetzel studies politics, culture, and social movements with a focus on contemporary indigenous nations. He received his Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, followed by a UC President's Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of California, Los Angeles.

His book, Gathering the Potawatomi Nation, draws on interviews, ethnography, and archival materials to analyze the process of national revitalization among Potawatomi Indian tribes in the United States and Canada. Wetzel's other current projects include studies of organizations providing training, capacity building, and technical assistance services to tribal nations as well as how race, class, and gender have shaped the history of gaming legalization. His work has appeared in journals such as American Indian Quarterly, Ethnic and Racial Studies, and Research in Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change.

Prof. Wetzel welcomes contacts regarding speaking engagements and is particularly interested in hearing from students who want to pursue directed studies and independent research projects.


  • B.A. Sociology, University of Michigan
  • M.A., Ph.D., Sociology, University of California-Berkeley

Courses Taught

  • Introduction to Sociology
  • Native Americans in the 21st Century
  • Political Sociology
  • Sociological Theories

Articles & Research Projects

  • Wetzel, Christopher (2012), "Envisioning Land Seizure: Diachronic Representations of the Occupation of Alcatraz Island," American Behavioral Scientist 56(2): 151-171.

    Abstract: Although land seizure is designed to be an evocative and provocative tactic for social movement organizations, how are groups’ members, goals, and claims portrayed in subsequent media coverage? Focusing on the Indians of All Tribes’ occupation of Alcatraz Island, this article qualitatively analyzes photographic representations of protest in three national newspapers. Images published during the occupation (1969 to 1971) represent Indian activists as lazing or inactive, politically ineffectual, and invisible. When foregrounding contention, photographs showed negatively affected non-Natives or Indians being arrested. By contrast, images published after the occupation (1972 to 2000) generally concentrate on the physical space of the island as a tourist destination rather than a site of conflict. Social scientists should critically assess the media’s role in shaping collective perceptions about social movements through visual images, particularly when tactics are designed to garner media attention. 

  • Wetzel, Christopher, Lozier, Thompson, and LucyRose Moller (2011), "'We Don't Need to Sell Our Souls': Scale Focusing and the Politics of the Local in Environmental Justice Activism," Environmental Practice 13(4): 396-405.Abstract: This article analyzes how Stop the Power (STP), an environmental justice social movement organization based in Brockton, Massachusetts, has confronted a well-resourced corporate opponent and a challenging state regulatory process.  Drawing on semistructured interviews with key activists, organization-generated documents such as flyers, petitions, videos, and webpages, and articles from local newspapers, we argue that, rather than jump scale, STP has instead engaged in scale focusing.  Scale focusing is conceptualized as the process of a movement organization intentionally localizing and particularizing its strategies.  STP does scale focusing in three ways: critiquing the local built environment, articulating a geographically bounded collective identity, and deploying community-based strategies such as information dissemination and participating in local electoral politics.  Since scale focusing represents a generative contribution to the social movements literature, we conclude by considering the broader implications of this concept.

  • Wetzel, Christopher (2010), "The Dilemma of Differential Mobilization: Framing Strategies and Shaping Engagement in the Occupation of Alcatraz," Research in Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change 30: 239-270.

    Abstract: This paper assesses how a social movement organization strategically framed its actions to simultaneously gain the support of multiple, diverse constituencies. The challenges associated with creating meaning and mobilizing potential partisans during the Indians of All Tribes (IAT) occupation of Alcatraz Island from November 1969 to June 1971 are examined through a qualitative analysis of movement-created texts. The IAT used a trio of distinct approaches to communicate with and gain the support of Native Americans and whites. Through inflection the IAT explained why they seized the island, emphasizing themes such as decolonization, democracy, and the importance of taking action. Through direction the IAT encouraged whites to write letters, sign petitions, andmake donations while calling for a deeper engagement by Native Americans in the land seizure. Through deflection the IAT recounted normative stories to discourage whites and “wannabes” who failed to heed the organization's other directions about how best to participate in the takeover. These three framing processes build upon and extend social movement framing theory by complicating conceptualizations of allies and underscoring how movements seek distinct types of support from different adherents.

  • Wetzel, Christopher (2009), “Theorizing Native American Land Seizure: An Analysis of Tactical Changes in the Late Twentieth Century,” Social Movement Studies 8(1): 15-32.Abstract: This paper advances the existing literature on tactics by analyzing the persistence of land seizure as a particular strategy in Native American political activism over five decades. It examines the different types of spaces seized and the claims made during three distinct historical periods: public spaces on reservations during the recuperative phase (1950-69), surplus federal lands away from reservations during the expropriative phase (1969-75), and high-profile locales on and off tribal lands during the demonstrative phase (1975-2000). Land seizures were often means to make material demands or articulate normative claims, but always served to complicate the state's exercise of power over Native peoples. Through case studies the paper demonstrates how spatial disruption, resource availability, and dynamism affected the continued viability of land seizure as a tactic to advance Native Americans' political demands. 

  • Wetzel, Christopher (2006), “Intratribal Contention Concerning Indian Gaming: Implications for Syncretic Tribalism,” American Behavioral Scientist 50(3): 283-295.Abstract: As Indian gaming operations proliferate and public deliberations concerning the propriety of casinos intensify, the academic literature devotes little attention to debates within tribes about Indian gaming. This article interrogates this divergence by examining a specific mode of intratribal contention. Gaming-related occupations staged by factions at the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas are described. After locating these practices in the context of approximately half a century of Native American contentious politics, the author considers four questions raised by these cases: (a) Does casino gaming, regardless of the class, have a place on the reservation? (b) How should communities manage the social and economic impacts of casino gaming? (c) Who is, and is not, a member of the community eligible to share in the benefits anticipated to be accrued through gaming? and (d) Who is “traditional” and what does traditional mean?

I'm currently working on a number of projects that critically analyze the organization of power in society.

Nationalism and Culture

Sociological theories argue that the nation is not inevitable or natural but is a social construct, produced and reproduced in diverse ways by state structures and regulatory apparatuses, intellectuals, and daily practices.  However, these theories fail to recognize that indigenous identities, communities, and institutions are organized around different axes than mainstream society.  This project focuses on how a particular group of Native Americans -- the Potawatomi Indians -- have recently reinvigorated a shared sense of the nation and what nationhood means in this context.  Although Potawatomi bands were dispersed across Kansas, Michigan, Oklahoma, Ontario, and Wisconsin as a consequence of forced removals in the nineteenth century, they experienced a resurgence of national identity beginning in the 1980s.  Contemporary Potawatomi nationalism is an intentional conception of the community in terms of shared cultural and social bonds and a rejection the distinctions between bands perceived by non-Native governments and individuals.  Potawatomi nationhood emphasizes the cultural, social, and ceremonial ties that unite the communities instead of focusing on forming a Western nation-state, developing common political interests, or sharing economic resources.

Expert Organizations and Training

As Native American tribes grow and offer an increasingly diverse array of services to their members, they often turn to a growing field of training, technical assistant, and capacity building organizations for assistance.  Some of these groups are non-profit organizations or affiliated with academic institutions, while others are market-oriented corporations.  Some organizations specialize in a particular area, while others deal with a wide range of issues.  This project asks why these groups were founded, how they have grown, and how they articulate particular visions of expertise to work with Native sovereign nations.  It also looks from the perspectives of Native communities consuming these services at which types of trainings are handled internally versus which are outsourced, as well as how training and development services are used strategically.

Strategies and Social Movements

This project examines the different types of spaces seized and the claims made during three distinct historical periods of land seizure activism by indigenous peoples between 1950 and 2000: public spaces on reservations during the “recuperative phase” (1950-1969), surplus federal lands away from reservations during the “expropriative phase” (1969-1975), and high profile locales on and off tribal lands during the “demonstrative phase” (1975-2000).  Land seizures are often means to make material demands or articulate normative claims but always serve to complicate the state’s exercise of power over Native peoples.  Spatial disruption, resource availability, and dynamism affect the continued viability of land seizure as a tactic to advance Native political demands.

Race, Class, Gender and Gaming Legalization

According to the American Gaming Association, gross gaming revenue for the United States was more than $92 billion in 2007 with the vast majority of these dollars generated by commercial casinos, tribal casinos, and state lotteries.  As opportunities to participate in various types of gaming become more readily available, debates about the consequences and meaning of gaming intensify.  This project provides a diachronic analysis of three moments of gaming legalization in the US: pari-mutuel wagering in 1930s, state lotteries in the 1960s and 1970s, and casinos in the 1990s and 2000s.  At each moment the project considers how race, class, and gender impact public constructions of the proprietors of gaming operations, the patrons of gaming facilities, and the process of allocating gaming proceeds.  

For some initial data from this project, see the following Massachusetts maps which show voting outcomes by community for 1935 (to legalize horse and greyhound racing, measures were voted on separately), 1950 (to legalize a state charitable lottery), and 2000 and 2008 (to ban greyhound racing).

Curriculum Vitae