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Chris Stevens Was a Heroic Ambassador of the Chinooks

Chris Stevens was everything we should want an ambassador to be, and by “we” I mean both tribal governments and colonial governments. I am quick to credit his Chinook ancestry, but it strikes me that it’s just as important that he claimed to be Chinook by blood and by citizenship when he was living.

During the stink about Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s mythical Cherokee ancestor, all of us on the tribal side of it said to anybody who would listen that it’s not about who you claim; it’s about who claims you. That’s true when you are grasping for advantage, throwing elbows to claim a ride on the Indian gravy train that departs from a depot I have never in my life been able to find.

In the real world, it’s both who claims you and who you claim. I am reminded of a Cherokee activist who scoffed at my lineage when he learned that I was born and raised in the Creek Nation. Then he learned that my grandfather was Haney Teehee, who had come to the Creek Nation seeking work in the oil fields. The family legend has it that he caught the flu that killed him going out to seek work on a really bad weather day.

Now we know how unlikely that story is, since the flu is a caused by a virus, not going out in bad weather. The function of legends is to reflect values, and that one reflects the fundamental Cherokee value that you take care of your family. For my activist friend, my birth name, Stephen Teehee, buried any questioning of my Cherokee bona fides, because it linked me with a Cherokee family of a long and distinguished history. Since then, while we still disagree, the disagreements are about public policy rather than ethnicity.

Another family legend was that I am a direct descendant of Houston B. Teehee, who was allegedly Secretary of the Treasury for the United States and Attorney General of Oklahoma. That legend is wrong in just about every particular, in spite of the fact that Houston B.’s father was Stephen Teehee, who I took to be my namesake.

As an aside, Houston Teehee is seldom mentioned without his middle initial, because it comes from his mother’s birth name, Rhoda Benge, and so tells a Cherokee that Houston was a product of a union of two important Cherokee families, Teehee and Benge.

Anyway, the family legend did not survive historical scrutiny. Houston B. Teehee served the US as Register of the Treasury from 1915 to 1919, not as Treasurer, an office not to be confused with the cabinet post, Secretary of the Treasury, who is fifth in the line of presidential succession. The Register of the Treasury, for most of the time the office existed, did sign US paper currency next to the Treasurer’s signature, and dollars signed by Houston B. Teehee are prized by his descendants.

Similarly, Houston B. was not Attorney General for the State of Oklahoma, but rather one of many Assistant Attorneys General, a mere worker bee, 1926-1927. To frost this legendary cake, my mother waited until I was grown to inform me that Houston B.’s father was not my namesake.

Family legends do get around, though, and I get a chuckle from the official Oklahoma State Senate press release on the unveiling of Houston B. Teehee’s portrait to hang in the state capitol, headed “U.S. Treasurer Houston B. Teehee’s Portrait Unveiled at Capitol.” As best I can tell, this famous gentleman was the brother of my great-grandfather, which makes me a collateral descendant, but still able to bask in the reflection of his renown within the Cherokee Nation.

Watching Elizabeth Warren’s family legend founder on the rocks of historical fact, I was interested to see if she had ever ridden that mythical Indian gravy train. It happens that I’ve served on hiring committees in academia, and I am pretty certain that she has neither benefitted nor, looking at it as a zero-sum game, claimed academic real estate staked out for real Indians.

I do object to her listing herself in the faculty directory as Indian and consider her claim that she did so to meet other Indians to be arrant nonsense. Her self-representation allowed her academic employers to make false claims about diversity, and a lawyer should have had enough sense to know that even after affirmative action in hiring was killed by the Supreme Court.

When I was applying to the University of Texas as a ninth grade dropout, affirmative action in admissions was very much alive, and not in the contemporary watered-down form of considering ethnicity as part of the entire file. It was only later I learned that affirmative action policies were for blacks and Hispanics. There were no admission goals for Indians.

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Years later, I was appointed affirmative action officer on a faculty hiring committee for the University of Texas at San Antonio back when there was affirmative action in hiring. Reading the affirmative action plan, I was stunned to see that it expressly excluded Indians because there were allegedly too few Indians in the relevant talent pool, persons with terminal academic degrees and publication records.

The only time I told the University of Texas at Austin I was Cherokee was to request a graduation notice to the tribal newspaper. While I love my alma mater for the opportunities she has given me, those opportunities had nothing to do with my tribal citizenship and I would not want to enable the claim that UT was out beating the brush to find Indian students.

After I had a career and became acquainted with the dismal statistics surrounding Indian education, my personal equation changed, not completely on purpose. I was “outed” by an article in the Austin newspaper, and once my ethnicity became publicly known, I became a role model. Every educated Indian is a role model when there are so few of us. I was reminded that, in spite of my family legend of descent from a famous lawyer, I never knew an Indian lawyer until I was one.

Without regard to the veracity of family legends or the existence of affirmative action, those of us who clear the wickets of higher education and professional careers have decisions to make if we care to keep faith with our people.

Chris Stevens descended from a famous Chinook chief in fact rather than legend, but he could be exclusively a white man if he wished, as I could have from the time I changed my name to match the grandparents who raised me. His decision to enroll was rendered more complicated than my own because the Chinook Nation was terminated in the fifties, when termination of tribal governments and relocation of Indians was the dominant federal policy, as if declaring the fact of assimilation would make it so.

By self-identifying as white, Stevens would ratify the termination of his people.

By choosing to enroll and maintain his Chinook citizenship, Stevens would say to Indian kids, by his example, that they can take degrees from public universities and compete with people from private universities. They can learn Italian, French, and Arabic. They can serve in the Peace Corps and then in the US diplomatic corps even while the US government deals unfairly with Indian nations.

Chris Stevens’s idea of the role of a US ambassador involved being out among the people rather than sequestered in the embassy. Some believe that understanding of his job cost him his life, but his understanding was correct and in the best interests of the United States.

Chris Stevens’s decision to claim his birthright of dual citizenship made him an ambassador for the Chinook Nation to the US, and that decision was in the best interests of the Chinook Nation, just like it’s in the best interests of Indian kids generally to see a citizen of a tribal nation cutting swaths through academia and the professional world.

It would be good if fewer people were distracted by the political nonsense deployed around Ambassador Stevens’s death. To call it a “scandal” is to accord the silliness a dignity it does not deserve.

What does deserve dignity is the significance of his life and the honor he is due not just by the United States, but also by the still unfairly terminated Chinook Nation and Indian country in general.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.