OKLAHOMA CITY – When it comes to tribal membership, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma vigilantly watches the 30-plus Cherokee groups that do not have federal recognition. The deception of those falsely claiming Cherokee membership rankles some of the 250,000-member tribe, citizens said.
Cherokee Nation advocates pressed their point at “Land, Wind, Water,” the 22nd Annual Sovereignty Symposium, June 3 – 4 in a panel called, “Trafficking Tribal Membership.”
But the reception was lukewarm from others who sat in on the discussion.
“Don’t lump us all in together, is what I’m saying,” said Cedric Sunray, a MOWA Choctaw and fluent speaker who attended boarding school. Sunray’s band doesn’t have federal recognition, but that doesn’t make him any less Indian, he said.
“When I attended federal Indian boarding school no one asked to see my CDIB (Certificate Degree of Indian Blood).”
But Tonia Williams, a member of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Okla., said her tribe is against those who pass as Cherokees, such as the Northern Cherokee of Missouri and Arkansas and the Southern Cherokee of Kentucky, who are not federally recognized.
“This fight is all over the place. We’ve had people building an entire career based on being Indian and they’re not Indian.”
Williams said posing as an American Indian happens in academia, arts and politics. The tribe sees several solutions to those who pass themselves off as Indian. Of the scores of Cherokee-based groups, three, the Eastern Band of Cherokees in North Carolina and two Oklahoma groups, the United Keetoowah Band and the Cherokee Nation are the only legitimately recognized Cherokee tribes.
The Cherokees support federal legislation that would make it a felony to knowingly and for gain pass as Native American. The tribe also favors cutting off federal funds to any non-recognized groups as well as stricter scrutiny of “wanna-bes,” Williams said.
But Chief Ken Adams of the Virginia-based Mattaponi was outraged by Williams’ points. He said generalizing those who don’t have federal recognition as phony hurts the identity of innocent groups, including his. The 600-member Mattaponi recently received state recognition and are currently vying for federal recognition.
“I think we’re legitimate. Painting everyone with a broad brush is inaccurate. It’s like saying every Indian lives on a reservation.”
Adams said the Mattaponi deserve recognition and have tried other avenues available to get it. Recently, the group’s route through Congress proved fruitful with their recognition bill passing a U.S. House of Representatives vote.
“I think we’ll make it. As they say, ‘the stars are aligned.’”
With several options to get recognition available to tribes, including Congress and the BIA, other groups who claim to be Indian are trying to dupe the system, said one federal prosecutor.
Brent Anderson of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Kansas division recently prosecuted the case against the leader of a self-proclaimed tribe, the Kaweah (Kaw-way) Indian Nation and Malcolm “Thurnderbird VI” Webber in Wichita, Kan.
“This case has absolutely nothing to do with Indian sovereignty.” The self-named “chief” was recently sentenced to federal prison in Beaurmont, Texas for five years for his elaborate scheme to build up tribal enrollment fees paid by immigrants desperate to stay in the U.S. The charges against Webber mostly consisted of fraud.
“This kind of perpetration hurts a lot of people. If you want to know what a wannabe is – it’s Malcom Webber.”
Webber sold membership into the minted Kaweah group and ratcheted more than $500,000 in his bank account. Some of Webber’s motivation started as a way to avoid income taxes, but the scheme grew wildly. After proclaiming all applicants as “full” blood, he then advised members to apply for Social Security cards. He printed money, developed an “Indian Police” and sold Kaweah car tags before federal authorities caught up to him.
“He (Webber) actually started as a Cherokee,” Anderson said.
Cases like Webber’s disregard the law and are bolder than those who might claim Indian heritage, panelists said. Still others were concerned that the Cherokees’ efforts to police Indian country for falsified Indians could warrant undue skepticism by onlookers.
“I am Chickasaw and no one loves their nation more than I love mine,” said enrolled Chickasaw Matthew Gore of Stonewall, Okla. “But it could turn people off to the cause if we’re too offensive.”
One panelist, Susan Shown Harjo, Muscogee-Cheyenne, said she too is offended by those who knowingly make false claims to be Native, but she supports some non-federally recognized tribes who are awaiting recognition. Other gray areas exist as when tribes adopt others into their family as fictive kin.
Caution should be used so the rights of others are not infringed when branding others as non-Indian, Harjo said.
“I want the Virginia tribes to be recognized. There are those who are not recognized and should be ... that doesn’t make them any less Indian.”
In Oklahoma, two groups, the Euchees and the Delaware Tribe of Indians are not federally recognized. The Creek-based Euchees have a recognition application pending with the BIA and the Delawares had their recognition stripped after losing a legal battle with the Cherokee Nation. They are seeking a federal legislation route for regaining federal recognition.