TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - Every year thousands of people are told or "discover" they have Native American blood. Sometimes it's true, sometimes not. And the tribe people most commonly associate themselves with is Cherokee.
Usually, it's harmless. But sometimes people take illegal or unethical steps to form "tribes" and sell membership. Some claim treaty rights and seek state and federal recognition, while others take federal money intended for legitimate Indian nations.
A group of Cherokee Nation employees and officials recently formed a task force to deal with these "wannabe" Cherokees.
The group consists of Dr. Richard Allen, policy analyst; Troy Wayne Poteet, executive director of the Arkansas Riverbed Authority; Tribal Councilors Jack Baker and Cara Cowan-Watts, Webmaster Tonia Williams; Teri Rhoades, Youth Business Loan Center councilor; and Richard Osborn and John Parris of the Justice Department.
And even though their task force has no official name, it does have an agenda.
"It looks at protecting our sovereignty," Allen said. "We have so many individuals and groups who are using the Cherokee name and a lot of times it's in a manner that is very inappropriate. They scam people. They charge for genealogy. They charge for DNA tests that might suggest that people could be Indian. In essence, we are looking at groups that claim to be Cherokee but have no real status and who are just distorting the culture and history."
Allen said he dealt with wannabe Cherokees for several years before Poteet became involved. From there, they got the other six task force members interested because they also deal with wannabes at their jobs.
Sometimes the situations are humorous. Allen recalled two Caucasian men from a Georgia "Cherokee" group walking around Tahlequah during one Cherokee National Holiday dressed in leather outfits and carrying a bow and a spear. Tourists began taking pictures while real Cherokees were laughing at them, he said.
But it's not funny when wannabes scam people, schools and government officials, or come together to establish tribes seeking rights.
"We don't deny that there are individuals out there who might have Indian heritage, but coming together as a group doesn't make them a tribe," Allen said. "They are creating an identity that is absolutely false."
There are only three federally recognized Cherokee tribes in the U.S. - the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, both in Tahlequah, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina. The rest, task force members said, are either bogus tribes or just Cherokees coming together to celebrate their culture.
"I don't think anyone (on the task force) has an objection to someone having a Cherokee heritage club and not trying to be a tribe or nation," Rhoades said. "A large part of our objection comes from when you pretend to be an Indian tribe or nation and lay claims to treaties you have no right to. That's just wrong."
Rhoades said there are more than 200 bogus Cherokee tribes. One of the biggest is the "Lost Cherokee Nation of Arkansas and Missouri" in Dover, Ark., which has about 7,000-members. In 2005, it petitioned three state legislators to support its bid to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for federal recognition. This led the Arkansas attorney general to state that the Arkansas legislature could not recognize any state tribes.
"A lot of people try to use that (state recognition) as a stepping stone by stating that a state has already recognized them, therefore they have some sort of government-to-government relationship," Rhoades said.
However, the first step to federal recognition is that a tribe must be identified as an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis since 1900, something most fake groups can't accomplish, Allen said.
According to a recent news story, the "Lost Cherokees" are again asking the BIA for federal recognition. The story stated the group has tried gaining federal recognition periodically for about 20 years.
"We are the Cherokees who never walked," group leader Cliff Bishop said in the story, referring to the Trail of Tears.
Another group asking for federal recognition is the "Cherokee of Lawrence County, Tenn." The tribe's principal chief, Joe "Sitting Owl" White, said he eventually expects his tribe to be federally recognized because he and his 800 fellow members are Cherokee, and he cites photography as proof.
"We've been called every name in the book, but we are Cherokee," he said. "We can take photos of our members and hold them up and see the Cherokee in us."
He also said his tribe has scientifically proven with DNA evidence that the Cherokee people are Jewish.
Lola Smith Scholl, leader of the "Western Cherokee Nation of Arkansas and Missouri," said her organization is also attempting to get federal recognition but declined further comment.
Task force members said wannabe groups asking for federal recognition are the reasons why it takes so long for legitimate tribes to go through the recognition process.
However, in some cases, federal recognition hasn't been needed for bogus tribes to receive federal money. Allen said two years ago the "Lost Cherokees" were receiving money from Arkansas schools for helping bring Office of Indian Education dollars to the schools.
Under the Indian Education Act, he said, schools are provided a certain amount of money for each Indian student they have enrolled. This led to "Lost Cherokee" members enrolling their children in schools as Indians, letting the schools collect the federal dollars and then charging the school a 5 percent "administration fee," Allen said.
Twenty-four public schools in Arkansas received about $1.1 million because of the scam. The Phoenix attempted to contact the group but got no response.
Poteet said he knows of a group in Nebraska that was pulling a tax benefit scam. He said county officials were extending the same tax benefits that are afforded to a nearby Omaha Indian reservation to an illegitimate "Cherokee" tribe.
"We don't know how much money they're bleeding off the Department of Labor, but we do know they are doing that in several states," Poteet said of the Nebraska group. "They are also bleeding money out of the Department of Education. And this is going on all over the country. These groups are siphoning funds intended for Indian people."
Task force members said they don't know how much federal money these groups take from legitimate tribes each year but would like to conduct a study on the subject.
"They don't take money from us (Cherokee Nation) directly or from our funding, but it takes away from Indians overall," Williams said.
In past years, a group calling itself the "Echota Cherokee of Alabama" has received money from the Administration for Native Americans for language preservation and were even partnered with Auburn University to help save the Cherokee language.
The Phoenix attempted to contact the "Echota Cherokee of Alabama" group, but did not receive a response.
Rhoades said Alabama's state recognized tribes have received federal education, health and housing funds as well as the right to sell arts and crafts as authentic Indian art.
Poteet said he and Baker have dealt with people from these groups attending National Trail of Tears Association gatherings around the U.S. He said some try to attain leadership positions in the association, while others meddle where they don't belong.
"We found that these groups have gone so long without anybody contesting their ridiculous claims, they have gained some local acceptance," Poteet said. "The consequence of that is that they want to interject themselves into interpretation issues. There have been situations where they have interjected themselves into Indian Child Welfare issues."
Rhoades said she knows a woman belonging to a fraudulent group who became a member of the Tennessee Indian Commission but didn't know what IHS (Indian Health Service) meant.
Other groups form attempting to get state and federal recognition so they can cash in on Indian gaming. In 2000, a group called the "Southern Cherokee Nation" claimed to be a sovereign nation and planned to open a gaming boat on the Arkansas River near Webbers Falls, Okla. Gary Ridge, the group's "principal chief," said his group took the boat to Webbers Falls only as a means to provide employment for its members.
"This was intended to be bingo only," he said. "This venture did not go forward, but I am hopeful for other ideas for development of a region whose people and their economic needs have been too long neglected."
Although not federally recognized, Ridge said the group was established as a band of the CN in the Treaty of 1866 with its own laws and jurisdiction.
"The Southern Cherokee actively continued its political entity within the Cherokee Nation through statehood and was continued, just as the Cherokee Nation was continued, by the 1906 Five Civilized Tribes Act under a presidential-appointed chief until the 1970 Principal Chiefs Act, which allowed the Cherokee Nation as well the Southern Cherokee to once again elect their own chief," he said. Ridge added that the group only wants to operate under the articles of the 1866 treaty and the 1906 Five Civilized Tribes Act.
However, Allen said the "Southern Cherokees" have no legitimate claims in Oklahoma.
"This area is the jurisdiction of the Cherokee Nation and no other tribal entity. We see these get-rich-quick schemes all the time. The problem is that these people may be taking the goodwill and reputation that Cherokees have established over centuries and using it to mislead the government and individual citizens," Allen said.
But for whatever reason these groups form, they usually have one thing in common - charging for membership.
The "United Cherokee Nation," which did not respond to Phoenix inquiries, charges a $35 application fee, while the "Western Cherokee Nation of Arkansas and Missouri" has a $60 application fee and a $10 annual roll fee. The "Cherokee of Lawrence County" don't charge for membership but instead asks its members to "make it a priority to send $10 a month to help with the tribe" and $12 to subscribe to its newsletter.
Membership fees and dues are just two signs a "Cherokee" group isn't legitimate, task force members said. Other signs include members using Indian-sounding names such as "Two Feathers" and "Wind Caller," acting and dressing like Hollywood-stereotyped Indians or Plains Indians, asking for money to perform DNA tests or genealogical research, requirements to wear regalia to meetings and requirements to go through an Indian-naming ceremony.
Once admitted into the groups, members usually get membership cards, bogus "Certified Degree of Indian Blood" cards and genealogy certificates "proving" they are eligible for membership.
"The problem is that there are so many people out there who have access to these groups (via the Internet), and for these groups to have access to all of these people, these groups are becoming larger and larger," Williams said.
Task force members said some bogus members are New Agers searching for spiritual enlightenment, but for most, they are people seeking acceptance within a community.
"Becoming a Cherokee in a certain region affords them a status that they didn't have," Allen said. "The county commissioner might start visiting with them as Cherokees. The state legislator might acknowledge them as a tribe or as leaders of a tribe. For some, it's status, taking on an identity that they did not have."
And as more adults join these groups, their children usually follow leading to even more people living with a false identity.
"Now you are getting the third and fourth generation of people who think they are Indians. The little ones coming up are immersed in a false tribal identity. They don't know any better, but they are going to grow up thinking they are Indian," Allen said.
And that's what makes the task force's work so important. As generations come and go, more groups will emerge distorting history, language and culture; wanting federal dollars for services; land and treaty rights; sovereignty; and wanting to impose their views on Indian matters.
Task force members said they are still strategizing on how to combat the groups, but do have some ideas such as networking with other federally recognized tribes to spread information about these groups. Williams said Cherokees aren't the only Indian people being misrepresented. She said the other popular tribes dealing with bogus groups are the Delaware, Navajo and Sioux.
Developing more "informants" or people who contact CN reporting bogus groups is another step, as is getting Cherokee citizens around the country to inform government officials. Allen said many people, including legislators, don't realize that most Cherokees are located in Oklahoma and North Carolina and that for the most part the "full-blood element doesn't leave." Poteet said if citizens are willing to help, then they should talk to or write their elected officials.
"An average person can help stop these groups by writing a local legislator and pointing out that states should not be in a position of creating Indian nations," he said.
In the long run, Allen said, states not recognizing bogus groups would be a major step in stopping them.
"Ultimately, I think the elimination of state recognition would be one way of looking at it, but we don't want to do harm to those tribes who have a legitimate claim who yet haven't been able to determine what it is they require for federal recognition," he said. "People who want to claim Cherokee heritage, who have legitimate claim to it, usually don't act in the manner as wannabes. It's those who put on feathers and act like an Indian tribe are the ones we have problems with."