“Pretendians” — like the three University of Kansas professors whose claims to be members of Indian tribes have recently been debunked — are only part of the problem.
According to Shawnee Chief Ben Barnes, the Government Accountability Office and reporting by the Los Angeles Times, there are hundreds of fake tribes bilking millions of dollars annually from taxpayers.
Barnes said a GAO report from 2010 shows 26 separate federal programs which are being defrauded by 24 fake tribes that are not federally recognized.
GAO report 12-358 says federal agencies awarded more than $100 million in funding to the 26 non-federally recognized tribes for fiscal years 2007 through 2010.
The report said that the majority — some $76 million — went to the “Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina” which has state recognition, if only partial federal recognition, and is actively pursuing federal recognition.
The report was careful to note that most program recipients are, in fact, federally-recognized tribes and that funding to non-recognized tribes accounted for only about 2.7% of the $2.6 billion spent over the four years studied — which is still a considerable sum.
Most of the grant funds are distributed by various federal agencies to non-profit organizations under the various “tribes.”
As an example, the Department of Health and Human Services distributed funds to two non-federally recognized tribes in New Jersey during the 4-year review period — the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indians of New Jersey and the Powhatan Renape Nation.
While there have been a couple of “concurrent resolutions” regarding the “tribes,” the resolutions do not have the force of law, and the GAO report says the New Jersey Commission on Native American Affairs has been at pains to make clear neither tribe has state recognition — let alone federal — but ” the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indians of New Jersey and the Powhatan Renape Nation continue to consider themselves, and have represented themselves to HHS, as state-recognized tribes in applying for funding awarded by the Community Services Block Grant program and Low-Income Home Energy Assistance program, respectively, during the 4-year period of our review. These programs, however, are authorized to fund only states and federally and state-recognized Indian tribes.”
GAO report far from the whole picture
Notwithstanding the GAO report, which only looked at a few instances well over a decade ago, Chief Barnes says the problem is far more pervasive — and problematic — that the report shows.
“You know there’s over 100 fake Cherokee groups, there’s more than 80 fake Shawnee and a likewise number of fake Delaware,” he said. ” I had to testify in West Virginia a few years ago, because the state was going to create brand new tribes. One of the tribes is going to be the ‘Shawnee tribe of West Virginia.’
“We’re the Shawnee tribe, we’re the Shawnee tribe of everywhere. We’re not the Shawnee tribe of just one state. We have citizens and all states. We were shocked to see, that West Virginia was going to create the ‘Lakota tribe of West Virginia.'”
According to Barnes, these are not decisions state legislatures should be making in the first place.
“So legislatures are ill-equipped and ill-educated to make these decisions — at least at a state level — on who is and who is not an Indian,” Barnes said. “Well guess who is very damn well equipped? The tribal nations are the third sovereign mentioned in the Constitution. There are only three sovereigns in this country — fed, state — and Tribal nations.”
The Cherokee Phoenix, a publication of the Cherokee Nation, said that every year thousands of people “discover” Native American ancestry — and true or not — most associate themselves with the Cherokee.
Teri Rhoades — who is part of a Cherokee Nation task force working against these fakes 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,” she told the Phoenix. “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.”
Moreover, according to a story in the Tallequah, Okla., Daily Press, these bogus tribes can be a danger to the real ones.
“David Cornsilk, a Cherokee Nation citizen, genealogist and historian, said ‘fake tribes’ are ‘dangerous in various ways,’ the Press reported.
“One of them is they dilute the definition of what it means to be a tribe,” he said in a Press article. “Tribal recognition in the United States is a relationship between the sovereignty of the United States and the sovereignty of a tribal entity, and these organizations have no sovereignty. They only have whatever rights the state may grant to them.”
Fake tribes equal big business
Grants to nonprofit agencies aren’t the only issue, federal contracts are far more profitable, and fake tribes have cashed in there as well.
The LA Times reported in 2019 that two non-federally recognized tribes pulled down federal minority-business contracts worth more than a half billion dollars.
“Companies set up by members of a self-described and state-recognized Creek Indian tribe in Alabama have received more than $240 million in federal minority-business contracts, despite a determination by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs that there is no credible evidence the group has Native American ancestry,” the Times reported. “Federal contracts worth an additional $273 million have gone to two companies run by a member of a different Native American group in Alabama with no federal recognition as a tribe.”
In addition to Alabama, the Times found more than $800 million in federal contracts awarded to companies whose owners made unsubstantiated claims to be Native American, “although the total is almost certainly higher. The contracts were for construction, computing and other projects in 27 states.”
Moreover, a Times analysis of Small Business Administration contracts found Native American companies are often overrepresented compared with other minority groups.
“But the disparity is particularly stark in Alabama, where Native Americans comprise less than 1% of the state’s population but Native American businesses were awarded more than $2 billion through the SBA’s minority program since late 2007,” the Times reported. “By comparison, while African Americans make up 26% of the state’s population, black businesses in Alabama received about $827 million in minority business contracts, the records show. Black business owners in Alabama say they struggle to compete against Native American companies, and suspect many are owned by whites.”