Trail of Tears

Ruth Smith set out to enshrine a Cherokee battleground and started a war of her own

Ruth Smith declined to be interviewed for this article. "She is tired of defending herself against false allegations," says Karen Askew, a Dallas attorney who represents the center on a pro bono basis. "She is sick of fighting this battle. This is a group of people [her critics] who are bitter, and she doesn't understand why." The center's board of directors voted to respond through Askew to Dallas Observer questions submitted in writing.

Earlier this year, several former members brought their concerns about Smith to the attention of the Texas Attorney General's Office. Smith's detractors claimed that the center had collected more money for the land than it had admitted. Ron Dusek, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, says the office examined the center's books and found no "basis for their allegations." Dusek characterized the complainants as a "splinter group that might be attempting to smear the organization."

But Smith's detractors hotly contest that characterization and the results of the attorney general's investigation. (They say the attorney general's office only contacted one person on a list they provided.) They maintain they have valid concerns about Smith's integrity and remain unconvinced about her ability ever to make good on her "dream" of preserving the land they have come to cherish deeply.

Frustrated with Smith, several former center members have formed their own organization, the East Texas-based American Indian Cultural Association of North America. They meet monthly to learn about American Indian traditions and history. And at least one of their members has contacted the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma in the hopes it would buy the Bowles land.

It would be tempting to dismiss the dispute as internal bickering and the inevitable power struggles within a small organization whose goals seem to far outstrip its resources. But Smith has managed to offend and alienate so many people so deeply that the American Indian Movement, a national Indian-rights, community-development, and anti-discrimination group based in Minnesota, recently has taken up the cause of Smith's opponents. In a press release sent to newspapers and Native American groups, AIM claims Smith's actions "have been not only causing damage to the name, character, and activities of reputable Indian organizations, but desecrating this sacred site."

And, despite the statement from the attorney general's office, puzzling questions about Smith's organization persist. The attorney general's office, for example, told the Observer that the AIHC has raised no more than $2,000 in the past three years and that that money is still in its accounts; that there was no contract on the land and that there has been no land transaction. This information contradicts the center's own statement, given in response to Observer questions, that it has given $10,000 to the property owners with whom it has a contract. "We have possession of the land," Askew says, "but whether the title is clear is uncertain."

Adding to the confusion, the landowners told the Observer they have never received the money Smith owed them and they were unsure to whom--or even if--they would ever sell the land.

Inconsistencies and quirky and vague answers no longer surprise Joy Wright when it comes to dealing with Ruth Smith. A wealthy Tyler resident active in civic affairs, Wright became increasingly disillusioned with Smith during the past year, she says, after she spent thousands of dollars and countless hours helping Smith's organization and saw little in the way of results.

"I don't believe a word Ruth Smith says," Wright says. "Dealing with her is like herding fog. You know you got something in the corner, but you don't know what it is or how long it's going to stay."

Ruth Smith, 65, grew up in Missouri in a small town between Joplin and Springfield, and attended Southwest Missouri State University. Former volunteers recall that she claimed to have worked in Nashville, where, she said, she knew Willie Nelson when he was washing dishes, and where she allegedly was famous, singing with a Country and Western group called Jane and the Fools. She moved to Dallas in the 1960s after visiting the State Fair of Texas.

In the 1980s, Smith worked for ARCO, but in what capacity is unclear. Asked her background in a written question from the Observer, Smith replied: "background in business and labor relations." It was during this time she began volunteering at the Dallas Inter-tribal Center, an Oak Cliff-based social service agency. She collected toys and other donations at Christmas time, recalls Richard Lucero, the former executive director of the AIHC. "She was trying to become ARCO's Community Volunteer of the Year, and I wrote a letter on her behalf." (She won the award in 1985.)

"She was a kind, concerned lady, one of these people who, like a lot of people, was sympathetic to and romanticized the Indian heritage, but was not immersed in it," says Lucero.

In 1989, about the time she was retiring from ARCO, Smith founded the American Indian Heritage Center in order to fulfill a promise she had made a decade earlier to her dying mother, who was part Cherokee, Smith told The Dallas Morning News in a September 1993 interview.

The heritage center, located in a cramped one-room office in a North Dallas strip shopping center office building, has always been a small, strictly volunteer operation with a tiny membership--in this, its seventh year, it boasts 135 members--and a lofty mission statement: "to preserve and perpetuate the cultural heritage of the American Indian through the vehicle of education; and to contribute to the community at large through programs developed to enhance the American Indian's ability to communicate their unique and positive perspectives in solving the world's current social, environmental, and technical challenges."

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