Trail of Tears

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

In July 1994, on the anniversary of Bowles' death, Thomas--by now Smith had appointed her volunteer coordinator for East Texas--organized a symposium, which attracted more than 160 people to Cherokee language classes and lectures on the Indian migration into Texas, Caddo history, and traditional Indian crafts. Judge Truitt Mayo from Canton presented Ruth Smith a proclamation designating July 16 as "American Indian Heritage Day." The day ended with a celebration of traditional foods and a ceremony held at the site.

The Renew the Dream project probably reached a high point in the fall of 1994, after Danny and Darla Hair, active volunteers in the East Texas group, got married and moved to the land--the first time in 155 years Indians were living there.

With six kids between them and Danny recently laid off from his job as an apartment complex groundskeeper and maintenance man, the Hairs were having trouble affording a place to live. Ruth Smith arranged for Clifford Dodson to give them permission to live there for free.

It didn't bother Danny and Darla that the house on the property was run-down; with no heat, air conditioning, or running water, it wasn't worth enough to be included in the appraisal of the land. As two of the few supporters of the center who could prove they were actually Indian--Danny was a full-blood Cherokee who had grown up on a reservation in Oklahoma and Darla was an enrolled Navajo--moving onto the land that Cherokees believe is rightfully theirs held so much meaning for the couple, comfort wasn't an issue.

By December 1994, Thomas and other East Texas volunteers began to have misgivings about Smith and the AIHC. For one, Smith was constantly telling Thomas that people were out to get her; she once claimed that Greg Howard had pulled a knife on her, and that ever since she had kept a gun in her office drawer. Howard denies the incident. "I don't even own a knife," he told the Observer.

Looking back, Thomas says, "I think Ruth said things like that to keep us from contacting one another. She used to say that when the center was built, she was going to have a list of people she wouldn't let in."

And Smith always refused to discuss how much money she had raised for the land, because she said other people--particularly Chief D.L. Hicks of the Texas Cherokees, a group of 600 people who are not recognized by the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma--were after the land to build a casino on it. (Hicks told the Observer that on several occasions he had contacted the owner about buying the land, but that the price was absurdly high. He also says he never wanted to build on the site but wanted to keep it as a sacred place for religious ceremonies, "not a show-and-tell center like Miss Smith wanted.")

The East Texas group also was disconcerted that fund raisers planned in Dallas failed miserably, including a concert at Deep Ellum Live that totally bombed--neither the entertainment, traditional Native dancers, nor the paying public showed up--and a bowling marathon.

Some Dallas volunteers were becoming disillusioned, too. Tammy Paschke, a bookkeeper and office manager for a Dallas insurance company, had stumbled across the AIHC when she was researching her Native American roots. When Paschke took a three-month leave of absence from her job for health reasons, she found herself spending most of that time working for Smith.

Paschke was disappointed at the dismal turnout at the bowling event. Then, a few weeks later, Smith asked Paschke to help organize a Christmas party for needy Indian children to be held at the Spencer Design Group in Las Colinas. Smith instructed her to get centerpieces and provide enough food for about 30 children. KTXA-TVChannel 21 had donated new toys for the luncheon; Tammy Salinas, the station's director of programming, was a center volunteer who would eventually be voted onto the board. Only two children showed up for the party.

Other incidents bothered Paschke. Smith told her she was the only person in the whole organization Smith could trust, and when Smith decided Paschke was ready, she would get her an Indian name and a medicine bag. "It bothered me," Paschke says, "because that wasn't the reason I was working so hard for her."

In February 1995, Nancy Thomas grew deeply concerned about the fate of the Renew the Dream project. Ruth Smith, in frequent phone conversations, sounded demoralized. She told Thomas that Dodson had been hounding her for more money each month or that the property deal was off--and that the contract, at least the one Thomas says Smith showed her, was due to expire by the end of August. She also needed to raise funds to hire an executive director to take her place at the center so she could spend more time on the Bowles project. She told Thomas the stress was getting to her, and she was on the verge of giving up the project.

On February 11, Thomas wrote Smith a letter sympathizing with her and proposing a committee under AIHC to handle the Renew the Dream project exclusively until Smith could raise the money to hire a replacement executive director. Thomas also mentioned setting up a Tyler-based board for the committee, filled with high-profile, well-respected citizens who could draw on deep pockets for support.

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