Trail of Tears

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

Thomas also wrote in the letter to Smith that she had contacted Sydney Abegg, a very successful local fund raiser--he had helped raise a million dollars for a local children's museum--who might be interested in helping the center. But Abegg wanted to see past financial reports from the center, financial information about the project, and some documented history of the center's past activities so he could get a better picture of the center and its goals.

In closing, Thomas also asked Smith to give a financial status report on the project at the next meeting of East Texas volunteers. And she reiterated that the East Texas group wanted to remain a dedicated part of the AIHC.

Within a month of sending the letter, Thomas had resigned from Smith's organization. She was frustrated that she could not get Smith to respond to any of the suggestions outlined in the letter. Moreover, Smith refused to send her any of the documents she asked for and neglected to make any contact with Abegg.

For Thomas, the final break occurred during the February AIHC board meeting. With only Thomas and the board secretary present, Smith shocked Thomas when she updated them on her efforts to work with the Marines. Smith explained she had been working with the Marine Corps on an Iwo Jima Memorial to be held in March at Lee Park in Dallas--and was going to ask them to help fund the Bowles site. Smith mentioned that she thought the first building to go up on the Bowles site ought not to be the museum or library as originally planned and touted in the AIHC fund-raising literature, but a children's training center to honor Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian from Arizona who was one of the Marines who raised the flag at Iwo Jima.

Thomas was furious. First of all, she felt that Smith, by changing the goals of the Bowles project on a whim and honoring a man who was not a Texas Indian, violated the trust of the people who donated to the project. Worse, Thomas thought that Smith, who adamantly had refused to ever take any "government" money because of the bureaucracy involved and its prior ill treatment of Indians, was hypocritically trying to get funding from the same U. S. military that once carried out a genocide policy against Indians.

"...For the past year I have defended inconsistencies when people ask me questions because I believed in the project. I can no longer do this," Thomas wrote in her letter of resignation. "...I do think there should be a detailed report given at meetings, which is the normal means of business for any nonprofit organization, especially one that solicits funds from the public."

In April, Ruth Smith invited Native American activist Tom Sullivan, a Mohawk who teaches about the American Indian experience at Syracuse University in New York, to Dallas for an Earth Day celebration. The brother of an AIHC member, Sullivan was to speak in Dallas and in Tyler about the Earth Treaty--a proposed contract to save the environment--he had written and was getting children across the country to sign.

Sullivan says he wasn't aware that Smith was telling people he was going to promote the Renew the Dream project. After spending two weeks with Smith and the AIHC, he returned to Syracuse with serious reservations about the project and its leader.

"At first it was more of a feeling," says Sullivan from his home in Syracuse. "During a meeting I had with Ruth at the heritage center, Ruth wanted me to give people Indian names because she thought people would give a lot of money. I told her that wasn't the Indian way of doing things. She told me that Chief Bowles' descendants thought she was the reincarnation of Chief Bowles and that she was beginning to believe it herself."

Before their meeting ended, Smith gave Sullivan an envelope to give to his sister, which had a certificate for a square foot of the Bowles site that her donation entitled her to. "There was a picture of Chief Bowles on the certificate," says Sullivan. "It looked just like Ruth Smith."

During Sullivan's next visit, the East Texas volunteers, among others, were having a meeting with Smith at a church in Van, Texas, to plan the upcoming July memorial service at the Bowles site. Sullivan saw an opportunity to demonstrate the Iroquois method of consensus building.

Sullivan encouraged the members of the group to present their ideas about what they wanted to see happen with the land and to raise any concerns they had.

Some, mainly descendants of Chief Bowles who lived in nearby Lindale, said they wanted to see certain things--crafts, storytelling, language classes, and a re-creation of a Delaware Village that Texans had burned down before the 1836 battle. But they were also concerned that it was a sacred burial ground and that the land underneath should remain untouched.

Then the group's spokeswoman, Tami Paschke, voiced the members' grievances about the center. According to Paschke's notes from the meeting, the group members complained that they "feel very uninformed. How much money has been collected and where is it going? How much is owed?" They wanted to know "if the contract was valid, whether the deed was clear, whether any back taxes were owed, how many causes the center promoted, and whether the funds for these projects were kept separate."

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