By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
A gray granite marker put up by the Texas Historical Society stands in a weed-choked field a dozen miles west of Tyler. It is the only reminder of what happened here.
If Ruth Smith had her way, the world would know about the betrayal and murder of the legendary Cherokee Chief John Bowles. On July 16, 1839, Texas troops slaughtered Bowles and many of his followers as they tried in vain to defend the land that first Mexican, then Texan, leaders had promised them.
This tragic and usually overlooked event in Texas history led to a second Trail of Tears, the first being the expulsion of Cherokees from North Carolina that resulted in a death march to Oklahoma. With the defeat of Bowles and his followers in East Texas, the remaining Texas Cherokees, as well as other bands of Native Americans, were forced to flee the state, where they had lived peacefully for 20 years.
For the past several summers, Smith, who founded the Dallas-based American Indian Heritage Center of Texas (AIHC), has led center members and supporters on a pilgrimage to the battleground on the July 16 anniversary of Bowles' death to honor the spirit and memory of the famous Cherokee chief and his people.
In a ritual of remembrance, Smith and her entourage would form a circle around the marker on this sacred plot of prairie land on the banks of the Neches River. They would burn cedar to help release the spirits of those who fell there. An invited guest--a tribal elder, perhaps--would bless the land upon which the Cherokees once stood. Then, one by one, each man and woman would bear witness, sharing with their brethren what the land meant to them, even though few had more than a smattering of Indian blood. But this year on the anniversary, no one visited the marker to burn cedar; no one prayed for the spirits in the melodic language of the Cherokee people. Instead, Ruth Smith held the ceremony in Dallas' Old City Park, fearful that protesters would have opposed her at the Bowles site.
Though there is no evidence that anyone planned to disrupt the ceremony--Smith's critics say that paranoia is one of her many shortfalls--Ruth Smith has made her share of adversaries. In her attempt to preserve the history of Chief Bowles' betrayal by the white man, Ruth Smith, her foes say, has betrayed them.
Three years ago, Ruth Smith decided the best way to preserve the Bowles site was to buy and enshrine it. To that end, the AIHC launched Renew the Dream, a campaign to purchase the 66-acre parcel from the owners, an elderly Dallas couple, for $175,000.
From the outset, Smith envisioned building an elaborate "heritage center" on the site, with a museum and library, an education center, arts and crafts barn, and a re-creation of an Indian village complete with grazing buffalo. In this grandiose scheme, Smith hoped to unite Native Americans with their past--and with each other.
"This is a sacred site, and we want to preserve it for now and for future generations," Smith told Texas Highways magazine in an October 1995 interview. "We need a place where we can work together more and communicate more."
Ironically, the opposite has occurred. In the past three years, Ruth Smith's dream of preserving the sacred land as a place of unity and peace has disintegrated into discord and acrimony. The historic battleground where Chief Bowles died has become a battleground once again.
Over the years, Smith angered and alienated many of her staunchest supporters and hardest-working volunteers by evading their questions about the project's finances--among other things, they claim she is offering to pay five times what the property is worth--rejecting any effort to involve professional fund raisers and well-connected benefactors and, perhaps most significantly, ignoring their concerns about the propriety of building on a sacred burial ground.
When a group of about a dozen disgruntled members--residents of towns from Dallas to Tyler--pressed Smith for answers, they say she responded belligerently. They also claim Smith got the property owner to evict a full-blooded Cherokee man, his wife, and six children from a house on the Bowles site when the man dared question her operation.
This group also had other concerns, particularly about what they saw as Smith's lack of cultural sensitivity and knowledge. They claim she was crassly peddling Indian spiritualism by promising to give donors Indian names and medicine bags as an inducement to contribute. They say she hurt the center's credibility by associating with a Dallas man who claims to be the emperor of the Cherokee people, but whom Cherokee Nation leaders dismiss as "a joke."
But most offensive of all, say her detractors, is that Ruth Smith has told people that she believes she is the reincarnation of Chief Bowles. Such a statement, they say, is a reflection of her ego and her ignorance. Native Americans in general, and Cherokees in particular, they say, do not hold reincarnation as part of their traditional belief system.
"She has taken more than our money," says Darla Hair, a former supporter of Smith's project whose family lived on the Bowles site for a year until they were evicted last fall. "She took our trust, and the dignity away from the site."
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."
The mission statement is accompanied by a sweeping five-year plan, which lists as goals a museum, sponsorship of youth scholarships, publishing, housing and health-care benefit assistance, group and individual counseling, health screening, team sports, career planning and job placement, retail outlets, and financial counseling, among other things.
In the early 1990s, the center fulfilled part of that vision by providing Native American dancers, storytellers, and other performers for occasional school or city cultural festivals. The center also gave assistance to people trying to trace their Indian ancestry and organized a clothing drive for the Alabama-Coushatta Reservation in Livingston, Texas, before the reservation developed its own program.
Smith gave talks to local community groups and sent information to school children who were researching papers on Native Americans. Each year since its inception, the center has sponsored an art contest for Native American children, with the first-place winner receiving $100, and the entries exhibited at the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library downtown.
For all its good works, the center was operating on a shoestring; in 1992--its third year in operation--it raised only a little more than $3,000 in contributions and another $2,000 from the consignment arts and crafts shop it ran out of its office, according to a center financial statement. To keep the doors open and help support herself, Smith often worked for a temporary clerical agency in the evenings.
Though Ruth Smith frequently signs her correspondence and newsletters "Born Running Turtle," she is more of a lone wolf in the Indian community.
"She hasn't developed a rapport with any of the Indian organizations in Dallas, and there are 23 of them," says Frank McLemore, who, among other things, founded the Tribal American Network, a consortium of local Indian groups including the Dallas Inter-Tribal Center and the American Indian Coalition and Business Council, a Native American chamber of commerce.
In the early spring of 1993, Ruth Smith greatly expanded the reach--if not the grasp--of her organization when she set her sights on buying the land where Chief Bowles died.
Clifford P. Dodson, the land's owner and a man of advancing age, contacted several Indian organizations in the hopes that one of them--because of the land's historical significance--would want to buy it, recalls a former center volunteer. Dodson's wife, Agnes Ruth, had inherited the land from her mother; Mrs. Dodson's niece, Alice Jett, says she inherited an adjacent 130-acre tract.
Alice Jett says she made an offer to buy the 66 acres from her uncle for about $50,000, but Dodson told her he thought he could get more from the Indians. He was asking in excess of $150,000--a price Alice says she thought was much more than it was worth. (Alice Jett says she eventually made another offer to her uncle of about $75,000 after she heard about AIHC's plan to build a "tourist attraction with buffalo" next door to her property. Her uncle turned her down.)
Ruth Smith was immediately interested in Dodson's offer. But first she wanted to see the land. Center volunteers Greg Howard and Morgan Jackson accompanied her to the site. Smith does not drive because, she has told people, a car accident left her partially paralyzed. It was an emotional experience for them all, recalls Howard, who teaches the Cherokee language at East Texas State University in Commerce and has a small Indian book and language tapes publishing company. "You feel a terrible sadness down there--undoubtedly because of what happened," he says.
Remembered for his dignified bearing and a Gaelic countenance--red hair, light eyes, and freckles--Chief John Bowles was a half-breed, born in North Carolina to an Irish-Scottish father and a Cherokee mother, according to several books and articles on the subject, including the 1966 Smith County Historic Historical Society article "The Cherokee War 1839" by Morris Burton, former president of the society, and The Battles of Texas by Seymour Conner.
The first chief of the Western Cherokees, he and his tribe migrated from Missouri to Arkansas in the early 1800s only to find that the land on which they settled was outside the boundaries determined by a treaty between the Cherokees and the United States.
In 1820, they moved again, this time to East Texas, which was then governed by Spain. For a short while, the Cherokees knew a peace that had long eluded them. It lasted even after the Mexican overthrow of Spain.
The Cherokees and the Mexican government were negotiating land rights in East Texas when the Texas Revolution erupted in 1835. The Cherokees maintained a position of neutrality in the war that some historians believe contributed to the Texas victory.
After the Texans won, Bowles began negotiating for land with then-President Sam Houston, who had a Cherokee wife and was generally sympathetic to the plight of Indians. Houston signed a treaty with Bowles in 1937, giving him land along the Angelina River. But the Texas Senate refused to ratify the treaty, and Houston's successor, Mirabeau Lamar, who despised both Houston and the Indians, ordered the Cherokees and their allied bands off Texas soil. "The white man and red man cannot dwell in harmony together," he would later say. "Nature forbids it."
No one is sure how many people fought during the two-day Battle of the Neches, nor how many died. The granite marker on the site claims Bowles, then in his 80s, led 800 Indians, but many of those were women and children who, some histories hold, were given time to flee to safety before the battle began. About 500 Texans supposedly fought, but all of them were seasoned veterans of the Texas Revolution.
While Ruth Smith would later tout in her fund-raising literature that 800 Indians died here--including scores of women and children--such a large number of dead is a gross exaggeration. According to Donaly Brice, archivist with the Texas State Archives, approximately 118 Indians were killed during the two-day battle. What is true, however, is that Chief John Bowles, dressed in the sash, military hat, and silk vest given him by Sam Houston, rode back and forth on a paint horse across the battlefield trying to rally his men. He was the last to leave the field as his followers retreated.
A thigh wound crippled him. As he sat on the ground, defiantly facing his enemies, a Texan soldier came up and shot him in the head.
Ruth Smith's first visit to the Bowles site had a particularly strong impact on her, recalls Greg Howard. "She told me she thought she was Chief Bowles," Howard recalls. "She pointed to a place near this small tree by the creek and said, 'This is where I was killed.' I thought to myself, 'Sure, Ruth, whatever you say.'" (On another occasion, Howard says, Smith told him people could tell she was Cherokee by the way she walked.)
Smith appointed Howard to be the project director for Renew the Dream. In August of 1993, Howard picked up a copy of a contract from Dodson stipulating that the center would buy the property for $175,000, with $25,000 down and payments of $45,000 due in December 1993 and April 1994. A final payment of $60,000 was due August 1, 1994. If the center could not meet the payments by that date, the contract granted them an additional three years.
According to the Van Zandt County Appraisal office, the contract price was much higher than what the property was worth. "The market value of the land is $36,300," says Marcy Bourquin. "It is extremely bad land. It is wooded, hilly, and a major portion of it is in a flood plain." When she heard that a group was trying to buy it from the owner for $175,000, Bourquin told the Observer, "Sounds like he's taking them for a cleaning."
Smith and Dodson signed a contract in August, says Howard.
In the fall of 1993, Smith and Howard started to raise the money. Smith dropped names of people she said were interested in funding the center, such as Ross Perot. She told Howard and Morgan Jackson, who was working on the project, that she had lined up Willie Nelson to do a benefit concert and a bunch of celebrities for a golf tournament, neither of which ever happened.
"She always had something going on somewhere, some big deal she was working on," says Howard. "Nothing ever came through."
A more modest idea did meet with success. The center sold donors square-foot portions of the land for $10 apiece. For $250, their name would be inscribed on a Walk of Honor that would be built on the property. By now, Smith had begun showing people plans for a heritage center to be built on the site. "It was actually plans for a civic center that had been drawn for some other location, and the name had been scratched out and our name drawn in," says Howard. "Most of the land slopes down to the bottom lands. The thing wouldn't even fit there."
As soon as money began trickling in, Howard wanted Smith to set up a separate account for the donations made to the land, with a portion earmarked for fund raising and publicity, such as fliers, which he had been personally subsidizing. Smith kept putting off opening a separate account, which made Howard nervous, especially because Smith kept refusing to give him an accounting of the funds. He had donated $100 of his own money, and the national distributor of his books kicked in $200.
"I felt an obligation to keep them posted, but I never could," says Howard. "Finally things got so foggy and confusing, I just wanted out of it."
After volunteering almost full time for the center for a year and a half, Howard finally left in the spring of 1994.
In the winter of 1994, Smith addressed a meeting of the Smith County Historical Society in Tyler. The response was overwhelming. Nancy Thomas, a secretary at an oil company in Tyler, was so enthusiastic about Smith's campaign to preserve the Bowles site, she resigned from several local boards to devote almost all of her free time to helping Smith.
But before thoroughly embracing the project, Thomas, who claims some Cherokee blood, requested some financial documents on the center's budget and the status of fund raising on the Bowles project; instead, she got a mission statement and a letter describing the awards for which Smith had been nominated.
Smith's letter went on to profess her close working relations with various unnamed tribal headquarters throughout the United States. (The names of theses tribes are confidential, according to the center's written responses to the Observer.)
Even without answers to her questions, Thomas decided to volunteer with the center. She helped organize a group of gung ho East Texas volunteers, which would grow to include several descendants of Chief Bowles.
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.
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."
"[Smith] acted like a wild woman," Sullivan remembers. "Screaming, 'How dare you ask me those questions!' She was very intimidating."
Paschke was so upset by Smith's response that she quit the center.
The next day, Sullivan went to see Smith in her office back in Dallas. "She turned into Chief Bowles," he says. "She slammed her fist down on her desk and said, 'I'm holding council here.'"
For more than a year, Danny and Darla Hair worked tirelessly for Ruth Smith and her efforts to buy the land. They traveled through Oklahoma to drum up support among the Cherokees. They helped bring in people to speak at the AIHC symposium in July 1994. And from most accounts, they took good care of the land, mowing it with the help of other East Texas volunteers, keeping the Jetts' cattle off the property, and inviting the Boy Scouts to camp there. The scouts took Danny up on the offer, and Danny told the boys Indian stories.
But by the spring of 1995, the Hairs were growing disillusioned with Smith. "We had questions about what was happening spiritually," says Darla. "We thought maybe we should get the tribes and the descendants involved. All the decisions were being laid down by one person."
The Hairs were never told about the center's plans for the anniversary ceremony on the battlefield in July 1995. They learned about it that morning when some friends showed up and wondered why they weren't down at the marker.
The Hairs attended the ceremony anyway, but say Smith gave them the cold shoulder. At the ceremony, Oukah, a 66-year-old enrolled Cherokee from Lancaster who claims he is the emperor of the Cherokees, recited what he said was a 300-year-old Cherokee prayer. It was delivered in a language that Danny Hair, who speaks Cherokee, could not understand.
In recalling the event, Darla Hair says, "Danny and I used to say if God comes back to earth, this is the first place he'll come, because the land's been blessed so many times."
In an ironic twist, Oukah--whose claim of royalty has put him at odds with Cherokee Nation leaders--has also recently distanced himself from Smith. Oukah claims she sells inauthentic Native American art and crafts. He also no longer supports her effort to buy the Bowles site. "I don't want her to have it," says Oukah. "She's doing it for the wrong reasons--for her ego."
A month later, Smith and others pulled down a tepee that Hair and his oldest son had built on the property. A few days later, an eviction notice signed by Clifford Dodson appeared on the Hairs' front door. When the Observer tried to contact Dodson about the eviction, he would not return calls.
The Hairs say that a week after they received the eviction notice, Smith arrived at the property with a camera crew from KTXA-TV that was going to tape a public service announcement for the project. Smith was surprised to see Danny and Darla Hair, they say, and remarked: "What are you doing here? You're supposed to be gone."
Darla says Danny walked part of the way down to the marker but was stopped by the program's executive director, center volunteer Pam Wood, who told him it was a closed set. Danny said he wanted to see what they were doing, and Smith said, "Over my dead body."
A minor scuffle ensued. Darla Hair says she called the police to report that Smith had pushed her. "Ruth called the police herself several hours later," says Hair, "and told officers that Danny had assaulted her." (Askew acknowledged in an interview that Smith claims Danny assaulted her.)
A few weeks later, Dodson arrived on the land--with Smith and reporter Bill Brown, from WFAA-TV Channel 8, who was doing a story on the Renew the Dream project. Dodson told the Hairs they had to leave because his daughter was going to live there. (She never did.) The Hairs asked for 30 days to find a place to move to. Fifteen days later, Dodson filed another eviction notice in court, and the Hairs were summoned to an eviction hearing.
"Mr. Dodson said we were liars, moochers, and the scum of the earth. He said we tore up the house," says Darla.
When the Observer asked Smith in writing why the Hairs were evicted, she wrote: "Owners wanted the Hairs removed because they failed to maintain the property as agreed."
A few weeks later, Nancy Thomas, the Hairs, Tami Paschke, and several other center members arrived at the AIHC--with a video camera "to prove we were nice," says Paschke--and asked to see the organizational documents allowed them by law, specifically a list of the members of the board of directors and financial statements. A volunteer manning the office at the time did not know where the documents were. The only document the center eventually let the group see was the articles of incorporation. "We were told if we wanted to see anything else, we would need an attorney," says Paschke.
"Ruth Smith walks in the snow and doesn't leave tracks," says Joy Wright. A former public-relations executive in Dallas, Wright and her oilman husband, Gene, live in Tyler, where Wright has been instrumental in furthering many social causes, including developing an organization that provides volunteer advocates for children who have been the victims of parental abuse.
A year and a half ago, Wright, who says she has "a smattering of Cherokee blood," got involved with Ruth Smith and her campaign to save the land. She held several pricey receptions for Smith at her home, where she introduced Smith to many monied and influential people in the community who might be interested in helping her cause.
"I urged her to develop a special committee in East Texas and introduced her to people--a juvenile judge, two Ph.D.s. from two colleges in town, and even suggested my husband, who has advised the state on petroleum issues. These were people that everyone would have absolute faith and trust in. I had support tailor-made for her, but she wouldn't do anything about it."
Wright first became irritated with Smith after Wright's husband donated $300 to Smith to produce a monthly AIHC newsletter. "We only saw one issue," says Wright. "Ruth promised a lot of things down here that never transpired."
Wright's irritation grew when Smith once came to Tyler and excitedly told Wright about another piece of land she was interested in purchasing in nearby Chandler, where Chief Bowles and his followers had camped before the final battle. "I told her I wasn't interested in helping her. I said, 'My God, you can't pay for the one you've got. You can't buy all of East Texas.' It seems all her group ever did was sell T-shirts and argue."
Wright asked Smith why she never went after any grants or got in touch with the Texas Historical Commission, which might be willing to give her money for the land or make it into a park. "She told me she didn't want to take the 'white man's dirty money.'"
Earlier this year, Wright had a final falling-out with Smith. Last summer Wright agreed to finance the cost of making 1,000 prints of a watercolor called "Ellegy" that a center volunteer had drawn of the land and with which he incorporated a poem Wright had written after her first emotional visit there. Wright and Smith agreed that the center would sell them for $50 apiece and the center would get all the proceeds minus the first $3,000, which would reimburse Wright for her expenses.
"Ruth said she would sell them at powwows, but she got irritated with everyone and didn't do anything with them," Wright says. "The artist tried to sell them on his own. He went to one powwow in Oklahoma and made $1,100. Ruth sent me a check for $500 and said it was the first monthly installment [of the $3,000]. I never saw another dime."
In response to Wright's allegations, Smith wrote to the Observer: "The center did have a contingency contract to sell the posters at the July 16th anniversary of the death of Chief Bowles held at the University of Texas at Tyler. However, Ms. Wright did not finish the posters in time for this event and they could not be sold. She was paid $500 for her costs of printing and the unsold prints still remain in her possession."
Smith, however, doesn't explain why the prints couldn't be sold after July 16.
Saddened and disappointed with her experience, Wright decided "Ruth Smith was an emotional extravagance I could no longer afford. It got to the point that my husband said, 'Sweetie, we've been in the oil business a long time and we know about dry holes. You plug and abandon them.' And that's what we did.