Too Many Chiefs

The only center Dallas has to help Native Americans is mired in ineptitude and tribal politics

If Mary Biermann believed in omens, she would have turned around and left on the spring day in 1994 when she reported for work and learned that her office at the Dallas Inter-tribal Center came with a waterfall.

As the newly hired director of the center's medical and dental clinic, Biermann arrived to find two 30-gallon drums near her desk, positioned to catch water that cascaded through the ceiling when it rained.

Biermann was using a metal wheelchair at the time--the result of a traffic accident--and the sight of electrical wires exposed in the water-damaged ceiling made her afraid she was going to be electrocuted.

The rude arrival was Biermann's introduction to a storm of problems that continues to engulf Dallas Inter-tribal Center--the only center in North Texas set up specifically to provide Native Americans with health care, job training, family counseling, food, and financial assistance.

Three years later, the roof still leaks, Biermann has resigned after serving a stint in the center's top job, and the DIC is in chaos.

A $1.5 million-a-year organization serving about 3,000 people, the DIC is funded by taxpayers through various government programs aimed at helping urbanized American Indians.

But the center has lost about one-fifth of its federal funding because it hasn't conducted the required audits of its books for the past three years. The last time anybody checked, the accounts were out of balance by about $140,000.

About a third of the center's battered storefront building on Jefferson Boulevard is blocked off, unusable because of damage from the long-suffering roof.

The board of directors that is supposed to run the DIC is in open warfare. One renegade board member has already staged an unsuccessful coup attempt and is now threatening to sue and force the center into receivership.

Two former employees have sued, claiming they were discriminated against, and one has collected an undisclosed settlement.

Though it is understaffed and strapped for cash, the center is paying three attorneys to help sort out the political squabbles and legal woes that have beset the agency.

Biermann, who served as the center's executive director for two years before resigning in May, is taking her share of the heat for the problems. But there's plenty of blame to go around. The center's board appears incapable of coming to grips with its problems, and many of the actions it has taken in the past few years were probably illegal, as the board seldom had a quorum.

Mired in a swamp of ineptitude and political infighting, it is not certain at this point whether the center will survive.

"There are problems with nonprofit governance that make problems in private companies and institutions look simple to resolve," says Bob Goodman, a Dallas attorney who is representing a former employee who's suing the center. "The Dallas Inter-tribal Center has a long history of problems in its governance and its management."

Shirley Pierce, a Native American who turns to the center for help, is more blunt. "My grandchildren could get on that board and run it better than they do," she says.

The Dallas Inter-tribal center was born in 1971, a product of the federal government's efforts to help American Indians move from reservations into mainstream society.

The nonprofit center, located at 209 E. Jefferson, is supposed to offer a sort of one-stop shopping for Native Americans in need. Money from different federal agencies is funneled through the DIC to pay for medical and dental programs, alcohol and substance abuse counseling, a food bank, rent assistance, job training, and various other programs.

The center is open to all Native Americans who are on the rolls of federally recognized tribes, and it's supposed to serve clients from Dallas and 10 surrounding counties.

Those who use its services say the center is vital. Without it, the sick would have to sit all day at Parkland Memorial Hospital or other county hospitals. Those needing other help would have to drive to the next closest center, which is in Ada, Oklahoma, four hours away.

Each day an average of 51 people arrive at the center to see a doctor, dentist, or counselor, or take advantage of other programs. The nondescript brick storefront only covers 16,000 square feet, and those waiting for help watch television soap operas or stare at the brown flecks in the linoleum. Wall racks display health brochures with titles such as "Are Indians at risk for AIDS?" Maroon benches seat 16 clients.

Michelle North received help with her rent from the center in May under a program that provides emergency money to needy families. Broke and facing eviction, she contacted the center and was told that if she wanted help she would have to call on the first day of the month, when only the first five callers would be considered for assistance. She ultimately received $300, the break she needed to get back on track. Since then, she's been hired at the center temporarily to make appointments for the health clinic. "It helped me out tremendously, and that's why I wanted to put something back into the center," she says.

The federal government's Indian Health Services funds the center's medical and dental clinics, and clients say the services are good. But only if you can get though the door.

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THE DALLAS INTER-TRIBAL CENTER was started by one person Bernice Johnson. Who saw that their was need for the Native American who lived in the Dallas Metro area. Please give credit where credit is deserve. Thank you.