Lost Tribe

Henry Clayton is a short, plump man with a sharp, angular nose. He wears a pearl-button western shirt, a beaded necklace and ties his hair back in a pony tail. He looks, at least, like what he claims to be--the chief of the largest Indian tribe in Texas.

A 48-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran, Clayton says he is part Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, and Comanche, though he has not sought official membership in any of those tribes.

Instead, Clayton, his older brother and two of their buddies, who also felt the pull of their Native American heritage, set out to create a tribe of their own. The group has fashioned a tribe like no other in the country, composed not of direct lineal descendants of one of North America's many tribes, but of anyone with known or presumed Indian blood.

Clayton is chief of a melting pot tribe, the Native American version of the Rainbow Coalition. They call themselves the 'Nato Nation.

The 'Nato Nation declares that it is a sovereign nation with its own government, judiciary and police force. Unlike most of the nation's 553 Indian groups who are sovereign entities in the eyes of the U.S. government, 'Nato believes they can claim this privilege without federal recognition. What's more, 'Nato, based on an acronym that stands for Native American Tribal Organization, would go even further, Clayton says, uniting Indians nationwide under its banner, to bring peace, harmony, and a better way of living to Native Americans on the reservation and off.

Though Clayton paints a picture of a coast-to-coast tribal utopia, for now 'Nato nation exists only as a small, windowless office in Grand Prairie, the titles the four founders have bestowed on one another, and a handsome campfire logo.

And as he pursues his vision of a tribal confederation under 'Nato's umbrella, Clayton is unconcerned that his quest flies in the face of the traditions of most tribes and federal laws dealing with Native American recognition. Nor does he care that his actions are arousing the suspicions and ire of historical Indian organizations in the Metroplex, who wonder just what this group in Grand Prairie is actually up to.

Their suspicion is understandable. Clayton has energetically gone about trying to convince the Department of Defense, banking institutions, and at least one state court that his group is a legitimate, self-governing, Indian tribe.

The 'Nato Nation might be easily dismissed as whimsy, or a delusion of grandeur. But what Clayton is doing is an affront to organized Indian tribes that had to fight for years to be recognized by the U.S. government, then had to continue battling federal authorities for help to ensure their survival.

They say that what Clayton is attempting to do is both audacious and preposterous.

The four men who created 'Nato don't have the resumes you would expect from heads of state, which is, after all, what they consider themselves.

Henry Clayton says he made a living as a nuclear engineering technician, an education lobbyist in Utah, and director of his own handicapped job program, among other things, before maladies stemming from the Vietnam War--spinal deterioration from Agent Orange exposure and post-traumatic stress disorder--forced him into retirement. Raised a Mormon, he spent the last few years getting a degree from Dallas Baptist University, where he studied law and business.

His older brother Gil Clayton is a divorced father of six children and a car mechanic who teaches automotive skills to troubled teens at a Dallas job training center called the Texas Institute of Human Development. A former alcoholic, he is studying to become a drug and alcohol counselor.

Kerry Cartier, a public relations director for the Veteran's Administration who claims a half-Seneca maternal grandmother, met Henry Clayton in the late 1980s, when Cartier's son and Clayton's stepson were in a Boy Scout troop in Waxahachie. They immediately found a common bond in their appreciation for their heritage and a desire to help their Indian brethren.

Ted McGehee is a self-employed systems analyst from Fort Worth who installs and repairs electronic systems for trading rooms. Of the 'Nato chiefs, only he has proof of his Indian heritage, a card from the Bureau of Indian Affairs showing he is 3/32 Choctaw. An animated, talkative fellow with an enthusiasm for firearms, he recently completed a security guard course. He met Clayton two years ago at an Indian law seminar taught by a law professor from Oklahoma. They recognized each other as kindred spirits determined to create their own tribe.

The idea of an Indian tribe that would have anyone as a member was something Henry Clayton toyed with for 20-some years. But it wasn't until last summer that he incorporated 'Nato as a Texas non-profit organization to "promote the general welfare of the Tribe and its members."