Lost Tribe

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As the first official act as a tribe, the four men voted each other chiefs. Henry Clayton was elected chief tribal court judge for what he calls "the 1st Federal District Court," which occupies the same tiny office as the 'Nato tribal headquarters. Gil Clayton became chief of family resources; Cartier is the tribal spokesman; and McGehee, fresh out of security guard school, was anointed head of security and law enforcement.

In a year, Clayton claims 'Nato Nation has swelled to several hundred members. Membership is free: "You either have it in your genes or you don't," says Kerry Cartier.

'Nato's membership actually numbers close to 5,000, the chiefs insist, because every relative of an enrollee is considered a member of the tribe--whether they know it or not. That dubious reckoning would make 'Nato larger than the three established, federally-recognized tribes in the state--the Texas Kickapoos in Eagle Pass, the Tiguas, who live east of El Paso, and the Alabama Couchatta, who live in Livingston, east of Hunstville.

But until 'Nato establishes itself, tangible benefits to its members are few. For ten dollars, however, 'Nato members are entitled to shop at Sam's Wholesale Club.

On the spiritual side, the tribe has not yet held a pow wow or engaged in any ritual, except for a wedding ceremony presided over by Henry Clayton for Ted McGehee's brother, Steve Nail, in Glen Rose last month. 'Nato says the spiritual side of the operation will come when they build a cultural center; Clayton says he is presently negotiating for property for such a center in Grand Prairie.

What 'Nato's founders have is a vision--or at least a vision statement, which articulates its positions. Among them:

--'Nato has continued the historical Indian means of determining tribal membership, in which one drop of Indian blood is all that matters, rather than adopting the discriminatory non-Indian requirement of one-quarter or more Indian blood.

--One need not look Indian to be Indian.
--'Nato is amalgamation of members from many tribal heritages...all of whom are encouraged to respect their tribal heritages and the tribal heritages of others...

--'Nato will not be relegated to a position of passivity, but will vigorously pursue programs to benefit Indians off-reservation and on, for the common good of Native Americans nationwide.

Just last week, Indians from around the country gathered in Washington to protest government funding cuts. Henry Clayton, who prefers to be called Judge Clayton, claims this is a gap that 'Nato could help fill. There's a need for Indians, particularly the more skilled urban Indians to become leaders and create substantial industries that are more mainstream than bingo and casinos, he says.

To that end, Clayton has spent time in recent months trying to acquire property--several school buildings and 20 acres--for his tribe from recently closed Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth. His plan is to set up job training programs there.

Henry Clayton also claims to be negotiating with "a big bank" that is interested in funding some of his projects--including the cultural center--targeted at the Metroplex Indian population, which numbers more than 20,000. Clayton has been busy on other fronts as well. He has been corresponding with a Utah federal court, in an attempt to get a case--involving the custody of his grandchildren--transferred to 'Nato's tribal courts, of which he is the chief justice.

Depending on your perspective, 'Nato is either a Native American fraud, with Clayton and his cronies bent on self-aggrandizement and enrichment, or it is a well-intentioned effort to offer hope to people who, for one reason or another, cannot get accepted by an established tribe. Even if it's because they are not actually Indians.

The first thing 'Nato critics point to in questioning the tribe's authenticity is that it is not federally recognized. Beyond validation, federal recognition entitles tribal members to a raft of government benefits, from free medical care, to, in many cases, housing allowances and educational scholarships. Those benefits are administered by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, a division of the Department of the Interior.

A tribe that is federally recognized also is considered, in many respects, a sovereign government, which affords it certain taxing privileges and the ability, like other governments, to raise money through such means as issuing tax-free municipal bonds. It also allows it to apply for federal support for things like law enforcement and health and education services.

On the other hand, simply claiming that you are an Indian or an Indian tribe, no matter how earnestly, doesn't get you very far with the federal government--or most Indians.

"Self-identification does not make you a tribe, just like self-canonization does not make you a saint," says Ellis Burt, a Dallas attorney with an expertise in the complex arena of Indian law.

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Ann Zimmerman