Longform

Lost Tribe

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"Their culture is being diluted, they're in economic crisis. They are facing extinction," he says. "It will take coming together as a band of people. It has taken us 100 years to get the tools to make changes. The route I've chosen is to form an Indian government, because it gives us the greatest leverage--to work with the government, to work with other tribes, to work with other city and state governments. We couldn't do it otherwise."

Clayton says he gets calls all the time from people wanting to join the tribe, people like himself whose parents hid their heritage from them. "They are craving something, the need to belong, and we give them that," he says.

"Being Indian is something special; it's who we are," says Gil Clayton.
To Frances Rainwater Vereen, an urban Indian whose grandfather grew up on a Cherokee reservation, 'Nato has been a godsend. She met Henry Clayton at a going-away party for lawyer Valerie Lane, when she quit the North Texas Legal Services' Indian Law Project in protest over budget cuts.

"When he first mentioned some of his ideas, I thought he was crazy," says Vereen, who grew up in West Virginia and was program coordinator for the United Southeastern Tribes. "Then I thought, you can't always do things traditionally and succeed."

"I value my heritage and I value Native American laws, but there is no one here to serve my needs. I'm not a poverty Indian and the other organizations serve low income. I think Judge Clayton can help bridge the gap between North American law and English law. I think 'Nato can help Indian businesses prosper here and internationally. I think 'Nato is the most wonderful thing to happen to Texas in 15 years."

It wasn't until the federal government starting putting Indians on trust lands and providing them services and the right to self govern, that tribes had a need for membership rolls. The enrollments accomplished two things for the government: they controlled fraud and limited the number of people who were entitled to Indian land and other benefits.

It is up to each tribe to determine the requirements for enrollment. Some require a blood quantum, that you be at least one-half or one-quarter Indian and receive a BIA certificate of degree of Indian blood, which entitles you to certain services, such as free health care. Other tribes, such as the Cherokees, require that you be a direct descendant of Indians who were registered with something called the Dawes Rolls, a tribal registry that was conceived in 1889 when Oklahoma, then Indian territory, was granted statehood. The Dawes Rolls were controversial and inaccurate. Some Indians refused to participate, resentful that they had to register like foreigners in their own land. Others were simply distrustful of anything to do with the white man's government. And some who got on the rolls were not Indians at all, but whites who bribed their way on to get land allotments.

"Indians are the only ethnic group in this country that have to have a card to prove who they are, and they resent that," says Valerie Lane, former head of the Indian Law Project, which was part of North Texas Legal Services. "It's like a pedigreed dog having papers. Why should a group be required to carry a card? It's degrading. There are a lot of definitions of what is an Indian. Unfortunately, the government has created a lot of them. I'm not sure the government process of determining who is an Indian and what constitutes a tribe has been beneficial to our community."

Clayton claims his Oklahoma Indian family members refused to be enrolled. "They did not want to be carded. They did not want dog tags. That is not the Indian way."

Lane and other local Native American leaders say that most urban Indians, at least, believe having a certificate of degree of Indian blood is less essential in determining one's authenticity as an Indian than one's involvement in the community. "Being an Indian comes from your heart; it's not something that comes with a library card," says Hilton Queton, director of the American Indian Center in Euless, a 25-year-old non-profit organization that promotes educational, cultural and social development of American Indians.

But even on the test of community involvement, the Clayton brothers and the other two chiefs fall short. As Queton tells it, Henry Clayton popped up in the local Indian community about two years ago. He approached AIC in Euless with a desire to help it raise money. "But he wanted us to provide him an office and a telephone and furnish him business cards signifying he was part of the organization."

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Ann Zimmerman