White Business Owners Claimed Cherokee Ancestry—and Got $300 Million in Government Money

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If you’ve spent any time in the South or Midwest, you’ve probably heard a few people claim to have Native American ancestry (“Do you see these eyebrows? This bone structure?”) And, chances are, if they had to name the tribe, they’d tell you their great-great-great grandmother was half-Cherokee.

Well, this next story concerns a very particular set of white persons claiming Native ancestry. What makes them different from everyone else making casual conversation at the Piggly Wiggly? Apart from their claims being completely unsubstantiated, they were leveraging this unverified Cherokee identity to procure at least $300 million in government contracts intended for minority-owned companies.

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Here’s the rundown from the L.A. Times, which broke the story:

Since 2000, the federal government and authorities in 18 states, including California, have awarded more than $300 million under minority contracting programs to companies whose owners made unsubstantiated claims of being Native American, a Los Angeles Times investigation found.

… In applying for the minority programs, 12 of the 14 business owners involved claimed membership in one of three self-described Cherokee groups, according to government records and interviews.

Those three groups have no government recognition and are considered illegitimate by recognized tribes and Native American experts, however.

… For each of the 14 companies, one or more census, birth, marriage or other government records identified the owners’ ancestors as white. The ancestors also do not appear on rolls that government-recognized tribes use to confirm Cherokee citizenship, according to census records and an expert on Cherokee genealogy.

Basically, your ass was more than happy to be lily-white everywhere else—except when playing Native could get you some good government cash. Shoot, at least Rachel Dolezal committed.

According to the Times, contracts to minority business owners were awarded all throughout the West Coast, as well as New Mexico, Idaho, Texas, Pennsylvania, and several more Southern and Midwestern states. Most of the false claims of Cherokee ancestry the Times dug up, however, were concentrated in the Midwest.

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Rocky Miller, a state lawmaker in Missouri and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation told the Times the situation was “infuriating.”

“They’re enriching themselves based on a nonexistent recognition,” Miller said.

“It’s taking those resources not just from our community, but from all communities of color,” Rebecca Nagle, a community organizer and citizen of the Cherokee Nation told the paper. “It’s really problematic.”

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Strictly for the sake of argument, let’s entertain the notion that these 14 business owners genuinely believed—as do Johnny Cash, Elizabeth Warren, Billy Ray and Miley Cyrus, and Bill Clinton—that they have Cherokee ancestry. After all, this knowledge is usually shared from some grandparent or great aunt, who was told this by some grandparent of theirs, and who are you to call Nana a liar?

Well, genealogy is one thing, but it’s not interchangeable with cultural identity. The latter includes your genetic makeup, yes, but also your experiences, your relationships, your tastes, your family history, your language, your sense of who you are and how you got here. For those who come from marginalized or minority ethnic groups, there’s simply no opting in and opting out when it’s convenient.

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What makes these faux-Cherokees claims all the more ridiculous is that, well, the Cherokee nation keeps really good records.

In an article for Timeline (which includes a thorough explanation for why so many white people claim Cherokee heritage), writer Meagen Day quoted Cherokee genealogy researcher David Cornsilk: “Cherokees are among the best-documented people in the world.”

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“We probably come in third after royalty and Mormons,” he added.

So, if you are actually Cherokee, there will likely be receipts. You and your forebears will have identified as such on official government documents. You would also have actual, substantiated relationships to your tribe, outside of ticking a box once every 10 years. For the 14-scamming-ass business owners trying to win government contracts, none of this was true.

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In fact, here’s a little sample from the Times about contractor Randal McKinnnis, a Missouri business owner who claims on his Northern Cherokee Nation identification card that he’s 1/16th Cherokee (NCN is considered illegitimate by federally recognized tribes, by the way):

In his 2008 application to the [Small Business Administration], McKinnis wrote that larger contractors denied him the opportunity to bid on a job because they discriminated against Native Americans.

In an interview, however, he said his only memories of suffering racial prejudice involved other NCN members belittling his small percentage of Native American blood.

“I think everybody’s discriminated against to some extent,” McKinnis said.

It’s also worth including a little blurb about the “Chief” running the NCN, Kenn “Grey Elk” Descombes, who told the Times federally recognized Cherokee tribes don’t recognize him because they are hating-ass haters who don’t want to share federal funds with another Native org.

Descombes said the group has a secret Cherokee ancestry roll that is kept in a bank vault. He declined to show it to The Times, saying: “We would never let anyone get their hands on it. … It’s not for white people.”

Asked whether NCN members should benefit from minority contracting programs, Descombes said they should, and he then called African American contractors “professional liars and thieves.”

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Hrmmm, Grey Elk is sounding like some White Nonsense.

As a result of the Times investigation, five St. Louis-based contractors were stripped of their minority status earlier this month. Alas!

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About the author

Anne Branigin

Staff writer, The Root. Sometimes I blog slow, sometimes I blog quick. Do you have this in coconut?