White U.S. business owners in 18 states have been awarded more than $300 million under federal minority contracting programs since 2000 by making unsubstantiated claims of being members of three unrecognized Cherokee tribes, the Los Angeles Times reports.
At least 12 White business owners across the West Coast and the Midwest, New Mexico, Idaho, Texas, Pennsylvania and four Southern states, claimed membership in the Northern Cherokee Nation, Western Cherokee Nation or the Northern Cherokee Nation of the Old Louisiana Territory.
Census records, birth and marriage certificates, and other government records have identified each of the 14 companies awarded contracts by the federal government as having at least one White ancestor, the LA Times reports.
Matt Ghio, an attorney who represents four of the five companies, plans to sue the city of St. Louis, arguing in court earlier this month that narrowing the definition of what constitutes Cherokee membership is an “unconstitutional” standard that no other U.S. minority group has to face.
According to the Times, Ghio claims his clients can prove their ancestry, but that he would not present evidence for their lineage because he is not legally obligated to do so. He also said their legal claims for the money are valid.
“It’s infuriating,” said Rocky Miller, a Missouri state lawmaker and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. “They’re enriching themselves based on a nonexistent recognition.”
“It’s taking those resources not just from our community but from all communities of color,” said Rebecca Nagle, a community organizer and citizen of the Cherokee Nation. “It’s really problematic.”
The Cherokee Nation, the largest federally recognized indigenous tribe in the United States, has long insisted on autonomously defining who can claim tribal membership. Wilma Mankiller, the first woman president of the Cherokee Nation, fought for freedmen—descendants of Black people enslaved by members of the Cherokee Nation—to be expelled from the Nation. This ultimately stripped the freedmen of health care, food and housing assistance. It also stripped them of their identities after their ancestors marched on the Trail of Tears in servitude—and, sometimes, in solidarity.
White contractors claiming indigenous ancestry and being rewarded while native communities are still oppressed and facing the reverberations of genocide that still echo through their communities is not new. It’s also not the first time the federal government has rewarded White people without any attempt at fairness and equity.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act into law, which paid enslavers and plantation owners up to $300 for every enslaved person freed to help offset the profit loss of losing human chattel, the New York Times reports.
In the case of the White self-proclaimed Cherokee, Twila Barnes, a Missouri-based researcher and a Cherokee Nation citizen, stated the obvious: “They are milking the system.”