Contractors with white ancestry earned $311,000 two years ago — as a minority-owned company, the Los Angeles Times reports. When the St. Louis, Missouri mayor announced the contract the town made with a Native American-owned company to demolish an old shoe factory, the community welcomed it.
The area was still reeling from the 2014 killing of Michael Brown — a Black unarmed 18-year-old — by police in Ferguson. Officials had agreed to set aside government work for more minority-owned firms.
However, Bill Buell, the owner of Premier Demolition, Inc.’s only claim to being Native American is his membership in a Cherokee group not recognized as a legitimate tribe, neither by the federal government, nor Cherokee communities and genealogists.
Looking back at censuses and historical records, the Times found, all of Buell’s ancestors identified as white.
But Buell’s case is not isolated. The Times’ investigation found since 2000, the federal government and governments in 18 states granted over $300 million in minority contracting programs to companies who made unverifiable claims of being Native American.
There are only three federally recognized Cherokee tribes: the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma and the Cherokee Nation.
But, the Times found members from three other unrecognized groups — the Northern Cherokee Nation of the Old Louisiana Territory, the Northern Cherokee nation and the Western Cherokee Nation of Arkansas and Missouri — made $269.2 million, $31.5 million and $3.1 million respectively in government contracts. Minority-owned certifications and contract work were issued in every West Coast state, New Mexico, Idaho, Texas and four Southern states, several in the Midwest and Pennsylvania, the investigation found. But out of the 14 businesses that applied for minority programs, 12 were involved in one of the three unrecognized Cherokee groups.
Though the Times did not find what specific groups of remaining two companies claimed to be part of, one or more census birth, marriage or other records from the 14 companies identified the owners’ ancestors as white. An expert on Cherokee genealogy and census records did not show any ancestors on lists that official Cherokee tribes use to confirm citizenship.
People with little to no Native American blood claiming Indigenous ancestry based on family lore and not fact is an issue that has been in the spotlight lately. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) never claimed tribal citizenship but self-identified as “American Indian” or “minority” on several documents. Warren had her DNA tested after President Trump mocked her, and found she had trace amounts of Native American DNA in her blood: from one ancestor six to 10 generations ago. She faced criticism from Democrats, Republicans and Native American people for boasting the results, and later apologized at a forum in Sioux City and unveiled plans she had to help Native American communities if elected president.
Cherokee genealogists told the Times these claims of Native American ancestry are common, based on family stories.
However, It is not just recently in vogue to claim Native American ancestry for benefits — this sort of appropriation has been happening in the U.S. for over a century.
In the early 1900s, people paid $5 to have Dawes Rolls documents falsified to claim they were Native American so they could reap the benefits of land allotted to Native Americans — because land was previously stolen from Native Americans.
Having one Native American ancestor six to 10 generations ago does not automatically connect one to a community that is repeatedly erased, stolen from, scapegoated and abused by the government and much of society.
Contractors claiming Native American heritage with no real evidence are benefitting from resources meant to lift up people who are otherwise disadvantaged.
“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 Times. “It’s really problematic.”
Upon the Times questioning them, St. Louis Minority Business Council, the body that oversees minority contracting certifications in St. Louis decided to strip Buell’s and four other companies of their minority status
Matt Ghio, an attorney who represents Buell’s company and three of the others, said the decision was unfair and unconstitutional because the standard of proving one is Native American is much higher than proving one is of any other race or ethnicity.
However, due to a history of colonization and forced assimilation, detecting Native American DNA is both logistically and ethically difficult.
St. Louis has about 550 certified minority businesses, mostly owned by African Americans, the Times reports. But of the 12 companies owned by Native Americans, five are part of the Northern Cherokee Nation of the Old Louisiana Territory, one of the unverified groups whose legitimacy is questionable.
Only .28% of St. Louis’ population is Native American.