Before the $300 million national scandal, the civil rights lawsuit and the accusations of fraud, the Northern Cherokee Nation meant something in St. Louis. It used to mean money.
Instead, it is March 14, and some 200 miles west of the city, just outside the rural town of Clinton, the blue roof of the Northern Cherokee Nation's headquarters appears on the horizon like a colorful aberration amid the green farmland. A sign proclaims the tribe's purported founding date: March, 1755.
Cars and trucks pull into the gravel parking lot at the tribal complex. Some of these tribal citizens have driven hundreds of miles to attend the council meeting. They arrive in regalia, dressed in ribbon shirts, feathers, beads and bone; their hair is braided, their wrists decorated with wampum.
Kenn "Grey Elk" Descombes, the tribe's chief, greets each arrival in a booming voice as they sign the guest book. His ribbon shirt is a rich and dense pattern of purple, and he wears multiple necklaces of bone and dangled ornaments.
Descombes is a large man with a large presence. Surrounded by his citizens, the chief conjures a seemingly endless stream of tribal stories, tangents and legends about his people's travails in Missouri.
As the small crowd mingles, Descombes leads me toward a back office that's almost as large as the main meeting hall. We come to a wall lined with file cabinets.
Inside each drawer, he says, are "hundreds of pounds" of documents, themselves only a portion of the "thousands of pounds" of secret genealogical records scattered across vaults. He says files prove — despite denouncements from federally recognized Cherokee tribes and genealogy experts — that the citizens of Northern Cherokee Nation descend from groups which had once covered what is now the southeastern states, the same bands that were forcibly removed from their land, marched through the Trail of Tears and resettled in Oklahoma.
Only, according to the Northern Cherokee Nation, not all the Cherokee went to Oklahoma. These "lost" Cherokee chose to stay in Missouri, where they hid from government census-takers and refused to sign the registries created by later commissions.
As Descombes narrates, a tribal member comes into the office to tell him that the council meeting is nearly ready to start. She clips a long feather to the braid of graying hair that hangs to the center of his back.
"Now, your civilized people, they don't believe in this kind of thing anymore," he says. "They assimilate. They want to be quiet."
Despite the circumstances, there are some aspects of civilization that Descombes and the Northern Cherokee have embraced. He acknowledges as much with a laugh.
"We're going to have a modern government thing going on here," he says as we exit the office. "Now, let's go play white."
- DANNY WICENTOWSKI
- Based in Clinton, the Northern Cherokee Nation claims that it is officially recognized in Missouri as a Native American tribe. It isn't.
What are the circumstances of the Northern Cherokee Nation?
To hear Descombes explain it, the tribe has maintained "an unbroken line of chiefs" since the 1820s. He claims his own ancestry derives from Chickamauga Cherokee, a warrior clan which settled in Missouri and Arkansas and sided with the British during the American Revolutionary War.
But in the world of government contracts, the Northern Cherokee's history isn't nearly as important as its potential dollar value — one not derived from Northern Cherokee's assets, or tradition, or historical authenticity, but from the access it supplies to companies seeking certification for lucrative "set aside" contracts reserved for minority-owned companies.
The potential earnings are enormous. Like a vault key, a Native American certification opens the door to local and state contracts. On the federal level, 5 percent of the government's multibillion-dollar contractor budget is reserved for businesses owned by eligible minorities.
For years, that category included tribes such as the Northern Cherokee. Millions of dollars flowed to companies whose owners had merely supplied their tribal ID cards and claimed they'd encountered discrimination because of their minority status.
The web of money stretched coast to coast. In its unraveling, the first tug came from a pair of investigative reporters from the Los Angeles Times chasing a possible political scandal: In late 2018, they reported that William Wages, the brother-in-law of then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, had received more than $7 million in no-bid federal contracts for his California-based construction company — contracts he'd been awarded because the U.S. Small Business Administration certified his company as a minority-owned enterprise, or MBE, through his citizenship in the Northern Cherokee Nation.
But Wages is white. As reporters Paul Pringle and Adam Elmahrek detailed, "[an] examination of census, birth, death, marriage and other available public records show Wages' ancestors were identified as white. He is listed as white on his birth certificate."
The reporters went further, even hiring a Cherokee genealogist from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the largest of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes. Going back to the early 1800s, Wages' ancestors didn't show up on any membership rolls for the recognized Cherokee bands. All evidence showed his ancestry as white.
This first case — involving a company that had made millions on minority contracts, certification through a non-federally recognized tribe, and an owner whose ancestry lacked any documented Cherokee ancestors — led the reporters to chase the story across the country.
It led them to Missouri, where three self-professed Cherokee tribes — including the Northern Cherokee Nation — had accounted for more than $300 million in minority contracts awarded by the federal government and seventeen states.
The door had been opened in Missouri as well. Four companies were located in the greater St. Louis area, the fifth in Union. All had been certified as minority-owned in St. Louis through their memberships in the Northern Cherokee Nation.
There was Premier Demolition, owned by Bill Buell. He had been awarded a $311,000 contract in 2017 for clearing space for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in north city. Replaying the tactic from their first story, the L.A. Times investigative team hired a genealogist through the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma to look at Buell: The search showed his ancestors identified as white in census records.
There was also Global Environmental Inc., whose minority status led to more than $4 million in federal construction contracts. Census and death records showed company owner Vicky Dunn identified as white. Again, a genealogist with the Cherokee Heritage Center found no Cherokee ancestry.
Thanks to the inquiries from the L.A. Times, St. Louis officials saw the scandal coming. On June 6, 2019, the city board that regulates certifications for minority-owned businesses voted unanimously to decertify the five companies certified through the Northern Cherokee. They were CCI Environmental Inc., Global Environmental Inc., Premier Demolition Inc., D.W. Mertzke Excavating & Trucking, Inc. and Union-based Taylor Electrical Service.
Three weeks later, the L.A. Times dropped its bombshell report online. The story's headline, "Claiming to be Cherokee, contractors with white ancestry got $300 million," alleged widespread fraud and government incompetence. The story described an abandoned regulation and a system hijacked by minority contractors with white ancestry. The result was "a major failure in the nation's efforts to help disadvantaged Americans."
The lead photo of the story showed a man in a ribbon shirt, his neck draped with feathers and beads, and the blue and red crescent of the Northern Cherokee Nation in the background.
That was how Chief Kenn "Grey Elk" Descombes became the face of a fake tribe scandal.
- DANNY WICENTOWSKI
- The Northern Cherokee Nation's headquarters are filled with artifacts (like this "Hawaiian War Ax") and other items that ostensibly support its identity as a Native American tribe.
While the L.A. Times had unraveled a nationwide failure in government oversight, what remained unexplored was a seemingly straightforward question: What did it actually mean to be part of the Northern Cherokee Nation?
Whether its citizens are sincere believers or accomplices to an elaborate fraud, the fact that the answers are tied up in a web of money and alleged tribal identity theft demanded further inquiry.
In a January 2020 phone call, the 68-year-old Descombes — a long-haul trucker by trade — dispenses scorn on the L.A. Times and dismisses the seriousness of the recent news coverage, which he calls "less than a little flattering."
Despite the chief's recent impression of "disparaging" reporters, he invites me to attend the next tribal council meeting.
And there I am, a couple months later, as Descombes and the six other members of the tribal council assemble before a crowd of seventeen citizens. (Less than a week has passed since Missouri confirmed its first coronavirus case, and I'm told that much of the usual crowd has stayed home amid the burgeoning pandemic.)
Just as Descombes suggested in the back office, the council meeting is a "modern government" sort of operation. It begins with the chief explaining the procedures of swearing in a new council speaker. Motions are made and seconded. Minutes are read.
Then, the attendees are asked to stand and remove their hats.
Descombes is a self-professed expert in the Cherokee language. (During the earlier tour in the office, he described growing up in a Cherokee-speaking home and said he's spent 40 years translating traditional tribal prayers and rituals. As proof he produced a thick binder, stuffed with pages, which he identified as "the world's biggest Cherokee dictionary.")
Descombes addresses the citizenry. "I've translated a prayer here into English," he says. Unfolding a sheet of paper, he begins to read: "My grandfather is a fire, the earth is my mother, the great spirit is my father."
"The world stopped at my birth and lay itself at my feet."
"I shall swallow the earth whole when I die."
The prayer continues, moving through various objects of reverence. It hails the earth and fire, earth and wind, parents and grandparents, and finally the great spirit:
"Oh, great spirit, giver of my life," Descombes intones, "please accept this humble offering of prayer, this offering of praise, this honest reverence of my love for you."
The prayer concludes, and the meeting turns back to the tasks of modern government: There's an update about the remaining payments left on the tribal complex, details of an upcoming visit by a Boy Scout troop and plans for the annual powwow scheduled for October, the centerpiece of the tribe's calendar. There's a call for donations to buy a Missouri state flag and solar lights. Mostly, it feels like a small-town city council meeting.
Weeks later, I type the words "My grandfather is a fire, the earth is my mother" into Google, and hit enter. I find the entire prayer, verbatim, in Facebook and Pinterest posts, as well as the first chapter of a 2014 romance novel titled Apache Moon available for purchase on Amazon. The same text appears on spirituality websites under the title "An Indian Prayer" as far back as 2001.
- DANNY WICENTOWSKI
In 1982, the Northern Cherokee Nation of the Old Louisiana Territory registered as a nonprofit with the state of Missouri, marking the first documented appearance of the group that would one day fracture into several tribes, including the Descombes-led band of the Northern Cherokee.
The tribe is not recognized by the federal government, and it doesn't claim to be. However, its website claims a lot of other things, including that the tribe "has been state recognized in Missouri since the 1980's" — a pointedly misleading description that's been debunked by the Missouri attorney general.
The bottom banner of the website includes another official-sounding boast, notifying visitors that the tribe is "recognized by the Missouri work force diversity program for members wishing to become minority contractors."
That claim was accurate until 2011, when a change in the federal regulation muddied the water of minority business programs.
Before 2011, company owners seeking minority certification as Native American had only to "demonstrate that he or she has held himself or herself out, and is currently identified by others, as a member" of a Native American group.
After 2011, however, the amended regulation changed the requirement. Now, Native American minority contracts were to be awarded only to owners with citizenship in tribes recognized by the federal government.
What happened next was perhaps the most stunning part of the L.A. Times' investigation:
Nothing. Nothing happened. The L.A. Times discovered that companies whose owners were members of non-federally recognized tribes had stayed certified in the programs even after 2011 — even when the owners had all-white ancestries.
It was the same in Missouri and St. Louis. The L.A. Times story included Vicki Dunn, a citizen of the Northern Cherokee Nation whose Berkeley-based company had been awarded an $80,000 minority contract from the City of St. Louis. She had no answer for why census and death records identified her ancestors as white.
Days after the story published, a city spokesman said in an email to the Riverfront Times that officials had "initially relied on the State of Missouri's approval" of the disputed Cherokee tribe, despite Missouri having no official agency or process for recognizing Native American tribes. St. Louis had not acted on the 2011 regulation change, and the spokesman confirmed that the city's MBE program "did not reexamine the minority status of any of the firms after the initial certification."
The result was that companies with white owners continued to enjoy the benefits of their minority contracts. By the time officials corrected their oversight, the regulation that had sought to fix the problem was eight years old.
The scandal was far from just a Missouri problem. Every level of government, from municipal to federal, had failed to protect programs that had been created to repair the damage wrought against Native Americans in the nation's past and present. These governments had allowed white people to claim resources reserved for Native Americans and other minorities.
Of course, it's not the first time this has happened.
More than a century ago, between 1898 and 1907, the Dawes Commission received 250,000 applications from people seeking to record their citizenship as Native American — and obtain the allotment of land that came with it. The process became swarmed by white people claiming undocumented ancestry, but the commission didn't simply turn a blind eye. When it closed the enrollment process in 1907, it had rejected about six of ten applicants. The "Dawes Roll" includes just 100,000 names.
Today, the name of "a linear ancestor" on the Dawes Roll is required for citizenship in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and other federally recognized tribes.
The subject of federal recognition and tribal identity can seem highly bureaucratic, and that's because it is; but it's important to recognize that this bureaucracy isn't a separate entity from the vast ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. It is tied to it. This explains why the Dawes Roll, a century-old registry of names, still exerts such influence today.
In the 1820s and continuing to the 1830s, thousands of Cherokees perished during a months-long forced relocation, called the Trail of Tears, to Indian Territory in what is now the state of Oklahoma. By the end of the century, the Cherokee were among the "Five Civilized Tribes" that governed themselves and maintained a national system of communally owned land.
Destroying those tribal governments was the aim of the Dawes Commission, which sought to convince the tribes to end their land ownership system. That the commission undertook a census to accurately compensate tribal citizens — with their own land — was itself a by-product of the larger theft underway.
And that's exactly what happened. The tribes' governments and land system were abolished. Their autonomy was violated once again, and the land later became Oklahoma. However, more than a century later, the Dawes Roll is a useful artifact of that violation.
This list of names, created in the context of theft and betrayal, now separates many recognized Native American groups from the countless self-identifying tribes across the country.
- DANNY WICENTOWSKI
- Descombes dismisses all accusations that the Northern Cherokee Nation is a faux tribe.
In contrast, the enrollment process of the Northern Cherokee Nation — which, based on the genealogical investigation of the L.A. Times, appears to have certified several members with white ancestry — is not reliant on the Dawes Roll for membership. Descombes rejects the document's legitimacy.
"The Dawes Roll is one of the most flawed documents in the world," he says, noting accurately, "It's main thing was to destroy the reservation, which is did."
As of late, the tribe's assertions have been dealt devastating blows.
A national review of federal minority business programs is underway. Along with St. Louis, several states have begun cleaning up their minority business programs, removing companies linked to the Northern Cherokee Nation and two other non-federally recognized tribes based in Missouri.
But some tribal citizens are fighting the changes. On November 14, 2019, four St. Louis companies who had been caught in the decertifying sweep filed a federal civil rights lawsuit. They're charging St. Louis with discrimination.
- DANNY WICENTOWSKI
- Descombes poses next to what he describes as "the largest known wampum belt." He says his proof of Cherokee heritage includes "thousands of pounds" of secret genealogy records.
Back at the tribal council meeting on March 14, the recent media coverage and legal drama are mentioned only in passing. The meeting adjourns, and with the modern government tasks completed, the citizens move toward a table arranged with home-cooked dishes in steaming Crock-Pots. The room fills with the combined aroma of fried chicken, chili, and sauerkraut.
"You see a lot of people here who are comfortable in their skin," Descombes tells me as we return to the back office. Asked about the lawsuit, he rejects the conclusions of St. Louis' MBE program and its strict definitions of who is, and is not, Native American.
"We don't argue who's 'real.' That's a joke to us," Descombes says. "We simply say, 'Well, if whatever the government has decided is a minority, we qualify for that too, just as much.'"
Descombes arrives at his large executive desk. Rummaging in a drawer, he produces a sheet of printer paper with a photo of what appears to be cave carvings. He launches into a story of a tribal member who, while studying with "the Mayans," had secretly photographed a cave wall covered with intricate petroglyphs, images of human figures with tiny heads and huge torsos.
"That's the only picture he got out of there," Descombes says dramatically, but his story doesn't end there: The photo, he confides, did not include additional petroglyphs, farther down the cave wall, which portrayed "space people, spaceships and people in helmets."
We return to the main meeting space, and Descombes sits at the head of the council table to be photographed for this story. Behind him rests a multi-headed drum that he says was constructed in 1820. All around him are artifacts which, in his telling, speak for a culture that has for centuries thrived in a hostile land.
The citizens, dressed in their ribbon shirts and wampum, are still engaged in lunch and conversation. At one table sits a young man who drove from Minneapolis to attend his first meeting. The other citizens introduce themselves and welcome him warmly. He doesn't yet have a Cherokee name, like "Grey Elk" or "White Crow." The tribe offers that service to citizens, according to its website, in exchange for a "small gift."
Finally, after taking a portrait of the chief, I ask him the question that inspired my trip to Clinton: Amid the conflict over identity and recognition, what does it mean to be a Northern Cherokee?
"It's several things," he begins. "It's knowledge of your ancestors, it's knowledge of your language."
But it's something bigger than knowledge, deeper than ancestry.
"It's the fact that you know an entire society that nobody else knows," he says. "They can't know it, they can't know the history, they can't know any of this. So, it's just yours."
- DANNY WICENTOWSKI
- The Northern Cherokee Nation registered as a Missouri non-profit in 1991
After St. Louis decertified companies registered to non-federally recognized tribes, those companies filed suit, alleging discrimination. The lawsuit argues that the city's MBE program unfairly uses different standards between Native Americans and other minorities.
"The City's rules allow African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans to meet the definition of a Minority Group Member by simply having 'origins' within a group of peoples," the lawsuit says. "Whereas Native Americans are restricted to those persons who have cultural identification and can demonstrate membership in a tribe recognized by the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs."
But while the lawsuit seeks to prove the legal issue, it also devotes twelve pages to defending the Northern Cherokee Nation's ancestry, complete with an array of source documents used to prove the purported heritage stretching back centuries.
Or, at least to the 1980s. One exhibit includes a 1983 proclamation signed by Governor Kit Bond in recognition of the tribe's registration as a nonprofit the previous year. The language reads as resoundingly official: "I, Christopher S. Bond, Governor of the State of Missouri, do hereby acknowledge the existence of the Northern Cherokee Nation as an American Indian Tribe within the boundaries of the state of Missouri."
Today, the claim elicits a mocking counterargument from Rocky Miller, a Republican state representative from the Lake of the Ozarks and a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
"I can have a resolution sent to you that you're king of St. Louis County," he retorts, "and that'll be worth about as much as the resolution they have from Governor Bond."
Miller admits he has an antagonistic history with Descombes and the Northern Cherokee Nation. In his telling, the tension goes back to 2013, just after Miller entered office as a rookie legislator.
"I was in my office, and Chief Grey Elk came in to talk to me," he begins. "I'm listening to him, things were making sense. The tribe is out of Clinton, and he had the title 'chief,' and to be quite honest, I didn't know a whole lot about my own heritage."
It's not a matter of gullibility or ignorance. There's nothing inherently implausible about the existence of a tribe like the Northern Cherokee Nation. Miller had known of other federally recognized Cherokee bands, groups with their own chiefs and territory, including the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. He assumed Descombes represented a similar group.
But then he remembered something his grandfather had told him.
"As he kept talking, I realized, 'Oh, my grandfather talked about these guys, these "wannabes."' So, I took out my tribal card, the federal documents, the blood quantum, everything showing I was a member of the Cherokee Nation — and I asked him, 'Do you have one of these?'"
Miller recalls Descombes explaining how Northern Cherokee had refused to sign various treaties associated with federal recognition and therefore didn't need to provide those documents. The response was enough for the lawmaker to make up his mind.
"I said, 'This is the deal. My grandfather would have done something pretty bad at this point. I'm not, and I will ask you to please leave and never come back.'"
Miller adds, "That was the last I ever saw of Chief Grey Elk."
- MISSOURI HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
- Missouri state Rep. Rocky Miller, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, argues that fake tribes are stealing from his heritage and from taxpayer funds.
The two would tangle again in 2018, when Descombes traveled to Jefferson City to protest a bill Miller had sponsored that made it a state crime for anyone not from a federally recognized tribe to sell Native American art. The bill defined an "American Indian tribe" as "any Indian tribe federally recognized by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs."
Although the bill became law, Northern Cherokee Nation citizens continue to attend craft events to sell artwork; the tribe's website currently features an "Artist's Showcase" of works from its citizens, including a "Holy Man of the Northern Cherokee Nation" and a tribal member described as "famous for her beadwork."
In 2019, Miller says he contacted the Missouri attorney general, requesting the state investigate the tribe's claims of recognition and legitimacy. The complaint was later closed; a spokesman with the AG's office told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the office "lacked specific information or facts that could supplement the complaint."
"The attorney general, in my opinion, it just didn't seem real interested, didn't seem really aggressive," Miller says now.
And that aggravated the lawmaker, because he argues there are actually two thefts at stake: not just the theft of Cherokee heritage, but the theft of taxpayer money set aside to "level the playing field" for Native Americans whose descendants still carry the burden of centuries of abuse.
Before he was a representative, Miller operated a construction company that was certified as a minority-owned subcontractor, as his Cherokee citizenship qualified him for contracts.
Today, the Republican legislator says he doesn't support the current system of "set asides" to drive contracts to disadvantaged groups. He questions the necessity of programs that single out minorities for benefits. Still, he acknowledges the logic and the historical burden behind the programs.
After all, it's Miller's history, too.
"My grandfather was raised in an Indian school, not of his own choice. He could not practice his own heritage," he says. "I'm 54 years old. My grandfather was discriminated against in an economic way. To make up for that, his ancestors are allowed special treatment."
"Right or wrong," he adds, "that's what set asides are for, because in the past, in their history, they started at an unequal level. This is leveling the playing field. I disagree with that, but that's what the thought is."
Miller says he's confounded by the lack of national, sustained outrage at the pilfering of minority contracts intended for legitimate tribes — he references the scrutiny that in 2015 was directed at Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who was exposed for passing herself as Black while heading a local chapter of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington.
"They vilified her!" he exclaims. "What if she made $30 million off them? It's just so absurd that people don't understand it."
- COURTESY OF TWILA BARNES
- Twila Barnes is a genealogist who has traced the history of faux tribes.
Twila Barnes grew up twenty miles outside Clinton and attended high school in the early 1980s. She remembers when citizens of a tribe seemed to appear out of nowhere.
"They were seen as New Age people at the time, people didn't pay much attention," she recalls. She adds, with a sigh, "They've had years to grow."
Barnes, a professional genealogist and citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is something of an expert on self-proclaimed Cherokee tribes. In 2012, she was launched into the controversy around Democratic U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose claims of Cherokee heritage created a vortex of identity politics, actual politics, and cultural theft.
But more than just becoming a frequently booked guest on cable news shows, Barnes used her expertise to solve the mystery — embarking on a mission to evaluate the ancestry claims and "family stories" that the senator insisted were valid. Thousands of words and several lengthy, primary-source-filled blog posts later, Barnes had her conclusions: Warren's family had been listed as white "in all records and documentation for the past 188 years."
But as the Warren controversy faded, Barnes says she recognized a similar dynamic surging in America. There had always been "pretendians," but a corner had apparently been turned: More and more people were believing these dubious claims. And the scale kept growing.
"I don't think America knows it's as bad as it is," Barnes says. "America doesn't know enough about Native Americans to know that these people are fake."
In July 2018, more than three months before the L.A. Times published the first part of its investigation featuring the Northern Cherokee and related self-identifying tribes, Barnes published her own research in a six-part series described as "debunking the myth of a fake tribe." She titled the project "The Gardner Green Series."
"None of it was true, it was all made up," she says now. "It was lie built on lie built on lie, and it's still going on today."
As many lies are, it was built on a single truth. Gardner Green, born as Young Wolf, was a Cherokee man who died in 1837. His English name appeared on an 1835 census of the Cherokee Nation.
"59 years after his death," Barnes wrote, "a family stole his identity and exchanged it for the identity of their long dead grandfather in a way that might bring them personal gain."
Indeed, as Barnes found, the origins of the Northern Cherokee Nation started with a single family, the Greens, whose members mostly resided in Boone County near Columbia. They insisted they were descendants of Gardner Green and that his son — listed in the 1835 Cherokee census as Ooahhusky — was actually their grandfather, Benjamin Green.
The Green family was adamant and, as records show, persistent. Barnes uncovered 29 applications sent to the Dawes Commission in 1896, all from members of the Green family seeking recognition for their Cherokee blood. Each time, they claimed Gardner Green was their great-grandfather.
That wasn't all. Later, the Green family sought recognition for a share of a $4.5 million settlement related to a Cherokee treaty. More than 200 members of the Green family filed claims for a piece of the money.
"ALL were rejected," Barnes wrote.
Her series delved into the facts behind the Gardner Green ancestry claims, complete with birth, death, census and tribal records. The dates just didn't line up. Benjamin Green, their grandfather, could not also be Ooahhusky, the son of Gardner Green in the tribal records; for that to be true, it would require Benjamin to sire a son in 1789, more than 40 years before his own birth.
Benjamin Green also appears in the lawsuit filed against St. Louis; he is described as the first principal chief of the "Northern Band" and instrumental in the tribe's history and early unification.
To date, Barnes says she's tracked more than a dozen unrecognized tribes in Missouri alone, several of which draw on the Green family claims. But she admits that she never imagined the scale of the money involved, the millions funneled to companies across the country — that is, until the scheme wound up in the crosshairs of the L.A. Times.
And yet, despite the scandals, the Northern Cherokee Nation retains much of its official cache in major Missouri cities, at least those not named St. Louis. In August, a spokesman for Kansas City confirmed that the city's respective minority business program retains companies tied to the Northern Cherokee Nation, as well as a third Cherokee group that had also broken from the original Northern Cherokee group in the '90s. This third group, based in Mansfield, named itself the Western Cherokee Nation of Arkansas and Missouri.
One company featured in the L.A. Times' 2019 report, Columbia Gutter & Curb, is still certified as a minority-owned business by Columbia's diversity hiring program through its citizenship in the Northern Cherokee Nation of the Old Louisiana Territory. The company received more than $67 million in minority contracts.
Barnes just doesn't buy it.
"How could they not know?" she asks of the cities accepting the dubious claims. "How could they not know that something's not on the up and up. How can you think that this group just comes together in 1982 and it's a tribe? It doesn't make sense."
Barnes doesn't discount the possibility that the Northern Cherokee and similar tribes have earnest followers with genuine beliefs. But given the tribe's history, and her research, she believes "their main motivator is money in the end."
This is more than just claiming "family stories." When it comes to the Northern Cherokee, all she can see is the exploitation, a fabricated culture, and the lies spelled out in her records.
"People claiming Cherokee ancestry who don't have it is a common genealogical myth," Barnes points out. "Most people don't start fake tribes, though."
The discrimination lawsuit pending against St. Louis is still in its early stages, and it could drag on for years. Matt Ghio, the attorney representing the four companies suing the city — all based in greater St. Louis — declined to comment for this story, citing the pending litigation.
But the Northern Cherokee Nation itself isn't a party to the lawsuit. Reached by phone on a Saturday in August, Descombes is unfailingly optimistic, predicting the legal decision will reverse the city's decertifications and even bolster the tribe's case for federal recognition.
At the mention of Twila Barnes and her research into the Green family's non-Cherokee ancestry, the chief laughs and discounts her conclusions.
In Descombes' telling, the impossible grandfather figure, Benjamin Green, who is described in the lawsuit against St. Louis as the Northern Cherokee band's "first Principal Chief" actually wasn't an important figure — but instead "a very low-level, isolated person, and a few of the people might have descended from him."
And, he adds, even if there are issues with the Green family claims, those issues are irrelevant: "There are thousands and thousands of us who don't even know who Benjamin Green is."
Descombes vows to publish his own investigation into Barnes' conclusions, which, he says, will "destroy, line by line" her evidence that ties the Northern Cherokee to generations of white people baselessly claiming Cherokee heritage.
"She's as clueless as the rest of us," he charges. "We descend from our people."
Descombes is unflappably genial. In all of our interviews, he never raises his voice, never sounds flustered as he responds to the accusations that rise from damning genealogies uncovered by Barnes and the L.A. Times. For him, perhaps, this is what it means to be Northern Cherokee: to be assailed by critics, rival tribes, ignorant journalists, toxic governments — and in spite of it all, never backing down from the ownership of his own identity, the knowledge of his ancestors and of his language. He's devoted his life to it.
- DANNY WICENTOWSKI/PINTEREST
- (Left) A photo that Descombes claimed was captured by a Northern Cherokee citizen in a Mayan cave. (Right) The same image, as shared on Pinterest from a 2012 blog post about Hopi petroglyphs.
I bring up his translation work of ancient Cherokee prayers and rituals, and the years of web pages and posts that feature the exact same "Cherokee Prayer" he read to the tribal council on March 14. It's the one that began, "My grandfather is a fire, the earth is my mother."
At first, he doesn't remember the prayer, but when pressed, concedes that it "may not be the one I translated." Still, he adds "it doesn't matter who translates something from Cherokee into English. I'll use anybody else's if they've translated it."
Then why, I ask, did he tell his own followers that he had laboriously translated it himself? For that matter, why boast about growing up fluent in Cherokee, his decades of scholarship, his authorship of dictionaries ... only to back it up with an easily provable lie?
He has no answer. I bring up the photo of the "Mayan petroglyphs," the one he claimed to have obtained from a tribal member who had secretly photographed the carvings after smuggling a camera into the cave. Was any of that true?
After a pause, he responds, "Uh, I don't know if that picture is of that or not, he definitely got pictures, several old petroglyphs."
But the supposed photographer was just another story. I found the same photo in a 2012 blog post; the petroglyphs weren't Mayan, but carved by Hopi clans in the American southwest.
Lies on top of lies. Was he just messing with me? With everyone?
Descombes just laughs at my questions.
"I enjoyed spoofing you quite a bit back there," he tells me. "What I'm taking away from this conversation is that it's very important for you to have all the facts.
"For us," he says, "we could care less what facts you have."
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com