The Cherokee Nation once fought to disenroll Gov. Kevin Stitt’s ancestors

Documents show the Oklahoma governor’s connections to the tribe may have originated in an act of fraud more than 100 years ago.

 

Last week, High Country News and The New York Times jointly reported a story on the ongoing battle between Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, R, and tribes in the state over a gaming compact. We spoke with Cherokee genealogists, who noted that Stitt, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, has only one documented tie to Cherokee ancestry, a man the tribe’s own attorneys once accused of fraudulently enrolling.

According to the federal documents we reviewed, Cherokee Nation attorneys accused Gov. Stitt’s ancestor, Francis Dawson, of bribing commissioners around 1880 — pretending to be Cherokee in order to gain tribal citizenship as well as access to hundreds of acres of free land. Cherokee attorneys also alleged that Dawson paid for about two dozen of his relatives to gain access to tribal rolls, along with allotted land, by paying Cherokee officials and his attorney $100 a head for each enrollment. Gov. Stitt has declined multiple requests to be interviewed by High Country News and the Times.

In a statement to a local television station the day after our story appeared, Gov. Stitt called the documents and the case they lay out “unsubstantiated slander.” We dispute this characterization. The Cherokee Nation's case created hundreds of pages of witness testimony and evidence. Here, we highlight some of the context necessary to understand what the accusations were and how the tribe’s case was built.

Our research found that Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, R, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, has only one documented tie to Cherokee ancestry.
Matt Barnard/Tulsa World via AP File

THE CHEROKEE NATION attempted to remove Francis Dawson from its tribal rolls over 100 years ago. But Cherokee Nation citizenship is not based on race, and Gov. Stitt, Dawson’s descendant, remains a member of the tribe. Though his family’s history of citizenship is unique, it is not necessarily unusual for a Cherokee Nation citizen to lack genetic ties to the tribe. Today, there exists no mechanism in Cherokee Nation law to disenroll a citizen.

Around 1900, Cherokee attorneys worked to remove the Dawsons from the tribe by taking the case before the Dawes Commission, which was originally established by the federal government to force tribes in Oklahoma to cede their land by distributing plots to individual Indigenous owners. The commission eventually dissolved communal tribal lands, piece by piece, as family plots were sold to non-Native owners.

One of the dozens of witnesses in the case testified that Dawson had only one witness, a doctor in Arkansas, to prove he was Cherokee. “(Dawson) said he could give him four drinks of Arkansas whiskey and he would swear that black was white,” J.L. Clinkenbeard testified on page 29 of the documents. He added that the doctor himself never actually testified in person.

The attorney, A.S. McKennon, who assisted Dawson was also interviewed, and on page 27 he testifies that he did not actually conduct witness testimony. McKennon simply took Francis Dawson’s money and made the applications.

Two pages later, C.G. Braught, Cherokee citizen and a neighbor of Francis Dawson for over a decade, testified that Dawson told him that he made arrangements with the court to get each family member on the rolls for $100 apiece. “He said it cost him $700 to get in,” the testimony reads, “he said he paid one witness $300.”

Despite what Cherokee genealogist Twila Barnes described as the tribe’s “incredibly strong” case against the Dawsons, the Dawes Commission ruled that since the Dawsons appeared on the 1896 roll, they were to remain citizens. “It is believed that it is doubtful whether the Nation can now challenge the right of any one to enrollment whose name appears thereon,” the commission stated.

Barnes explained that at the time, the Cherokee Nation was its own country, and its lands were communal. When rumors of the government splitting it up through allotment spread through Indian Country, some, like the Dawsons, saw an opportunity for free land. If you take into account “the land that they got by fraud from us,” Barnes said, “there would be a lot of land left. It was taking assets of the Cherokee Nation and the Cherokee people.”

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation. 

 Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -