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Know the West

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.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/articles/indigenous-affairs-oklahomas-tribes-unite-against-a-common-foe-their-cherokee-governor]

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. 

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