Friday, August 31, 2007

Impersonating Indigenous Peoples to Get Benefits: Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right

Claims of indigenous status are very tricky these days. Some places have such a long, convoluted history that it is almost impossible to tell what cultural group arrived in an area before another. Sure it is easy to say that American Indians are indigenous to the Western Hemisphere and recent immigrants from Asia are not. But what about when you begin to get a little time behind the "indigenous" claim? Or what happens when there is an arbitrary geo-political border that designates the "indigenous" status? This is where things get tricky and where more bad can come than good.

In a recent case, an American Indian tribe not recognized by the government (a problem in and of itself) sold memberships to illegal immigrants in a fraudulent scheme that promised protection from U.S. immigration laws. The Kaweah Indian Nation Inc., of Wichita, Kansas took up to $400 each from an unknown number of immigrants for the guarantee of a social security number and a "Certificate of Citizenship" card that the Kaweah Indian Nation claimed would protect the buyers from deportation proceedings. The company also told immigrants that the card also would be good for U.S. citizenship if the Kaweah Nation gained federal recognition as an American Indian tribe. However, the Bureau of Indian Affairs rendered a decision on the Kaweah Nation's federal recognition process way back in 2004, deciding not to acknowledge them as a federally recognized American Indian tribe.

So, what is happening here is that a group of people are pretending to be American Indians so that they can help illegal immigrants come into the U.S. and gain certain benefits. This sounds like a wrong+wrong=right strategy to me. We have a group of people pretending to be an indigenous group (Wrong). They are then helping illegal immigrants into the U.S. under false pretenses (Wrong), all in the hopes of making money and allowing people to claim indigenous benefits (a supposed right). Does it get any worse than this? Indigenous peoples, whether in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, South Africa, Siberia, Australia, or anywhere else already have a hard enough time just claiming their own, legitimate rights. They don't need a group of people messing things up. This is worse than cultural appropriation, it is appropriation of identity!

Indigenous peoples issue's are perhaps some of the most complex issues in the human rights arena today. They are fighting for their rights and an equal voice on the local, regional, state, federal, and international levels. To add insult to the already poor track record people have in dealing with indigenous peoples, we can not add this. Like I said in several other posts on intellectual property rights (here and here), it is better in the long run to get your own than to steal from someone else - this mantra goes for business, it goes for ethics, it goes for governments, and it goes for indigenous peoples.


Here is the latest update on this case.

"Kansas Tribe Raided in Immigration Probe," Roxana Hegeman, Associated Press Online, September 6, 2007. Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

"The leader of an unrecognized American Indian tribe was arrested Thursday in a raid by federal authorities investigating claims that the group sold tribal memberships to immigrants with the promise that joining would provide U.S. citizenship. Agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Social Security Administration's Office of Inspector General raided the Kaweah Indian Nation's two Wichita offices and arrested Malcolm L. Webber, also known as Grand Chief Thunderbird IV, according to the U.S. attorney's office and the immigration agency. ICE said it is investigating whether Webber, 69, illegally sold tribal memberships to both legal and illegal immigrants under the misconception that the documents provided immediate U.S. citizenship. Becoming a member of a tribe gives no protection against deportation, authorities have said. Webber is not an American Indian, and his group, which calls itself the Kaweah Indian Nation, is not a legitimate tribe, Cross said. The search warrants were for anything related to sales of tribal memberships, Cross said."

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Anonymous said...

No offense meant, but your article seems rather optimistic. You assert Webber and his cronies did this out of the goodness of their hearts.

Webber has a 30+ year history of creating pseudo tribes and selling memberships. That raid found "thousands of applications with photos and money orders attached." Let's do the math. Let's say it's just 1,000 and the average money order was for $75. That's $75,000.

Webber and a handful of others in this country make it virtually impossible for actual and/or sincere descendents of American Indians to gain any ground in developing relationships with their ancestral nations. He and his ilk make the label for themselves - fraud, deceiver, exploiter, charletan, fake and the ever popular "wannabe" - that gets applied to those of us who are not of his ilk.

Before this story is played out, every unenrolled descendent in America will get painted in the same light as Webber.

Peter N. Jones said...


I couldn't agree with you more. As I stated, indigenous peoples already have enough problems, they don't need people creating pseudo tribes and selling memberships. Yes, this makes it even harder for legitimate descendents to gain any ground. I don't know if I was optimistic, rather than simply stating that people need to learn to do things themselves, they can't just keep taking from other people (or cultures) in some form of cultural plagerism.

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