The federal government is questioning grants totaling $1,089,745 that 24 Arkansas school districts have won based on the number of their American Indian students — a population that’s made a meteoric jump over 2002 census figures, if the documents accompanying the grants are correct.
Officials with the federal Office of Indian Education suspect that the increase is not the result of an influx of American Indians into Arkansas, but of misinformation spread by a group called the Lost Cherokee Nation of Arkansas and Missouri. The LCN, as it’s called, began in 2003 to spread the word about the grants, telling schools they could get federal dollars based on the word of students filling out so-called 506 forms. The LCN told schools that their Indian students didn’t have to be enrolled in federally recognized tribes to be counted, but only needed to be able to trace their Indian heritage to an ancestor several generations back.
The OIE is asking school districts to verify their numbers on applications they filed for the 2005-06 school year, and said schools could not pay 5 percent to outside administrators, a deal that LCN headmen Dub Maxwell and Jim Davis had made with some districts.
Lost Cherokees Maxwell and Davis proved to be lost again last week, when a reporter discovered their phones had been disconnected or were not in working order. A facsimile request for an interview sent to a number given on a recording at the LCN headquarters in Dover also went unanswered.
The fact that money allocated to help Indian students, many of whom live in poverty, has gone to schools who’ve qualified with students who likely aren’t Indians and who haven’t lived as Indians has angered Kathleen Wesho-Bauer of Little Rock, a volunteer with the American Indian Heritage Support Center.
“We have treaty rights, and have fought for these treaty rights and carried the burden in order to get treaty rights,” Wesho-Bauer said. “For someone who’s lived in the mainstream and has had benefits of being white all their lives to get in on what we have for our own children isn’t right,” she said.
As of Monday, the OIE had received word from five school districts that they are withdrawing their applications for the grants, funded by the federal No Child Left Behind law. They include Cotter (giving up $29,161), Jessieville ($35,347), Mammoth Spring ($24,036) and Westside ($28,631).
The Russellville School District is apparently the first school district to have caught on that it didn’t fully understand what was required by the OIE; it decided last spring not to accept a $162,000 grant it won. The district took action after it got a request from an OIE grant specialist for more verification on the 878 students who’d identified themselves as Indian. (The school has an enrollment of 5,032.) Jenny Barber, program director at Russellville, who was not with the district at the time the application was made, said that when she examined the students’ forms she found that only 90 children of 878 were members of federally recognized tribes. A total of 751 children had identified themselves as members of the Lost Cherokee Nation. In 2002, only 19 Russellville students had identified themselves as Indian.
Indian education grants are restricted to people considered to be Indian by the Secretary of the Interior (those enrolled in recognized tribes), to members of tribes recognized by the state in which members live and their first- or second-degree descendants, and Eskimo, Aleut and other Alaskan natives.
To qualify for the grants, a district must have at least 25 percent Indian enrollment, or at least 10 Indian students.
Members of the Lost Cherokee Nation persuaded state Rep. Preston Scroggin, D-Vilonia, to introduce a resolution in this year’s General Assembly that would have granted the tribe state recognition. No action was taken on the resolution. It has been suggested that the LCN sought state recognition with the goal of starting a casino on Indian land; a website started by tribe members unhappy with Maxwell and Davis says as much.
Other districts that have told the Times that they’re withdrawing their applications or putting them on hold while they go over their data include Pottsville ($106,104), Dardanelle ($72,284) and Wonderview ($24,566). Dardanelle was one of the districts that had agreed to pay 5 percent of the grant award to the LCN for administration. Superintendent John Thompson said the money was never paid because the tribe never sent an invoice. “We felt like we were helping kids,” Thompson said, “and helping them find some of their last tribe people.”
Steve Thomas, superintendent at Wonderview, which received $26,896 last year, was unhappy that the district apparently doesn’t qualify for the Indian money. Its data showed that 140 of its 430 kids had identified themselves as Indian.
Thomas tried to contact headmen Maxwell and Davis when he got word that the OIE requirements were stricter than the headmen had led the district to believe. “All the [phone] numbers they’ve given us are no longer working,” he said.
Most of the school districts contacted by the OIE had received Indian education grants previously. A spokesman for the OIE said the office is only looking into this year’s applications.
At least two of the districts have been receiving money from the OIE since the mid-1970s. The Cedarville School District and the Fort Smith School District have historically recorded substantial numbers of Indian students. Wickes School District also says its Indian students are legitimate.
The schools that have raised eyebrows at the OIE are those that only recently applied for grants.
In an e-mail sent Aug. 26 to the 24 districts, Bernard Garcia of the OIE wrote that the office was “aware that an Indian group in Arkansas is encouraging Local Education Agencies [bureaucratic lingo for schools] to apply for the Title VII Indian Education Formula Grant Funds. … The documents used to encourage LEAs in Arkansas to apply for Indian education funds have been reviewed by OIE and contain numerous errors. For example, the letter to parents states: ‘If your gggg-grandmother or your gggg-grandfather was of American Indian Blood SO ARE YOU AND SO IS YOUR CHILD.’ You do not have to prove your American Indian Blood for this program so please fill out the following 506 form and return it to your school.’ ” This information is false, Garcia informed the schools.
Garcia also informed school districts that had agreed to pay the Lost Cherokee Nation 5 percent for administrative costs that those payments would not be legal.
Wesho-Bauer, who is Indian by blood and by federal definition, apparently triggered the OIE’s interest in the Arkansas grants. Wesho-Bauer started looking into the grants last August after reading an article in a Northwest Arkansas newspaper. After calling several school districts, Wesho-Bauer notified the OIE that she believed money set aside for Indians was going to non-Indians. Wesho-Bauer is Menominee and Potawatomi (Prairie Band).
Headmen Maxwell and Davis held workshops in school cafeterias and other venues to explain the grants. They informed attendees how to become a member in the LCN, whose members claim descent from Cherokees who stopped at a short-lived Cherokee reservation in the Arkansas River Valley in the 1820s. As school surveys went home to students, the LCN signed up hundreds of new members, charging each $30 for dues.
One of those new members was David Waddel, principal of Hector High School. Hector is near Dover, where the LCN website says it has a headquarters, and also the place where Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee syllabary, had a salt works.
Waddell has always been interested in his Indian heritage, and submitted several genealogical documents to the LCN, including his family tree, birth and death certificates and census records.
The Hector district, which has 700 students, received a $58,800 grant this year from the OIE. It received $43,986 last year. Hector superintendent Eric Armour said if the school determines its students don’t qualify, it will return this year’s grant money. (A spokesman declined to give the number of students identified as Indian.)
Waddell was sharply disappointed at the actions of the LCN representatives. He’d been thrilled to have been acknowledged as Cherokee by the LCN. Now, he said, “I don’t know how to feel.” He said he was waiting “to see how things turn out.”
The school districts need not feel alone in their confusion. In 2003, Rep. Marion Berry and Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor sent out a press release touting the award of $76,554 to Marshall and $26,620 to St. Joe school districts from the OIE.
Of the sample of districts contacted by the Times, only Atkins had no plans to return its grant. Superintendent Al Davidson said he had not been contacted by the OIE, and did not plan to withdraw the district’s application for $49,486 for this school year. Atkins received $56,389 from the OIE for the 2004-05 school year and $113,055 for the 2002-03 and 2003-04 school years in 2003.
Davidson said the district will not remove previously identified students — who numbered 309 out of 1,200 the first year of the grants — from the rolls, but will examine new Indian credentials carefully. Census data shows that five students identified themselves as Indian in 2002.