Churchill's membership in tribe honorary only
By Stuart Steers,
Rocky Mountain News

February 4, 2005

The former chairman of the Keetoowah band of Cherokee Indians says University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill was given an honorary membership that required no proof of Cherokee heritage.

John Ross led the tribe for several years in the 1990s. He says the Keetoowah established an "associate member" program to recognize friends of the tribe.

"If somebody helped out in a certain way, to honor them they'd give them an associate membership," Ross said Thursday. "There were 300 or 400 associate members."

Former President Clinton also was given an honorary membership in the tribe.

To be a full-fledged member of the Keetoowah, a person has to prove he or she is at least one-fourth Cherokee. Churchill has never had such a membership. Only full members are allowed to vote, hold office and receive tribal privileges.

Churchill has cited his associate membership in the tribe as proof of his Cherokee roots. He told The Denver Post on Wednesday he is three-sixteenths Cherokee. In the past, he has described himself as one-sixteenth Cherokee and also claimed to have Creek Indian blood. Ross said Churchill came to several Keetoowah celebrations in the early 1990s and befriended tribal members, who decided they wanted to give him the associate membership.

"He told the tribal council that if they needed him to lend a hand, he would," Ross said. He recalls Churchill offering to represent the tribe at an academic forum sponsored by the University of Arkansas.

Eventually, Ross came to feel the associate membership program was being abused, and he asked the tribal council to abolish it. The Keetoowah haven't given out any new associate memberships since 1994.

"There were a lot of people coming in and trying to use the associate memberships to elevate themselves," he said. "We decided we shouldn't give them out anymore and did away with it."

Ross said some of the associate members were people who started claiming to be Keetoowah artisans. He says Churchill is also misusing his associate membership status.

"In a sense, he's misleading people," Ross said. "He's like the others - that's what he's done."

Churchill did not return numerous phone calls during the past two days seeking comment.

Many non-Indians are now claiming Cherokee ancestry, said Richard Allen, a policy analyst with the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. The Keetoowah are a small offshoot of the much larger Cherokee Nation.

Allen has worked for the Cherokee Nation for more than 20 years. He said he has followed Churchill's career for much of that time.

"When it comes to Churchill, I've always thought he was a wannabe Indian," Allen said. "His history is a little bit like Forrest Gump."

Allen said Churchill picked up a packet to enroll in the Cherokee Nation in 1991 and never returned it.