The phrase “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man” reflected the white mindset of efforts to “civilize” and “Americanize” Native Americans, forcing them to assimilate and engaging in genocide against them through boarding schools and other means of further marginalizing, disempowering and disappearing them. However, white people also exploit and act against America’s indigenous population when they enrich themselves financially and take advantage of programs intended for Native Americans by pretending to be a member of a tribe.
Since 2000, minority contracting programs operated by the federal government and 18 states have awarded over $300 million to firms whose owners were white yet who claimed to have Cherokee ancestry, as the Los Angeles Times reported. The actual amount awarded to those who pretend to be Native American or otherwise have unverified claims of said identity is likely greater, as agencies tend to discard their records after a certain period of time, or refuse to disclose the information in the first place. While the Small Business Administration (SBA), a federal agency, is responsible for granting billions of dollars in contracts to Native American-owned businesses each year, with state and local agencies handling additional contracts, often the governmental authorities have lax standards in determining who is Native American. The affirmative action contracts — which are intended for those who suffer from disadvantage due to their racial or ethnic background — typically are awarded without competitive bidding. Many programs lack stringent criteria and little oversight.
In a number of cases in Missouri, business owners with white ancestry claimed they were members of three self-described Cherokee groups that are not recognized by the government or by existing Native American groups or experts. The groups included the Northern Cherokee Nation, the Western Cherokee Nation of Arkansas and Missouri, and the Northern Cherokee Nation of the Old Louisiana Territory. One such business owner, Bill Buell of Premier Demolition, Inc., is a member of a self-described Cherokee tribe with no official recognition or legitimacy. Aside from his membership, Buell has no proof that he is a member of a racial minority group, and has white ancestry based on government records. Authorities in St. Louis acted to strip Buell and four other contractors of their certification in the minority business enterprise program as a result of revelations in the Los Angeles Times. The lawyer for the five contractors claimed it was unconstitutional and a “stringent” rule for St. Louis to define Native Americans as those belonging to a federally recognized group.
The recent revelations evoke the case of the brother-in-law of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who benefited from a minority program and received $7.6 million in military and other government contracts by making a questionable claim of Native American ancestry. The company, Vortex Construction, is primarily owned by William Wages, the brother of McCarthy’s wife, and is co-owned by the mother-in-law of the congressman. McCarthy’s father-in-law and sister-in-law are employees of the firm, and his wife was a partner in the 1990s.
Since 2000, Vortex won no-bid and prime federal construction contracts for projects at the Lemoore Naval Air Station in Kings County, California, and the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in Bakersfield, in which McCarthy’s district is located. Wages faced no competition in bidding for the projects — and took advantage of set-aside contracts for disadvantaged minority groups — because he made representations to the Small Business Administration that he is a Cherokee. Experts cast doubts on his claims he is one-eighth Cherokee. Further, the group to which he is a member, the Northern Cherokee Nation, is considered illegitimate within Native American circles, including the three Cherokee tribes with federal recognition. The Northern Cherokees have no federal or state recognition.
In addition, in June two men — Patrick Michael Dingle of Parkville, Missouri, and Matthew L. Torgeson of Topeka, Kansas, were indicted by federal prosecutors for $346 million fraud scheme, in which they secured minority and service-disabled veteran set-aside contracts to which they were not entitled through sham companies. The men used the minority status of disabled veterans and economically and socially disadvantaged individuals — such as a Native American man named Rustin Simon — and made them straw owners, owners only on paper who did not actually control these companies.
The white man has assumed the identities of Native American people for centuries in a longstanding case of cultural colonization. This exploitation has gone beyond white people “playing Indian” and creating fictional images of Native Americans to claiming they are tribal members and even spokespeople of said groups for financial gain and career advancement.
Circe Sturm, author of the book “Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity” calls such individuals “race shifters.” White people who become race shifters may seek an identity outside of whiteness to ease the burden that comes with being a white colonizer and may be afforded material gain through their new identity.
The notion of business owners posing as a member of a nonwhite race or ethnicity to procure contracts or other undeserved economic benefit is not limited to the Native American community. Under the practice known as fronting, white-owned and controlled companies reap benefits when they masquerade as minority-owned firms to take advantage of affirmative action and set aside programs designated for underrepresented groups. “One form of fronting is to rent your company’s name to contracting activity. A White firm will actually do the work and get the money but the minority business report would falsely state that it was a Black firm,” noted Harry Alford, co-founder and President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.
According to the organization, an example of fronting takes place in Washington, D.C., where the city government’s Department of Small and Local Business Development is designed to promote local, small and minority owned companies. The agency encourages “minority-majority” joint ventures in which a white-owned business is expected to own less than half of a joint venture, and a minority-owned firm controls at least 51 percent of the joint venture. With fronting, the minority-owned firm—which could not have performed the project by itself– has no power, and is the victim of a deceptive and predatory relationship. The white company, not originating from the District, ultimately controls the whole venture.
“Quickly the White out of town firm will sit his joint venture ‘partner’ down and start dictating how things are going to be on the project. The minority partner’s signature card at the bank has disappeared. Instead of 51% local minority and 49% out of town majority it becomes around 10 percent minority and 90% out of town majority,” according to the Chamber’s website. “If the minority starts to protest he will get threatened with firing. Firing? Yes, it is like he is becoming an employee. Thus, the promising Joint Venture has become more like ‘Front and Flunky’. The Bylaws are mysteriously amended and the whole agreement is breached.”
Fronting occurs in numerous industries such as telecommunications, trucking and auto sector, with construction and engineering among the most egregious offenders. Native companies asserted in 2014 that fronting is an epidemic. In Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, for example, despite an oil boom, “certified Native business owners say they’re on the verge of going under and laying off employees because they can’t compete with other Native businesses that are essentially a front for non-Indian companies to come on the reservation and do the work.” It was estimated that at least 80 percent of the trucks on the reservation were non-Indian and 20 Native firms were fronting for them. Although the tribal council did not take action on white-owned companies taking work from qualified tribal-owned and operated firms, it did prohibit tribal employees from having financial interests in fossil fuel companies.
Meanwhile, for Native Americans, those who have witnessed the theft of their land and culture, they now must deal with the theft of their livelihood and very identity by white settlers and race shifters. The original inhabitants of America continue to suffer from discrimination, institutional racism, poverty, trauma and compromised health, and yet white people continue to benefit at their expense by claiming to be them.