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Indian chief, tribe sports tumultuous history

By Roxana Hegeman
Wichita, Kansas (AP) 8-07
Vicki Torres, an illegal immigrant who works here as a tax accountant, shrugged off the $80 she spent in June to buy a tribal membership in the Kaweah Indian Nation.

Torres, a Mexican national who has been in this country for about 18 months, said she had been told by a tribal representative at a church gathering that she could use the membership to get a Social Security number.

Losing that money was a risk, Torres said, that she was willing to take: “I am always trying to find a way I can be here legally.”

The tribe – which was denied federal recognition in 1984 – is at the center of a multistate federal investigation into an alleged scam to sell tribal memberships to undocumented workers with the promise the documents would protect them from deportation.

On Monday, the Texas Attorney General’s Office sued tribal leader Malcolm L. Webber, also known as Grand Chief Thunderbird IV, the Kaweah Indian Nation Inc. and two tribal members. The civil lawsuit alleged they fraudulently sold memberships by claiming that tribal members could get a Social Security number, protection from deportation and U.S. citizenship once the tribe is federally recognized as an Indian tribe.

Controversy is nothing new for Webber and his tribe. Webber has a decades-old history spanning several states of bitter confrontations with other tribal leaders and residents of communities where he has lived.

Webber, 69, who is also the pastor of the Congregational Bible Church, declined repeated requests over several days for comment.

His tribal spokesman, Manuel Urbina, said during an interview at the group’s Wichita headquarters that he has known Webber since joining the tribe four months ago. Urbina said he didn’t know about Webber’s past, nor of allegations concerning illegal immigrants.

“The tribe is not telling them they cannot be deported, but they have ID and certificates they can show officials as proof they are members of the tribe. We tell them to show those papers because they are members,” Urbina said.

Urbina said Webber is descended from the grand chief of five different tribes.

The Kaweah Indian Nation does not have a pending application for federal recognition and is not eligible to petition again because it has already been rejected, said Gary Garrison, BIA spokesman.

Legitimate Indian tribes do not sell memberships, Garrison said. The agency takes a “long, hard look” at the people on a tribe’s base roll to make sure every person is genealogically connected to the tribe.

But questions about the legitimacy of Webber’s tribe – and his own Indian ancestry – have dogged the tribe and its self-proclaimed chief since its beginnings.

In its 1984 ruling against federal acknowledgment, the Bureau of Indian Affairs found that the Kaweah Indian Nation Inc. did not exist before 1980 when it was formed under the leadership of Webber – a non-Indian. The BIA called it an urban Indian interest group from Porterville, Calif., that had no relation to the aboriginal Kaweah Indians.

The BIA finding also documented the tribe’s contentious history, noting it was formed as a result of an internal dispute with a similar group formed by Webber in 1976, the United Lumbee Nation of North Carolina and America, Inc. It also noted his tumultuous relationship with Oatman, Ariz., residents and his arrest there on a sex-related charge involving two 5-year-old girls.

More than two decades after he left the mining ghost town of Oatman, his name evoked simmering anger and derision from several residents interviewed by The Associated Press.

Back then, Webber was selling tribal memberships to the Kaweah tribe to tourists and locals, residents said.

Longtime Oatman resident Duke Clark recalled Webber causing a stir when he moved to Oatman in 1981: “He was going to take the town over because his Indian tribe owned all this ground, he said. Of course that went over like a lead balloon.”

Newspaper accounts from 1982 show Webber left Oatman after pleading guilty to lewd and lascivious acts with two 5-year-old girls, a charge for which he received a one-year sentence.

While in Oatman, Webber sent letters to the Nevada governor and the BIA, telling them, “Our people (Kaweahs) are mad and we are trying to hold our warriors back from causing trouble in Oatman and against the Mohave County Sheriff’s Department ... before you know it the Mojaves and Hualapais will get into the act. It will make Wounded Knee look like and (sic) Sunday School picnic,” according to the BIA report. (The letter referred to Indian militants who occupied Wounded Knee, S.D., for 71 days in 1973.)

Urbina acknowledged the Kaweah Indian Nation does not have federal recognition but said Nevada recognizes it as an Indian tribe. The tribe’s official history – detailed in a two-volume booklet Urbina gave AP – reiterated the claim that the Kaweah Indian Nation is a “state in a state” in Nevada.

But Sherry Rupert, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, said “That is a false statement.” She said Nevada is home to 20 federally recognized tribes but does not have a state recognition process for tribes.

Back in Wichita, tribal representatives went to Christian ministers in their recruiting efforts, said Emira Palacios, coordinator for the Wichita Hispanic advocacy group, Sunflower Community Action.

Many local immigrants believed the claims, she said, because they heard about it in church: “If you don’t trust a church, who do you believe?”

In Nebraska, some people reported paying up to $1,200 to join the tribe, and Angel Freytez of the Nebraska Mexican-American Commission said advocates have fielded complaints in several states about the group.

Many immigrants who bought tribal memberships are now fearful that they may have hurt their chances of someday getting legal residency or that it may cause them to be charged with fraud and falsification of documents, she said.

Israel Rodriguez said his parents bought him a tribal membership in case it could help him in the future, even though he is a legal resident.

Rodriguez said a family friend who is an illegal immigrant was able to get a Social Security card from the Social Security Administration after showing his Indian ID and certificate.

The U.S. attorney’s office said it did not have enough information to comment on how the man could have received a Social Security number with the Indian identification.

The tribe insists it has done nothing illegal.

Urbina said he joined the Kaweahs to help people. “As far as I know, I am not doing anything wrong trying to help someone else,” he said.

Eduviges del Carmen Zamora, an El Salvador native and a secretary of the tribe, was indicted earlier this month on four immigration-related offenses after allegedly driving 40 illegal immigrants from Long Beach, Calif., to Wichita, where they attempted to get Social Security cards.

Her husband, Angel Zamora, a Guatemalan native who worked here as a janitor, faces similar charges.

His defense attorney, Kari Schmidt, said the Zamoras were part of the same “vulnerable populations” as those reportedly deceived by the tribe.


WHO ARE THE KAWEAHS?
: The Kaweah Indian Nation of Itza claims in its official history to be over 3,000 years old. But the Bureau of Indian Affairs found in 1983 when it denied it federal recognition that the tribet did not exist prior to 1980 when it was formed under the leadership of Malcolm L. Webber, a non-Indian.


WHERE DID IT COME FROM? The BIA called it an urban Indian interest group from Porterville, Calif., that has no relation to the aboriginal Kaweah Indians. The agency said it was formed as a result of an internal dispute with a similar group formed by Webber in 1976, the United Lumbee Nation of North Carolina and America, Inc.

THE ALLEGATIONS:
The group is at the center of a multistate federal investigation into an alleged scam to sell to undocumented workers tribal memberships under the promise it would protect them from deportation. On Monday the Texas Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit against Webber, the Kaweah Indian Nation Inc. and two tribe members.

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