The Western Cherokee Nation in Salem is a legal group supported by recent treaties with the U.S. government, according to Dr. Timothy William Jones, Western Cherokee Tribal Anthropologist in Tucson, Ariz.
"The Salem group, as part of the greater Western Cherokee, is an unincorporated entity that has legal status under treaty with the United States and under the constitution "Congress shall have Power . . . To regulate Commerce . . . with the Indian Tribes," said Jones, who has also advised U.S. Senate committees and President Obama.
The local Western Cherokee and its legal status have been the focus of city officials recently as the city has tried to get the group to repair the old middle school property, which was given to the Western Cherokee by the city.
Jones wrote in an email to The Salem News that tribes are not incorporated entities, whether for profit or nonprofit. As a tribe they are an entity in and of themselves, ruled and guided by their own laws, customs and constitution.
Jones went on to say that as an unincorporated entity they have the same rights as any other group, such as a church. They have the right to declare their own identity and to negotiate their own relationships.
Currently, the Western Cherokee in Salem is in the process of donating tribal property on 10th Street back to the city, and conducting business as usual, according to Timothy B. Spencer, tribal manager. They city had started a process to get the old school property back, claiming the Western Cherokee had not kept up the property, as required by the agreement that transferred the property.
There is a meeting 10 a.m. Saturday at the tribal property. City Attorney Nanci Wisdom has been invited, Spencer said.
Spencer said other than the property going back to the city there are no major projects or activities for the tribe at this time.
To complicate matters, the Western Cherokee are moving forward without a lot of their records, meeting minutes and financial records, Spencer said. Unknown persons have removed those records, he said.
"I think that we can recover in time," Spencer said.
Spencer said that during a recent cleanup at the Cherokee site, a group working there found the records gone, despite additional locks and security at the old lunchroom where the records were moved to keep them dry. The move was necessary because there was a leak in the main building.
"We put new dead bolt locks on the doors and some of the locks were on the inside," Spencer said. "When we were there all the locks were working and there were no scratch marks or other marks on them. But when we went inside all the records were gone. We don't have any idea where they are."
The group currently is a Missouri non-profit corporation with a federal IRS Code 501.c.3 tax status. Spencer said paperwork is in the process to dissolve the corporation and to simultaneously relinquish the soon to be dissolved corporation's tax status as non-profit entity on or about the first week in May.
"It's a document and paperwork that we do not really need," Spencer said. "Also, the tribe's ownership of a corporation seems to lead many to believe that the tribe is state incorporated, an assumption that could not be further from the truth."
Jones said the Salem group consists of a band of Western Cherokee descendants who have occupied the area for at least 1,200 years. Their band consists of prehistoric Amonsoquath and Anadashwishi people and later Western Cherokee bands that started to return to the area in the late 1600s.
The Western Cherokee have claim to a large area of southern Missouri, most of Arkansas, parts of eastern Oklahoma and southeastern Kansas through the Treaty of 1817, which established the Cherokee Nation West. This was an independent nation, the sanction of which was provided by the agreement of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which did not give land to the United States but provided the United Stated the right to negotiate with the native people and Europeans who already occupied the area.
The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma is a totally separate group that did not come west until long after the Western Cherokee had a nation, and is not a tribe, though they are Native People. The CNO is an incorporated group of native people with a continuing contract with the United States government.
The Western Cherokee are an actual tribe that has had long-standing agreements with the Spanish, French and United States and trace their occupation in the area into prehistory.
Jones said somehow people have come to believe that Native People have to have some legal foundation for their existence. They do not have to any more than African Americans or Asian Americans have to provide some legal foundation for their identity, he said.
"As I have often said, to require Native People to provide European based documentation to prove their identity would be the same as requiring an African American to provide their historic slave papers in order to call themselves African American," Jones said. "Very few African Americans could provide that level of proof.