November 2, 2007
The United States Mint -- you know, the guys who make your money -- issued a news release this week declaring that $130 refunds were being offered to anyone who bought a 2004 Lewis and Clark commemorative coin that was accompanied by a handcrafted pouch produced by Ohio's Shawnee Nation United Remnant Band.
The Shawnee group was one of a variety of Indian tribes that had been hired by the federal government to manufacture pouches sold with the limited run of 50,000 silver dollars. The Ohio Shawnees were involved in making about 2,000 pouches and were cited in the "certificate of authenticity" that came with each coin-and-pouch set.
The problem, the mint said this week, is that "neither state nor federal authorities recognize the Shawnee Nation United Remnant Band of Ohio as an official Indian tribe." As such, "the pouch is not an authentic American Indian arts and crafts product."
"We value authenticity," said Greg Hernandez, a spokesman for the mint. "Once we learned of the issue, we immediately took action."
That issue, though, isn't quite so simple.
There's the thorny problem of who's a bona fide Indian and who isn't. On one level, it can be a matter of who's entitled to lay claim to a rich historical legacy. On another, more down-to-earth level, it can decide who gets to operate lucrative casinos and who doesn't.
The stakes are anything but small. Indian casinos in 28 states brought in revenue of $25 billion last year, according to federal figures. That's a nearly 100% increase from five years earlier.
Hernandez said that when the mint decided it wanted to honor the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark's cross-country expedition, it contacted an entity called the Circle of Tribal Advisors to identify artisans from various tribes capable of producing the thousands of pouches required.
The Ohio Shawnees, he said, "were part of this federally recognized consortium of Indian tribes."
A few months ago, however, Hernandez said, the mint received a call from the Interior Department's Indian Arts and Crafts Board. He said the board had determined that the Ohio Shawnees were not, in fact, an official Indian tribe.
For this reason, Hernandez said, the mint decided to offer refunds to anyone who could prove they'd received one of the unofficial tribal pouches.
Kevin Lipton, a Beverly Hills coin dealer, said the mint had no choice but to swiftly remedy the situation.
"Authenticity is everything when it comes to collecting coins," he said, adding that if genuine Indian pouches were part of the mint's original sales pitch, collectors would expect nothing less than the real thing.
"Packaging is very valuable," Lipton said. "It's a big part of the mint's products."
Needless to say, all this was quite a blow to the Shawnee Nation United Remnant Band. Or it would have been if anyone had bothered to tell them.
The group's leader, Chief Hawk Pope, said he hadn't known of the controversy until I called him at his home in Middletown, Ohio.
"This makes no sense at all," he said after I explained the situation.
Pope said that when the Ohio Shawnees were asked to join the Circle of Tribal Advisors for pouch-making purposes, they'd clearly stated in the requisite paperwork that their tribal status was recognized by state authorities but not the feds.
"They knew we weren't federally recognized when they gave us the bags to make," he said. "We never made any bones about it and they didn't have a problem with it."
Pope was mystified at first that this had become a thing several years after the fact. Then he had an "aha" moment.
"The Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma," Pope declared. "They were upset that they didn't get to participate in making the bags."
But why would the Oklahoma Shawnees lodge a complaint with the feds about the Ohio Shawnees?
"We don't get along," Pope answered. "They want to operate a casino in Ohio and they're trying to push us out of the way. It's about who gets to say they're a Shawnee and who doesn't."
For his part, he said, his group wanted nothing to do with gambling.
"I don't like the graft and corruption that follow casinos around," Pope said.
I called the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, which operates a casino on the Oklahoma- Missouri border, and reached the group's leader, Chief Glenna Wallace.
"We do have an interest in setting up gaming in Ohio," she acknowledged. "It's a well-known fact that we've spoken to some towns in Ohio about this."
But Wallace insisted that, to the best of her knowledge, no one from her tribe had contacted the government to complain about the Ohio Shawnees' pouches.
"That's not the way we operate," she said.
I couldn't turn to the Circle of Tribal Advisors for help in understanding the situation because the organization disbanded in 2006 as events marking the Lewis and Clark bicentennial came to a close.
So I turned to the government's Indian Arts and Crafts Board.
Meridith Stanton, the director of the agency, said she couldn't provide details of the case, such as who'd complained about the Ohio Shawnees' tribal legitimacy, because an investigation was still pending.
But Stanton observed that most complaints about the status of Indian handiworks come from other Indians.
"The Ohio Shawnees had said they were members of a state-recognized tribe," Stanton said. "We checked with the Ohio attorney general. They weren't."
That, too, was news to Chief Hawk Pope. He said Ohio legislators passed a resolution in 1980 recognizing the tribal status of the Shawnee Nation United Remnant Band. Multiple references to the resolution and the group's state-sanctioned status can be found online.
So I contacted the Ohio attorney general's office and pointed it toward the state legislature's "Joint Resolution to Recognize the Shawnee Nation United Remnant Band, as adopted by the Senate, 113th General Assembly, Regular Session."
Was there a problem with that?
Yes, replied Leo Jennings, a spokesman for the attorney general's office.
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