Carl Two Stories
Some Native Americans doubt activist's heritage
When bulldozers break ground in an area in Tennessee that might contain Native American artifacts, a familiar face is likely to pop up. Carl "Two Feathers" Whitaker might be carrying signs protesting the desecration of Native remains or negotiating with the state or private contractors over how those remains should be handled.
TV crews often interview him as a spokesman for Native Americans and Cherokees in Tennessee. He's been called an Indian leader by major newspapers around the state, including the (Nashville) Tennessean, the Knoxville News-Sentinel, and Metro Pulse. Whitaker even parlayed his media coverage into a fourth-place showing (out of 15 candidates) in last year's gubernatorial race (or, second out of the 13 independent candidates) with 5,263 votes.
But in one crowd, Whitaker is often looked upon with scorn and embarrassment. That crowd is the Native Americans.
Some Native Americans and Cherokees question Whitaker's Indian heritage. They say he's uneducated about Native traditions and customs and worry that he'll discredit the causes they fight for.
"For hundreds of years, we've had non-Indians represent our people," says Joseph French, a Native American who is part Cherokee. "For a non-native to be out there speaking up in our name is very wrong. We have a history, a culture, a heritage. Some people should read that history."
Carl Whitaker moved to Tennessee from Ohio around 1997 and now lives in Maryville. He claims that his mother is full-blooded Indian, half Cherokee and half Mohegan, and that his father was Dutch, Cherokee, and Irish.
However, many Native Americans and Cherokees doubt that he has much Indian blood. "You can look at me and look at Carl Whitaker and you tell me who is the Indian? There might be some Cherokee in him," says French, who showed Metro Pulse his own Bureau of Indian Affairs card to prove his Native American ancestry.
Whitaker says he does not he have a Bureau of Indian Affairs card. "I'm not really concerned with that anymore," Whitaker says. "I think [other Native Americans] have lost focus. They don't really understand the meaning of the Native American Indian. It'd be nice if we were all full bloods, because that was taken away from us a long time ago."
Whitaker says he's not a registered member of the federal or state-recognized Cherokee tribes. He says he is a member of the Southern Cherokee Nation tribea group that is not recognized by either the federal or state governments.
Teri Rhoades-Ellenwood, co-chair of the Tennessee Indian Affairs Advisory Council and the chairwoman of the proposed Tennessee Commission on Indian Affairs, called the Southern Cherokee Nation tribe "a Boy Scout club or something," whereas officially recognized tribes are sovereign entities, capable of self-governance and negotiating treaties.
"The federal as well as the state tribes have a right to be upset when someone who is not claims they're a tribe," Ellenwood says. "It's a slap in the face to sovereignty."
David Teat, a member of the Tennessee Commission of Indian Affairs Advisory Council, says Whitaker has no credibility. "This man has never been able to tell the truth or document anything he's ever said," Teat says. "He puts on a good show. He probably has some Native American ancestors. But he wasn't raised in it. He knows nothing about the culture, he mixes a lot of things up, he knows nothing about how to conduct ceremonies."
Whitaker dismisses Teat's criticism as "jealousy." He says he learned most of what he knows about Cherokee traditions from his maternal grandparents and from elders at the Cherokee Reservation.
Whitaker has been at the focal point of several Native American-related controversies across the state. One of those was a series of protests against a TDOT road project in Townsend, which uncovered artifacts from a major Native American settlement.
It was the TDOT experience, Whitaker says, that inspired him to form the Native American Indian Movement group. He says the group now has about 500 active members and a 1,000 totalincluding Cherokee, Blackfoot, Apache, Choctaw, and others.
"We're not a tribe. We don't pretend to be a tribe. I'm not a self-appointed chief." Principal chief for four years, Whitaker says he's stepping down from that role to serve as Shaman.
"Our purpose for N.A.I.M. is to stand up for the Native American rights," says Whitaker, referring to issues regarding burial grounds, job rights, and grave desecration. "We do not chase roads. We're there to make sure [construction workers] don't dig up bones and put them in a box, take them over to McClung Museum and keep them there."
Whitaker says he's worked with people from the Eastern Band of the Cherokee in North Carolina. He says James Byrd, of the tribe's cultural office, told him he was doing good work. "James said, 'You know what?We have the federal status...but you are our foot soldiers.'"
Byrd denies he ever said that.
"He has no official status or authority to represent Cherokee, and he's not an enrolled member," Byrd says. But Byrd stopped short of criticizing Whitaker, saying he didn't know much about him. "He has a right to assert his first-amendment privileges," Byrd says. "He has no association or authority with this office."
Whitaker says at first N.A.I.M. worked as a support group to the American Indian Movement, or A.I.M. That national group formed in the late '60s to agitate for Native American and tribal rights and causes. But Whitaker says anything they did on behalf of A.I.M. had to be cleared by the national headquarters. So he says Vernon Bellecourt, A.I.M. principal spokesman and a long-time Indian activist, suggested Whitaker form his own group, putting "Native" in front of A.I.M.
"I have a lot of good friends in A.I.M. There may be a few disgruntled people," Whitaker says.
Vernon Bellecourt disputes Whitaker's claim. He says Whitaker called him once several years ago looking to get involved. Whitaker didn't claim to be an Indian at the time, Bellecourt says, just someone interested in Indian causes. "When I asked him basic questions like 'What tribe are you from,' he said, 'I believe my great, great grandmother was a Cherokee."
Bellecourt says he told Whitaker what he tells anyoneIndian or non-Indianwanting to help the Native American causes: take a survey of the community and find out how many Indians live there.
"All of a sudden, I got calls from people calling themselves "Little Moon" or "Little Owl"names that people make up who know nothing about our culture," Bellecourt says. He asked where they got their names and was told, "Carl Two Feathers told us we either had to pick a name ourselves or he would pick one."
"Everything he was doing had a tendency of turning people off to our movement," Bellecourt says. "He's never been given any authority or responsibility other than taking a survey of the community."
Because of Whitaker's formation of N.A.I.M, the American Indian Movement issued a press release in 1999 saying "rogue groups led by agents and informants, instant Indians, wannabees, rip-offs, and others who are using the American Indian Movement to cause disruption and chaos in their communities shall no longer be allowed to foster ill-feelings, misrepresent policy, and they shall no longer be allowed to produce and sell AIM merchandise, or use the AIM name, or any of our copyrighted and trademarked logos."
Bellecourt says that Whitaker isn't the only one using the Native American causes. "It's running rampant out there. Caucasians seem to have bigger identity issues than we do," Bellecourt says.
Groups like N.A.I.M. are damaging to Native American causes, he says. "They distort who we are," he says. "They send out confusing images and messages. It just causes disruption and concern. It really misleads others who think maybe this is what our movement is about. Whitaker seems to act totally contrary to what we try to present as our culture, art, music, dance, and political views."
Whitaker has a tendency of starting groups with names that sound similar to existing groups. He recently formed an environmental group called Mother Earth-First. It's not connected with Katuah Earth First!, the local branch of the national environmental group. Chris Irwin of Katuah says his organization used to work with Whitaker, but he's been banned from all functions, he says, for abusive behavior and "selling out" environmental causes.
"He just goes from movement to movement co-opting energy like some strange vampire," Irwin says. "He's got a long history of getting written off and banded from different groups."
It is those Native Americans who seem the angriest at Whitaker.
Joseph French says he worries about who is listening to Whitaker. "There are thousands in Tennessee who are descendants of Cherokee," he says. "They have a right to know what Cherokee is all aboutnot from some one down from Ohio making stuff up."
January 23, 2003 * Vol. 13, No. 4
© 2002 Metro Pulse
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