Claims to be Oregon tribe not recognized by BIA or other tribes

By Damian Mann
Medford, Oregon (AP) August 2010

The office of the Latgawa Indian tribe in Central Point is filled with what members call documentation of its legitimacy – even down to a gold shield proclaiming its wearer the marshal of the tribe’s justice court.

Chiefs Grey Eagle, aka John Newkirk, and Red Hawk, aka Rick Davis, say they’ve got patrol cars that roam 100 square miles of their land in Southern Oregon, 12 helicopters on standby to fight wildfires and the ability to issue valid Latgawa driver’s licenses and license plates.

They say they’re hereditary owners of the land that includes Gold Ray Dam near Gold Hill, and they’ve threatened to sue Jackson County all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for refusing to negotiate with them over its removal.

But the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Indian Affairs hasn’t heard of the Latgawas. And other tribes condemn the Latgawas as nothing more than a private group claiming to be Indians. “He’s a big fake,” said Betty Hall of the Shasta Nation in Northern California, referring to Newkirk.

She said her tribe split into two factions about 10 years ago in part because of a dispute that erupted after Newkirk claimed he was going to build a university for American Indians. Some of the members believed Newkirk, while others doubted his veracity. Stanley Speaks, regional director for Indian Affairs, said the Latgawa name is unknown to him and definitely isn’t one of the nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon.

“That’s a new group as far as I’m concerned,” Speaks said. Newkirk and Davis say they don’t need recognition by the federal government to establish their legitimacy. At the same time, they wouldn’t mind a letter from Congress that affirmed their standing so they wouldn’t have to deal with the misunderstandings about their tribe from government agencies and other tribes.

“It’s a real barrier to get over the stigma of what the federal government does or does not recognize,” 55-year-old Davis said. Newkirk, 84, said his tribe has provided substantial proof establishing its legitimacy, even without the federal recognition. “The BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) could never give us something they never took away,” he said. Newkirk and Davis’ claims about their tribe are difficult to verify.

When asked about the 12 helicopters that could be used for fire suppression, Davis said he couldn’t reveal the name of the benefactor who provided them. He said the helicopters were in Albany and weren’t ready for flying but could be operational within a week’s notice. The U.S. District Court in Medford has not allowed the Latgawa to operate a tribal court there, though it has been involved in a federal lawsuit and divorce proceedings. Central Point police in 2006 warned the Latgawas not to issue driver’s licenses or license plates because of the lack of federal recognition. 

Davis, who is a marshal with the Latgawa tribal patrol, said he is still convinced he can use the plates and license but wants to avoid “oppression” and “racial profiling” from law enforcement. He didn’t want to put a Latgawa license plate on his patrol car, preferring to keep it on his desk for the time being. “Right now we’re getting enough persecution without putting a bull’s eye on our cars,” he said. Newkirk acknowledged that much of the land patrolled by the Latgawa is part of the Bureau of Land Management, but he still considers it tribal land.

The claims made by the Latgawa, including that their territory stretches into Montana and Colorado, have irked the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians, which is federally recognized.

The Siletz sent Jackson County a letter on Aug. 2 condemning Newkirk and his group for laying claim to rights and interests in Jackson County that belong to the Siletz. In the letter written by the Siletz’s attorney, Craig Dorsay of Portland, the tribe said it is made up of various other smaller tribes and bands, including the Latgawa. “Mr. Newkirk’s group possesses no sovereignty, no sovereign rights and has no rights under federal law or tribal law,” the letter states. “Mr. Newkirk’s group(s) are simply private groups claiming to be Indians.”

Newkirk and Davis responded in an Aug. 4 letter, condemning the Siletz and threatening a lawsuit, while questioning the legitimacy of the Siletz tribe itself. “We grow tired of the Siletz Tribe which itself is a questionable federally recognized group of tribes,” the letter states. Jackson County legal counsel Frank Hammond sent a letter to the Latgawa tribe on July 15 stating that because the tribe is not federally recognized, the county cannot enter into negotiations over the removal of Gold Ray Dam.

But in 2005, a Jackson County hearings officer stated “the tribe is duly recognized by the government of the United States of America” in a case in which Davis argued that his two dogs didn’t have to have licenses as required by county code. He said his home on Pleasant Way was tribal land and that the dogs would be issued tribal licenses. The hearings officer determined Davis’ property wasn’t on tribal land.

Hammond said the county would have to review the hearings officer’s statement to determine how he had come to the conclusion that the Latgawa were indeed recognized by the federal government.

Newkirk said the hearings officer’s statement shows there is validity to claims about the legitimacy of his tribe.

As to other tribes condemning him, Newkirk suspects an ulterior motive. If the Latgawa were to build a casino in Jackson County, it would be in direct competition with these other tribes, he said. Newkirk said the Latgawa Indians have no intention of building a casino.

“We have made it clear to all of the tribes around here that we don’t believe in gambling,” he said. In 1997, however, Newkirk didn’t rule out the possibility of opening a casino in Jackson County when he was president of the newly formed Confederated Tribes-Rogue-Table Rock & Associated Tribes.

Newkirk, who has run for local political offices and is considering a race for Central Point mayor, said the Latgawa have a long history and his tribe originally covered 400 or so square miles that ranged from the Table Rocks to Gold Beach. He said about 400 people are members of the tribe, including 30 who have direct blood ties to the Latgawa.

His tribe will continue to battle for its rights as it has done since the mid-1980s, Newkirk said. He said that he plans to eventually display the Latgawa tribal police badges, the Latgawa license plates and the Latgawa driver’s licenses. “Hell no, we haven’t agreed to stop,” Newkirk said.