Tribal question a matter of dollars

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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."

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