Tribal Warfare

Carroll Cocchia says she's one-third Indian, and is trying to bring local Native Americans together. Detractors say she's white, and is helping to tear them apart.

When she moved to Houston 20 years ago, Carroll Cocchia says, she couldn't find any other American Indians. "They were invisible." Two years ago, encouraged by Dick Huebner, executive director of the Houston Minority Business Council, she started the Native American Chamber of Commerce. She would bring Indians together, helping Indian-owned businesses develop clout through collective action.

They would also offer college scholarships, cultural events and volunteer opportunities at food banks. It all sounded effective, empowering and wonderful.

Problem was, there was already an Indian chamber of commerce in town. The 13-year-old Dallas-based American Indian Chamber of Commerce of Texas has a Houston branch. In fact, in late 1999, Cocchia applied to replace the regional director of that organization.

Deron Neblett

Lauren Silverbird says Cocchia's heart isn't Indian.
Deron Neblett
Lauren Silverbird says Cocchia's heart isn't Indian.

"Then some things came up that were very disturbing," says Shirley Hankins, the chamber's executive director. "Real disturbing…We have concerns about how she collects money and what she does with it." A few months after the Dallas chamber's board refused to hire her, Cocchia created the American Indian Chamber of Commerce (Gulf Coast Region). Since then, she has been accused of misrepresenting herself as part of the Dallas-based chamber and was legally forced to change her organization's name.

Another issue is that although Cocchia claims to be at least one-third Indian, she looks entirely white. With long reddish-brown hair and amber eyes, she looks more like she stepped out of a Wendy Wasserstein play than Dances with Wolves. Since she doesn't have the paperwork to prove her tribal heritage, many Houston Indians don't believe she has Indian blood.

"I just know that Carroll's heart isn't Indian," says Lauren Silverbird, a full-blooded Kiowa and Wichita Indian. "She don't even know how to dance."

Silverbird's cousin, Mitchell Boyiddle, says the chamber is a "whites only" organization that doesn't do anything for local Indians. "She's not representing nobody but herself," says Boyiddle, a Kiowa, Wichita and Delaware Indian. "I know there's an old man full-blood Kiowa sitting in his house with no air conditioning, and she hasn't helped him. I don't know who she's helping. She's not helping the Indians at all."

While Cocchia has supporters -- the chamber comprises almost 300 members -- many Indians are convinced that she's nothing more than a con artist. And the unity that was her original goal appears elusive at best.

Cocchia says she doesn't look like a "storybook Indian." She speaks with an upstate New York accent and wears a strand of silver and turquoise plastic beads against her black crushed velvet shirt. Raised in Liberty, New York, she rims her eyelids in thick black liner like Blackfoot women. When she speaks of Indians, she usually says "they" instead of "we," and she cuts her photograph out of Houston Chronicle clippings about the chamber. "I hate to see the truth," she says. "I'm fat and old."

Cocchia says she's half Polish and half Indian. But only her maternal grandfather was a full-blooded Blackfoot from Southern Alberta -- so that makes her a quarter Indian. "No," she insists. "I'm a half." She says her Scottish-English grandmother was an eighth Snowbird Cherokee.

That still doesn't add up to a half.

"I'm a half," she says adamantly. "No, you're right. I got my fractions screwed up."

At the next meeting with the Houston Press she rearranges her fractions, saying her grandmother was definitely a quarter Cherokee, so she's one-third American Indian. "It's not half, and yet it's more than a quarter, so I'm thinking a third," Cocchia says. "I really hadn't ever given it a whole lot of thought. To me, I'm Indian. What quantums, I don't much care about."

Cocchia hasn't registered with her tribe, so she doesn't have an identification card with a tribal number proving her heritage. She says she never applied for a card because she's never needed one -- not wanting grant, scholarship or casino money. Besides, she says, cards are a white creation used to monitor her people. The more people ask her to produce a card, the more adamant she is that she doesn't need one. "It's become a thing for me," she says. "It's the principle."

When she's not working on the chamber, Cocchia says, she earns her living as the marketing director for both The Minority Business News and The American Indian Business News. "I'm a lot into sales," she says. "I enjoy the art of selling."

Cocchia allots 10 percent of her time to her day job, spending every spare moment slaving on chamber business, she says.

"We may not make the majority of the census in the city of Houston, but we are very connected to each other," says chamber board member Anna Edwards, who is one quarter San Juan Pueblo Indian. "We're not just an organization of putting on our regalia and dancing in our traditional outfits. We're not as visible on an everyday basis, but we're very much out there."

Edwards says she has to commend Cocchia "for her unselfishness, for her time and loyalty."

Cocchia maintains that the Dallas-based chamber's Houston chapter had died long before she started her own chamber. "People just fell out of it," she says. She thought about revitalizing the pre-existing chamber, but Houstonians were sour to the idea, grumbling that the money stayed in Dallas and that Houston wasn't even mentioned in the newsletter. "It was taxation without representation," Cocchia says. "I couldn't get anyone to join."

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