Tribal Warfare

Deron Neblett

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.

"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."

On March 15, 2000, Cocchia mailed a letter to local Indians announcing the creation of The American Indian Chamber of Commerce (of Greater Houston).

But the Dallas-based chamber has a copyright on the name, and its lawyers forced Cocchia to cease and desist. Cocchia changed her chamber's name to The Native American Chamber of Commerce. "She just tweaked it a bit," Hankins says. "Everybody thinks it's us, and it's not."

Since Cocchia started the Houston chamber, Hankins says, she's received phone calls once or twice a week from Indians, corporations and chiefs wanting to know who Cocchia is, what she's doing and why she says she's affiliated with the Dallas chamber. "It is embarrassing the entire Indian community," Hankins says.

Hankins warns corporations who think of investing in Cocchia's chamber to be careful. She tells them to closely investigate the organization before writing a check, because they might be throwing away their money. "She's after some money, whatever it takes," Hankins says. "If there was anything I could do, I would stop her."

Frank Swimmer-McLemore is the type of Indian people expect to meet. His graying hair tied back in a pony tail, he speaks in slow, measured tones easily slipping into Cherokee. A living textbook, Swimmer-McLemore can spend hours reciting Indian-related regulations or outlining why "Native American" is an inaccurate, oppressive, government-imposed term.

A full-blooded Western Cherokee, Swimmer-McLemore was born beneath a bridge in Cherry Tree, Oklahoma. His father was a traditional medicine man; in the fifth grade Swimmer-McLemore was sent to a government-run boarding school 60 miles east of Tulsa.

Cocchia met Swimmer-McLemore when he spoke at an event for the Cherokee Cultural Society of Houston. "We just kinda clicked," she says. "He's a wealth of information and knowledge."

They rushed into friendship; Swimmer-McLemore became Cocchia's long- distance telephone mentor. "He was always helping, guiding, giving advice," she says. But the relationship has since crashed in bitter discord.

In Dallas, Swimmer-McLemore says, he helped establish a number of Indian heritage and cultural organizations including the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of Texas, the American Indian Center of Dallas and Fort Worth and the Dallas Intertribal Center.

He moved to Houston a year ago because he liked the challenge of helping Cocchia's chamber.

Cocchia's account is somewhat different. She says that Swimmer-McLemore frantically called her from a pay phone after the man he was living with kicked him out and that she came to his rescue, quickly dispatching a member of the chamber's board who brought Swimmer-McLemore to Houston.

Together Cocchia and Swimmer-McLemore went to powwows, sponsored Indian-sensitivity teacher training seminars and solicited corporations. Swimmer-McLemore and Cocchia made a good team. Membership grew, and corporate money followed.

"He walked in here trusting," Mitchell Boyiddle says. "All they wanted to do was use his color."

Things soured between the two this summer after Swimmer-McLemore spoke at a conference and was supposed to receive a $50 honorarium. Cocchia says she gave cash to the man Swimmer-McLemore was living with and that he decided not to pass the money on to Swimmer-McLemore.

Outraged, Swimmer-McLemore wrote nasty letters to Cocchia and the Indian community. Cocchia responded with mass e-mails saying Swimmer-McLemore was unreliable and an alcoholic. Armed with documents that he claims show Cocchia mishandled money, Swimmer-McLemore joined Jay and Lauren Silverbird in forming an ad hoc committee to investigate Cocchia and the chamber.

In mid-July, Swimmer-McLemore sent a certified letter notifying Cocchia that he was filing a class action lawsuit in Montgomery County small claims court against her and the chamber. The letter alleges that she failed to establish a bank account for the chamber and instead put membership fees and donations into either her personal checking account or other nonprofit organizations registered in her name.

"We find the practices of commingling funds bordering on illegality, highly irregular and definitely unethical," he wrote. "You continue to solicit large amounts of donations and/or contributions from the general public stating that you are providing ongoing services to American Indian people and their community. No known record exists which corroborates your claim."  

Swimmer-McLemore demanded that Cocchia immediately resign from her self-appointed position. If she didn't, he threatened to initiate legal action. He copied the letter to Senator Phil Gramm, the Texas secretary of state and the IRS.

Ten days later Conroe attorney John Choate, representing both Cocchia and the chamber, sent a letter to Swimmer-McLemore stating that his information was false. Choate declared Swimmer-McLemore's letter "nothing more than the ramblings of an unorganized mind that has no basis in fact or truth." Choate ordered Swimmer-McLemore to cease and desist his campaign against Cocchia. "He's going around telling all kind of lies," Choate says. "It's completely frivolous. He's just trying to harass her. He's mad because he can't get control of the organization."

Swimmer-McLemore never filed the lawsuit in small claims court, but a week later he contacted the Conroe Police Department and the FBI. He then filed a criminal complaint with Michael McDougal, the Montgomery County district attorney. Swimmer-McLemore alleged that the chamber didn't maintain records of membership fees or account for corporate donations and contributions. He also said regular financial reports weren't available to the public.

The day before Thanksgiving, the district attorney's office closed its investigation.

"There wasn't enough proof at this particular time for us to do any indictments or further investigation," says Ted Pearce, an investigator for the Ninth Judicial District who is one quarter Choctaw.

Pearce returned the ad hoc committee's three-ring "evidence" binder, which could easily be a scrapbook Cocchia's mother made. There are copies of Cocchia's business cards and mission statements for pro-Indian organizations. Other innocuous items include Cocchia's proud announcement of the new chamber, an excited e-mail saying she may have found some condemned land that could be cheaply purchased to build an Indian village, and a couple of press releases. The most incendiary allegations -- mentions of Cocchia possibly embezzling money when she was the treasurer of Wordcrafters, an Indian writers organization, or not paying back money she borrowed -- are handwritten and unsubstantiated.

Pearce says when he examined the notebook it looked like donations and dues were possibly placed in an insecure fund. Maybe there was a misappropriation of funds, he says, but if so, it might have been entirely accidental and unintentional.

When ad hoc committee members created the notebook, they didn't include any explanations as to the significance of each document. Flipping through the book Pearce returned to her, Silverbird points out that on some chamber documents, Cocchia used the federal identification number for another nonprofit organization she runs. Silverbird also notes letters where Cocchia asks Indians to make checks payable to an account for another pro-Indian nonprofit organization she runs, Challenge America Inc.

Cocchia insists that her operation is 100 percent aboveboard. "There's no money and there's no glory," she says. "I don't get a salary."

Her financial report is handwritten by her accountant in small hard-to-read script. He didn't want to charge her extra to put it on PowerPoint, she says. She insists that the chamber owes her money and that she doesn't owe a cent. She says she's made personal loans of $1,000 to the chamber and there are loans from Challenge America. And part of the chamber's financial business is run out of the Challenge America checking account.

All the money she raises for the chamber, she says, goes directly into the organization. "Nobody wants a slush fund. Nobody wants money just hanging around," she says. "It has to all go back into the programs. That's why we all have jobs. We get paid for our expenses -- if we're lucky."

Originally the chamber rented office space, but Cocchia says the non-Indian landlord rearranged their artifacts when they were out of the office and started charging outrageous, unnecessary fees like $2 per fax. Cocchia now runs the chamber out of a bedroom in the Woodlands home she rents. She charges the chamber rent and utilities and bills for office supplies, furniture and repairs. She discourages people from coming to her office because she lives with her unhealthy ex-husband and her six-month-old grandbaby. She also charges the chamber for auto expenses and highway tolls from her trips into town. "Tolls are expensive for me," she says.

Cocchia says things are looking up and looking good for the chamber. She says Dell wants to donate computers and General Motors and Philip Morris are interested in becoming corporate sponsors. She talks about creating a medical and dental clinic. "Maybe it's meant to be," she says. "Finally."

This year, the chamber's third annual Legend of the White Buffalo cultural event is tentatively scheduled to be held in the Astrodome. But Cocchia says she's rethinking that plan because of the "disaster" last year. Cocchia advertised that 5,000 dancers from across the country would compete for $15,000 in prize money. The day before the October 29 event, Cocchia says, she found out that all her corporate sponsors' contributions would be "delayed" because of the September 11 terrorist attacks. "It was too late to call anyone," she says. The week before Thanksgiving, she still owed the dancers $9,500.  

Cocchia says she doesn't have the financial statement for the last six months, but as of July, the chamber was $13,000 in the hole.

Deborah Scott is a founding member of the Cherokee Cultural Society of Houston, which strives to preserve Cherokee heritage and traditions. One of the most active and inclusive tribal organizations, the society has a newsletter and regular meetings and events. Scott says Cocchia entered the society and other Indian organizations acting like the perfect volunteer: kind, impassioned and ready to work. This, Scott says, is how Cocchia finagles power. "She appears to be of good will and everybody's so eager for help because we're all kinda exhausted. We don't check credentials, we don't do the research," Scott says. "I have seen the community become very polarized around activities that Carroll is involved in. She has a very benign presentation and so people are eager to believe the best."

Scott says that during Cocchia's yearlong stint on the Cherokee Cultural Society's board she misrepresented herself as being the spokesperson for the entire group. "It was an abuse of power, an abuse of authority," Scott says. "I have observed that organizations that Carroll gets involved with have…occasionally gone under -- and financial accountability is always lacking."

Scott says she called the FBI herself when Cocchia started selling bottled water called Cherokee Rain. But Scott says she didn't have the energy to pursue the documentation that agents said they would need, so nothing was done.

Cocchia says she was selling the water for an Indian-owned business based in Kansas City, Missouri, that was trying to expand to Texas and Oklahoma. She says the water was a good idea, but the company couldn't compete with Ozarka's cheap prices.

Scott says the Indian community has become divided between people who support Cocchia and people trying to corral her. She says angry Indians have threatened to sue Cocchia but have never filed charges because they don't have the money or they don't want to air grievances outside the Indian community.

What Houston Indians need, Scott says, is a pan-Indian leader who can bridge the gap between warring tribes and bring everyone together. "Carroll saw a void and moved to fill it -- no one moved to stop her, or knew how to stop her," Scott says. "She's got good ideas and she has no fear of approaching anyone. Those are really strong qualities if they're accountable and responsible."

Strife occurs within urban Indian communities across the country, says Jonathan Hook, a Ph.D. in Indian Studies from the University of Houston and president of the San Antonio-based American Indian Resource Center.

"People tend to forget we're made up of 500 different nations so there are a lot of different agendas," Hook says.

When Indians from different parts of the country, with contradicting cultural traditions and beliefs, are lumped together, they often fight, he says.

"It's like having all the Baptists in the same room and having them all agree," Scott says.

A large problem within urban Indian communities, Hook says, is that people have discarded traditional Indian communal philosophies, instead employing capitalist mind-sets.

"There are people today who have adopted a white mentality who say, 'What's in it for me?' And that's been destructive," Hook says. "There are people who don't care about the ethics or morality of issues -- which is a very un-Indian perspective."

The ad hoc committee formed to investigate Cocchia has disbanded. Members fought among themselves and couldn't continue working together. Jay and Lauren Silverbird asked Swimmer-McLemore to move out of their house.

The ad hoc committee was also striving to form an American Indian heritage center. But work on that project was suspended in late November; members say Swimmer-McLemore was trying to take too much credit and have too much power -- then he stopped holding meetings.

"He's about as bad as Carroll is," Lauren Silverbird says. "He's got good intentions, but he's still a lost soul, too. I can't endorse either one of them. I'm thoroughly disgusted with these people."

Sitting in Kenny & Ziggy's eating a plate of pickles and chicken salad, Cocchia looks like she's about to cry. Her eyes are glassy, but she says she doesn't have any tears left. She says she gets her "butt kicked" all the time and that people say mean, nasty things about her because they want to overthrow her and take control of the chamber. "I started this thing from nothing," she says. "You're gonna have people trying to hurt you, because they want to be a part of it."  

She says she doesn't understand why Swimmer-McLemore is "throwing dirt" and slandering her. "All of the things that he's saying we've proven were wrong," she says. As for his accusation that she embezzled money from Wordcrafters, she says her son accidentally took the group's ATM card, thinking it was the one for her account, and withdrew $50, which she immediately replaced. "Everyone was happy," she says.

Cocchia says she feels like someone is attacking her child. "It hurts," she says. "I didn't do anything to deserve this." Cocchia agrees the Indian community is divided and not working together. Her membership isn't what it could be, she says, because Indians by nature aren't trusting. "Indians are great for sitting back and watching," she says. "Indians are always that way. They sit back and they watch. They don't have a whole lot of reason to trust."

She, too, thinks the community needs a leader everyone can trust and respect. And she doesn't think she's the one. "I don't believe a woman could," she says. "It has to be male. Everyone will like him and trust him."

She says her final fight is to get the Native American community center up and running. "When this community center goes through, I'm just going to leave town," she says. Or maybe she'll just leave when she finishes the proposal, she says.

She talks about the legend of the White Buffalo Calf Woman, the iridescent Indian spirit who appeared 2,000 years before Columbus when the Sioux were starving and fighting among themselves. The woman came to the village bringing prosperity and peace. She taught Indians to smoke peace pipes and to solve problems with words, not arrows. She said if they practiced what she taught, there would be peace and harmony and she would return. Which is what Houston Indians need, Cocchia says.

Cocchia's waiting for the white buffalo woman to come. She knows she isn't that woman.

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