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The Apalachee trail

Tired of fighting white people, the Apalachee Indians quietly disappeared into Louisiana's woods and bayous in the 1800s. Today they are ready to be heard - and recognized - by the federal government. Gilmer Bennett is their voice.

RICHARD RAEKE
Published July 20, 2003

EMMANUEL, La. - Sitting at the table in his wood-paneled kitchen, Gilmer Bennett looks real enough. He wears blue jeans and a white Western shirt with Indian dream weavers embroidered on the chest. His hair is long. His skin is red.

He is Apalachee, one of four tribes living in Florida long before Columbus, de Soto and de Leon. His people are remembered by geography if not history: Appalachian Mountains. Apalachee River. Apalachee Boulevard in Tallahassee.

But historians once believed that Gilmer Bennett couldn't exist. The Apalachee went extinct, they said. The British drove them from Florida along with the Spanish in July 1704. The tribe wound up in Mobile, Ala., before settling along today's Texas-Louisiana border, then a no man's land of outlaws, bandits and castaways. Then it went west again, vanishing into Texas in the 1830s. A lost tribe, or so the experts said.

Bennett knows that's not true.

As his son Art says, "We weren't lost. They lost us."

The Apalachee didn't go to Texas; they went silent because they were tired of trying to fight the white man. They cut themselves off from the world, headed deeper into the woods, hid behind the bayous and trees in the ankle bone of Louisiana, and kept quiet.

They rarely went to town, didn't marry outside the group and didn't acknowledge themselves as Indian. In the Deep South - Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina - that would only bring grief - and for Bennett's grandfather, death at the end of a Ku Klux Klan club. Now, years after the Apalachee's culture faded and the tribe's language was extinguished, Bennett fights to give the Apalachee a voice again. The fight is often lonely because many of the people Bennett says are Apalachee don't know they're Indian, or they deny it.

Still, he has amassed enough evidence to convince the experts that the tribe never disappeared. Historians now agree that the Apalachee in Louisiana are descendants of people who settled near Tallahassee about 1,200 years ago.

Bennett wants to recover 500 years of lost history and preserve whatever remains of his culture while seeking recognition from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. It says that the Apalachee have to meet and document seven criterion to prove that they are a tribe.

"Now isn't that silly?" Bennett says. "Me asking the white man if I'm Indian."

Silly, maybe, but the struggle for federal recognition has high stakes. It would mean scholarships for Apalachee students, some health care - and, yes, casinos. With that on the line, says David Getches, the dean of the law school at the University of Colorado and an Indian law expert, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has become more reluctant in recent years to grant recognition.

"Buddy, I just want our people to be able to compete," Bennett says. "Why shouldn't we get the advantages of all the other Indian tribes?"

His entire life he has paid a price for being Apalachee. Now he's ready to be paid back, just like the other Indian tribes. If the Tunica-Biloxi can have a casino, or even the Mashantucket Pequots, why not the Apalachee? Haven't they suffered enough, he reasons.

Family history

Gilmer Bennett doesn't know a word of Apalachee. Almost nobody does. The last remnant of the language can be found in a letter written to the king of Spain in 1588. Bennett's grandfather called Bennett something that sounds like "Shoney." Don't ask him what it means or how to spell it. When he became a Marine and headed to Korea, he changed it to "Tunney" because he thought it sounded better. His wife, Jeannette, still calls him that.

Bennett, 72, is a retired carpenter and proud of it; he often boasts that the Apalachee were gifted carpenters who helped build Mobile. Even among other Apalachee, he probably looks the most Indian, with his smooth red skin and high cheekbones. But he talks like a Louisiana good ol' boy, his voice full of grit and gravel. He'll stare you directly in the eyes, insisting that you pay attention to his stories.

He lives in a two-bedroom home he built himself in Libuse, La., among pine trees. He is building an addition, to store the papers that prove that he and his fellow Apalachee are Indians. Jeannette keeps his records for him, in filing cabinets, stacks and binders 5 inches thick. What do you want to see? she'll ask. Marriage licenses? Baptismal records? Tax rolls? Deeds? She began collecting them 20 years ago.

Bennett's family history is in these files, revealing tragedy and travesty. In 1915, the klan, the so-called Whitecaps, ran down his grandfather with dogs and beat him to death by the banks of Bayou Comite. His wife wore long dresses to hide her complexion until she died.

"If you were red," Bennett's friend Eddie Vercher says, "you were black."

Gilmer's father, McNeely Bennett, fled to Monroe, La., where he married Frances Vallery, an Apalachee, and had three children. That marriage broke up, and Gilmer's father married a white woman. In 1940, McNeely Bennett, with his dark complexion and hair, was accused of being black and having a white wife, a felony.

At the trial, 8-year-old Gilmer and his brother and sister had to pull off their shirts so "experts" could examine their features before a packed courtroom.

"(My father) looked like someone had ripped his heart out seeing his children being examined like they were to be sold to the highest bidder," Gilmer Bennett said in an affidavit about the experience.

The jury found McNeely Bennett not guilty on the grounds that he was white.

"We could not tell anyone we were Indians, if so, we would be looked down upon," Bennett wrote in the affidavit. "We were not to talk about what happened to us to anyone. We were just supposed to blend in with the white people although the coloring of our skin proved we were Indian."

Bennett's maternal grandfather was having troubles of his own. In 1949, Gilmer "Boy" Vallery was driven from his cabin, his home for 84 years, by the U.S. Forest Service, Bennett says. The agency considered him a squatter in the Kisatchie National Forest.

Soon after that, Gilmer Bennett entered the Marine Corps, met Jeannette and got engaged. He sat her down and explained his history and his race, she says. He told her that he would understand if she didn't want to marry him. But she says that she is part Indian, though not sure of her heritage.

Jeannette can hardly believe it now. Gilmer Bennett no longer hides from his heritage. He wears it on his shirts, ties a headband around his long hair and brags about it.

He's not angry, he says. He just wants history set straight and for the federal government to give the Apalachee their due.

Rooted in history

The Apalachee first appear in recorded history in 1528, according to Tallahassee historian John Hann. When Panfilo de Narvaez landed in Tampa Bay, the natives told him to look north, in Apalachee territory, to find his sought-after riches, knowing full well that the fierce tribe would drive the Spaniard back across the water.

Eleven years later, Hernando de Soto ventured into the territory for five months. Painted in red ochre and wearing feathers, the Apalachee harassed his party until it left.

In the 17th century, the Apalachee submitted to Spanish rule, adopted European dress and crops, and converted to Catholicism. Historians can't explain the change. In 1656, the Apalachee collaborated with the Spanish to establish Mission San Luis de Talimali in today's Tallahassee, the home of Gilmer's ancestors.

In January 1704, former South Carolina Gov. James Moore, allied with the Creek Indians, began invading the territory for the British. Bennett's ancestors fled west to Mobile and then to the banks of the Red River in Louisiana. The French gave them 22,000 acres in Rapides Parish, north of today's Alexandria, near Gilmer Bennett's home today.

In Louisiana the Apalachee were joined by many other tribes: Choctaws, Biloxis, Chacatos, Pascagoulas. But when the American Revolution ended and immigrants began to arrive, the tribes sold much of their land or had it sold out from under them.

The Apalachee ended up in a land dispute with Isaac Baldwin, whom Bennett says that he'd "liked to have killed." In letters to the War Department, Baldwin pleaded for the government to remove the tribe from what he considered his land. When that failed, Baldwin began destroying Apalachee homes, fences and crops. In September 1826, he mounted a force of his slaves to drive out the Apalachee.

By 1827, at least 10 Apalachee families had fled to Texas. Three years later, the government sold the Apalachee land to Baldwin for $20 an acre.

The remaining Apalachee appealed to Congress for reparations in 1834. That got them nothing, so they moved to Emmanuel and Bayou Cypre in Louisiana.

"With little or no economic value to the Americans, these were the safest places for Indians to survive," H.F. "Pete" Gregory, a professor at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, La., wrote in the 1990s. Gregory wrote the Bureau of Indian Affairs in support of tribal recognition.

Soon after the Apalachee moved onto the land, President Andrew Jackson dropped their federal recognition, thinking they were extinct.

Struggle in Emmanuel

The hamlet of Emmanuel lies off a macadam road not far from Interstate 49, past the remnants of the Little Eva cotton plantation. Electricity came in the 1950s, the first phone line in 1968. According to Gregory's letter, even census takers missed it.

Indian history covers the landscape, whether or not people see it. A cemetery up the hill from the Roman Catholic church has sepia pictures adorning the graves. Many are undoubtedly Indian.

At the end of Vallery Road stands a cabin, its logs hewn in the early 1800s. Now used as a tool shed, it once belonged to Jaquette Vallery, the son of Jean Baptiste Vallery, one of the original Apalachee settlers in Louisiana. Jean Baptiste Vallery was Bennett's great-great-great-grandfather.

If you're a Vallery or a Torres in Emmanuel, you're some part Apalachee, says Jeannette Bennett, who can recite the local genealogy inside out. There were other families, too: the Verchers, the Carnahans, the Kerrys, the Bynogs, the Bascos. They intermarried, so many of them have Apalachee in them, too, but not always, she says.

Spend a day with Gilmer Bennett and you'll get a sense of his struggle to make his case for the Apalachee's existence. People know that Indians lived here, sure. If you go to the cemetery, you can see the hill that ran red with blood at the battle of Sang Pour Sang, where the French and their Indian allies defeated the Natchez in 1732.

The locals know the same lore. They'll tell you about Adam Carnahan, who was caught living with an Indian woman and was shot so many times that his bed caught fire. They'll tell you about the golden chalice, supposedly from the mission in Florida, that's buried up in the woods somewhere.

But ask people about Indians today and you'll get blank looks.

"Yeah, I grew up in Emmanuel, but I'm not an Indian," Ernie Vallery says outside the church after Saturday Mass. He has moved away and is back for a visit. "You'll find a lot of people around here that'll say they're Indian. Of course, the first thing they want is a casino."

Bennett tries to explain the history to him. Vallery looks incredulous.

That man just doesn't know his history, Bennett says later. "If they don't want in the tribe, we don't want them in the tribe."

Bennett's Aunt Melissa wouldn't say that she was Indian, either, even after she saw the documentary evidence. She forbade her husband, Thad Kerry, from telling the family. When she died in 1993, he revealed the secret.

It was something the family had suspected. Thad Kerry, who could pass for white, was always the one to go to Cloutierville or Gorum if the family needed anything, says his nephew, Jim Kerry.

"It was known that if you were kin, you were Indian," he says. "But they kept it hush-hush."

Look at Thad and Melissa's marriage license. They answered all the questions except the one about their race; they left the space blank.

Even those who believe that they're Indian aren't sure how to claim their heritage because Apalachee culture is all but gone. When Bennett has the tribal council over for a barbecue, his daughter Shalyian sings Cherokee songs. Alex Tall's license plate bears a picture of an Indian in a headdress against a Southwestern desert. And if the Apalachee get recognition, the Bennetts have picked up an old buckboard wagon in Pennsylvania for the tribal museum. It's originally from Canada.

For the politicians' sake, Bennett jokes about putting a feather on his head and starting a war dance around the campfire.

"See, my people ain't like they used to be," he says.

Making a federal case

About all that's left of the culture are baskets woven from white oak.

"They kill all this history so you can't go back to it," he says.

Federal recognition requires that the tribe has behaved as a political entity, composes a distinct community and has dealt with the authorities as Indians. Historians, anthropologists, and federal and state governments must consider them Indian as well.

Bennett has some work to do to prove all that. The tribe incorporated as a nonprofit in 1996, with Bennett as chief and seven members on a tribal council. They claim to represent more than 200 Apalachee descendants.

The Louisiana state Senate wouldn't recognize the Apalachee. It acknowledged the history, but all it wanted to know about were casinos, casinos, casinos. Some senators didn't want Indian casinos competing with the state's. They wanted Bennett to sign a pledge promising not to open one for 99 years, but he wouldn't do it.

Without state recognition, getting federal approval is difficult. At the suggestion of a staffer for U.S. Sen. John Breaux, D-La., Bennett and his supporters paid a lawyer $30,000 to write a bill recognizing the tribe; Breaux hasn't introduced it.

They don't have high hopes, not while George W. Bush is in the White House. The Bureau of Indian Affairs pulled its recognition of the Chinook last July while the tribe's chief, Gary Johnson, was visiting the White House. The tribe no longer met the criteria, the administration said. According to the Seattle Times, Johnson got a call on his cell phone while shopping for souvenirs.

But at the same time, the bureau under Bush recognized the Eastern Pequots in Connecticut. U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, R-Conn., called for an investigation, charging that the recognition was tainted by a highly paid lobbyist with close ties to the administration, according to the Hartford Courant.

After the Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that Indians could run casinos on their reservations, federal recognition became a license to mint money. The Mashantucket Pequots run the $1-billion Foxwoods casino in Connecticut while historians and politicians still debate if they are a tribe.

But the Apalachee, with their historic ties, are like bands of Cherokee and Choctaw that didn't move to Oklahoma and lost their recognition. Many later gained it back, said David Getches, the University of Colorado Indian law expert. But in recent years, recognition has become more difficult as the Bureau of Indian Affairs casts a more skeptical eye. Many tribes expect recognition to bring economic development, namely casinos. That has created political pressure against them from local and state officials, who lobby Congress and the bureau.

The case of the Chinook, Getches says, "shows the fragility of these decisions, how tenuous the process is and the consequences of political pressure."

Of the four federally recognized tribes in Louisiana, three have casinos, and the fourth is in talks. Those compete with state-licensed casinos generating tax revenue.

So here's Gilmer Bennett, with a documented history going back to the Spanish, with rooms and filing cabinets full of papers, binders of individual genealogies and verification from several historians.

But politicians want to know about only casinos. And some of his people won't join the tribe.

Emmanuel is not the isolated enclave of the past. Some of the kids have left Catholicism. They've married outside of the community and its history. Eddie Vercher says that his kids hardly believe his stories, and Jim Kerry says that he just wants acknowledgement of his heritage.

Gilmer Bennett, the reddest Indian in the group, the man who had to deny his race before a court, the kid who lost his grandfather to the klan, the Apalachee whose ancestors lost 22,000 acres, he wants the history written, too. But he also has his eye on a Western-themed shopping center gone defunct, sitting in the middle of a soybean field off I-49.

"See that there Cowboy Town?" he asks from the backseat of a car. "If you could get them to buy us that, it would make a gooood bingo parlor."

- Times researcher Caryn Baird and Times photographer Stephen J. Coddington contributed to this report. Richard Raeke can be reached at 352 564-3623 or rraeke@sptimes.com

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