Investigation reveals dark depths of Indigenous probate crime coverup

Collaborator: Brittany Harlow
Published: 10/13/2023, 2:18 PM
Edited: 11/14/2023, 4:11 PM

Trigger Warning: This story discusses theft, kidnapping, rape, and other trauma, which may be distressing and triggering for some individuals. Please proceed with caution and prioritize your mental and emotional well-being. If you need support, consider speaking to a mental health professional by calling 988, texting the Crisis Text Line at 741741, or reaching out to a trusted person in your life.

(MUSCOGEE NATION) This year marks 100 years since Indian Rights Association secretary M. K. Sniffen conducted a preliminary investigation into the scandalous probate system attacking the Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole tribes, known at the time as the Five Civilized Tribes. What he found in Oklahoma would eventually lead to a scathing report that shocked the nation. 

Verified News Network (VNN) and Lucinda Hickory Research Institute (LHRI) spent the summer touring archives locations across the U.S., determined to find out more about the dark history Oklahoma and cities like Tulsa remain steadfast to suppress. 

Corrupt scheming conducted by elected officials and community leaders, many of whom are still celebrated today. Dirty money that funded Tulsa’s buildings and infrastructure. The equivalent of billions of dollars taken from American Indian allottees, still flowing freely as generational wealth for non-Natives while generational trauma pummels tribal communities.

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In November and December 1923, Sniffen returned to Oklahoma from the IRA’s headquarters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for further investigation, this time joined by Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin), a Yankton Sioux woman from the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and Charles H. Fabens, an attorney. 

After five weeks of additional study, the IRA’s report “Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians” put the corruption of Oklahoma’s county courts and other officials and businesspeople on full national display.

It’s a history that impacts Darla Ashton, granddaughter of Millie Naharkey every day, from livelihood to mental health. 

“She always sat in the living room by a window,” Ashton said. “She always wore a little pink robe and it had little white buttons down it. It went down to her... Right here. And we played hide-and-go-seek, but it never bothered her, all the noise we made. Even if we rolled up in the carpet in front of her and thought we were hiding. She just enjoyed it. She didn't say much. She was stoic, quiet, but she still watched and she still laughed and she enjoyed having her grandkids around.” 

Ashton describes the turmoil of learning what happened to her grandmother as painful and unforgettable, likening it to opening your mouth to scream, and then a hand covering your mouth before you can breathe. 

“It was weird because you don't know as a child growing up what all that meant before, why she didn't speak, why she acted like she did, why she did what she did,” Ashton said. “So, as a grownup, you understand and that's why it becomes painful.” 

During the 1800s, American Indians were forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands to Oklahoma. The Dawes Act was passed in 1887, which broke communally held tribal land into individual allotments. Then, from 1898 to 1914, American Indians were forced to enroll with the Dawes Commission and find their allotments. 

The Muscogee (Creek) people had settled in Tulsa decades earlier. While all of Tulsa County was allotment land, much of Tulsa was allotted to the Creeks. 

Many tribal people continued to live communally, despite this mandated allotment system, as white settlers made their way onto the scene. But their promise of freedom to live in peace would soon be broken, like so many other promises before them.

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LHRI Tatianna Duncan, descendent of Tuckabache, researches Tulsa Allotment Era crimes on both a professional and personal level. She says the transfer of jurisdiction over American Indian probate cases from the Interior Department to local county courts in 1908 effectively declared “open season” for swindlers to prey on American Indians who could not understand English, let alone navigate complicated court and tax systems. 

“The local courthouses, the judges, the attorneys, and local founding people of Tulsa were all involved in this conspiracy to defraud the American Indian of their possession,” Duncan said. “Many Indians lost not just wealth and land and heritage, but life as well.” 

15 years later, the Indian Rights Association’s investigation wrote the tribes “are being, and have been, shamelessly and openly robbed in a scientific and ruthless manner”. 

Oklahoma’s county probate system was a syndicate of theft by those sworn and empowered to protect American Indian wealth. The IRA’s report states Indian children were left to die while their court-appointed guardians withheld their possessions. Others were kidnapped, liquored up and even raped for their property. The Millie Naharkey case is one of the most prominent of the latter, mentioned in the IRA’s report on pages 23-26. 

Within the walls of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Duncan discovered Naharkey’s harrowing case file is more than a hundred pages long, held with other records of the IRA’s probate investigation. 

Naharkey was forced to attend Chilocco Indian Boarding School from 1920 to 1922. The summer she would turn 18, she returned from Chilocco to find out she was incredibly wealthy, through the discovery of oil on her property. 

She was kidnapped shortly after in a sinister plot concocted the Gladys Belle Oil Company, led by company president Grant Stebbins, aimed at keeping her away from other oil companies until she became a legal adult, and could be forced to sign over her property and rights to them. 

Stebbins hired Naharkey’s half-brother Foxy Red, under alleged false pretenses, and Tulsa oilman A.B. Reese to take her away. The company hired W.R. McNutt, a Norman University student, to be the chauffeur. 

The group began taking Naharkey and her mother out to dinner. Then they started taking them on trips. 

Under the guise of vacationing in the Ozark Mountains, Naharkey, still a child, was now a victim of kidnapping, forced to drink alcohol to the point of sickness, and bear witness to drunken sex parties in the woods. 

“One night in Reese’s cottage my mother and all of them were drinking and naked,” Naharkey later recounted to investigators. “When I saw they were all naked I didn’t go in but stayed out of doors. They gave me a pitcher to get water, and when I came back they were shaving each other.” 

Naharkey said there were eight people in that room, and that they were shaving their private parts. 

“They asked me to come in and they would shave me next,” Naharkey said. “I didn’t go in but beat it down stairs.” 

And that wasn’t the worst of it. 

While being held in that cottage in the woods, Millie said McNutt raped her, and threatened to kill her if she didn’t cooperate, causing her to be hurt and bleeding, night after night. 

“He stayed until he went back to his room before daylight,” Naharkey said. “After that he came in my room every night.” 

The property owner of the Roaring River summer resort where they stayed told investigators he heard crying and moaning coming from their cottage. 

When Naharkey told Mrs. Reese, there for the trips and the sex parties, that she had been raped, the woman just laughed. 

Her testimony later revealed her mother had also likely been raped, by Reese, while she was intoxicated.

Naharkey said the Reeses gave her knives, telling her to stab anyone who tried to take her away from them, including Indian Service Investigator Thomas Roach. 

A 25-year-old taxi driver later told authorities he was instructed to convince Naharkey to marry McNutt to keep the conspirators against her out of jail. He said she refused at first but eventually consented. He said he hid her in a car while police searched the area but managed to flee back to Roaring River, Missouri.

Instead of getting married, Roach was eventually able to track Naharkey down and bring her back to Oklahoma. Reese and McNutt were arrested for kidnapping. The conspirators went so far as to forge Naharkey’s signatures on checks to pay Reese and McNutt’s attorney fees while they were in jail in Joplin. 

Tulsa Attorney Robert F. Blair was also a part of the crime ring, later appearing in court with a contract signed by Naharkey giving him authority to appear on her behalf. But the investigation revealed he, too, was in the employ of the Gladys Belle Oil Company of Tulsa. 

“McNutt, at all times, when relating the above statement was very evasive and unwilling to state only as to the places where he drove his car,” Special Agent R.C. Novario said after interviewing him. 

The deeds forced during Naharkey’s kidnapping began to make their way through the court system. Records show her interests, worth $300,000 at the time and $5.3 million today, were purchased by Sand Springs founder Charles Page and others, who were fully aware of how the deeds were obtained. 

“Mutely I put my arms around her,” the IRA investigation reads. “Whose great wealth had made her a victim of an unscrupulous, lawless party, and whose little body was mutilated by a drunken fiend who assaulted her night after night. Her terrified screams brought no help then, but now, as surely as this tale of horror reaches the friends of humanity, swift action must be taken to punish those guilty of such heinous cruelty against helpless little Millie Naharkey, an Indian girl of Oklahoma.” 

No such punishment ever came. 

“She was introduced to things no young person and most adults shouldn't be introduced to,” Duncan said. “And in the end, nothing was really done. No justice was served.” 

Reese and McNutt were charged with Giving Liquor To An Indian, which was dropped, and White Slavery, which was dismissed.

As one of a handful of counties in Eastern Oklahoma built from legalized theft, Tulsa County would reach the greatest heights.

Tulsa County’s most prominent administrators of so-called “incompetent Indians” included Tulsa Mayor John Simmons, who oversaw the property of one of Duncan’s ancestors, Jennie Hickory, until her untimely death, and the wealthiest guardian of all Charles Page, whose orphanage “The Sand Springs Home” (according to news reports at the time) legally owned 12,000 acres of farmland, a water and gas company, “innumerable” oil wells, a cotton mill, and an electric company. 

Today, Oklahoma’s American Indian probate scandal has all but been forgotten by the general public, taught neither in public nor private schools, nor acknowledged by local or state government. But for the families that had so much taken from them, it is as real as it ever was 100 years ago. 

Naharkey survived the kidnapping and rape, but the guardianship battle over her money and land was a lifelong one. After fighting for her own wealth most of her life, Naharkey ultimately died poor and in poor health. 

“The last memory I remember of my grandmother is the bedroom that she once had with a beautiful bed now was a dirty one little person, whatever you want to call it, shoved against a wall with the filthy little sheets on it that was half on and half off,” Ashton said. “And grandma was still in the same little pink robe that I remember, but it had awful stains right here and it was no longer white around the collar. It was dirty and torn and she was sitting in a filthy diaper.” 

Ashton said she would like to think if her grandmother had been born today, she would have experienced more protection and justice. But she really isn’t sure. 

“I think we all need to open our eyes a little bit more and be a little more honest,” Ashton said. “I think Tulsa needs to be a little more honest. Not the people themselves, because they're open. They listen. It's the people above who run things that shut us down and maybe that's the issue. People want to listen. It's the people above that don't.” 

A resolution submitted and passed by The Oklahoma Bar Association in 1923 stated in part “The depressing effect of these conditions in this state are apparent to all. It is to be hoped that present conditions in our state may soon be regarded as unpleasant history to which none will care to refer, and that again we may point with pride to a State of prosperity and happiness.”

“The Oklahoma Bar Association of 1923 recognized how horrible this all was,” Duncan said. “How distasteful, how unpleasant, but let's not talk about it again. And guess what, nobody has. Nobody has talked about it again, and even today we struggle to get the story out.” 

Indeed, from the highest level of the state to the average citizen, many in Oklahoma still do not care to refer to this unpleasant history. But for survivors of generational Allotment Era trauma like Duncan and Ashton, the time to care is now. 

“Let us be one voice and one drum,” Ashton said. “We are all working towards the same goal. A little recognition of the past and some local native Oklahoma history starting in our schools. Our children are the future and in order to change, it must begin in our school system and with the change of people's perspectives.” 

This investigation was supported with funding from the Data-Driven Reporting Project. The Data-Driven Reporting Project is funded by the Google News Initiative in partnership with Northwestern University | Medill. 

Production of this video was made possible thanks to prize money from the RevContent Local Reporting Award and LION’s Collaboration of the Year Award

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original headline of this story “Century-old Scandal Exposed: Investigation Reveals Oklahoma’s Shocking Exploitation of American Indians“ was updated to “Investigation reveals dark depths of Indigenous probate crime coverup” for a variety of reasons. The first of which was feedback from Indigenous readers that this story was not shocking to them. As a Native-owned social news media company, we strive to accurately reflect the realities of our Indigenous readership. Second, the words “scandal” and “shocking” received negative feedback from the YouTube platform, and while this history is certainly scandalous, we do not want our choice of words to negatively affect our community impact. Thank you to those who continue to support our work in this space.


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