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True native son

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Franklin Keel, regional director for the Bureau of Indian Affair’s Eastern Regional Office, holds a carved wolf made by an Eastern Cherokee. Behind him are baskets woven by members of other Indian tribes such as the Passamaquoddy in Maine.

Keel guides Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Eastern Region

Lebanon’s Franklin Keel walks comfortably between two cultures.

A citizen of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indian Nations of Oklahoma, since 1997 Keel has served as Regional Director for the Bureau of Indian Affair’s Eastern Regional Office in Nashville, which oversees three agencies that together serve 28 federally recognized tribes in 11 states (Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island and South Carolina).

Born in an Indian hospital in Lawton, Okla., Keel never learned the Choctaw language but he has been trained in Modern Greek. He had one grandfather who didn’t speak English, while his mother was bilingual and his other grandfather was active in tribal politics and a member of the Chickasaw senate in Indian Territory.

Growing up a member of an eastern Indian tribe in the western half of Oklahoma was not an easy path for Keel as a youth.  

“Interstate 35 goes through Oklahoma City on down and sort of cuts the state in half. If I had been born on the eastern side, I would probably have been treated like anybody else, but the white Americans treated me as if I were a Comanche or a Kiowa or Apache because those were the tribes in that area,” Keel said.

“The Indians there, the Kiowas, the Comanches and Apaches, knew I was a different tribe and didn’t like  me, and the white people didn’t like me because I was Indian, and just from the very first I got into a fight every day (in the first grade) over being insulted because I was Indian.”

Fortunately, for Keel, his father, who spent his career in the U.S. Army, was a championship boxer.

“When I was about 3 years old, he bought me a Joe Palooka punching bag, gloves and everything, and he taught me how to box. There I was, a little boy who wanted his dad to like him, so I learned. And ironically, that’s what saved me when I went to school,” he recalled.

While he spent a few of his childhood years on Army bases in Germany and France, Keel graduated from Lawton High School and earned a degree from the Oklahoma College of Liberal Arts before serving in the U.S. Air Force. He later worked as an administrative assistant with the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory and as a Foreign Service Officer at the American Embassy in Athens, Greece, before earning a law degree at Oklahoma City University.

In his hands Franklin Keel shows a pair of beaded buckskin moccasins given to him at his birth by a Kiowa woman. He and all four of his children wore the moccasins as infants.


Working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) since 1979, he previously served as deputy director for the BIA’s Office of Trust Responsibilities (now the Office of Trust Services) in Washington, D.C., where he was responsible for overseeing and managing the Bureau’s natural resources and trust programs.

Keel acknowledged that “even within the federal government most people don’t know about us, and in terms of the American Indian to today’s population of the U.S., most people don’t know and don’t care, to be honest. Most people know about Indians from what they see on TV or the movies, and those are all about the western Indians.”

As for his current role, he said, “We’re the youngest region in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has 12 regional offices. This is one of them. . . . My territory ranges from Maine down to Florida over to Louisiana. It’s the largest geographic region of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It serves 28 different tribes and has a tribal population that we serve of probably 60,000, and we’re responsible for roughly 500,000 acres of land held in trust by the federal government for the tribes.”

With a staff of 75, Keel oversees agencies in Cherokee, N.C.; Philadelphia, Miss. (Choctaw) and Hollywood, Fla. (Seminole).

“The purpose of the Bureau is to be the primary administrator of the federal part of the government-to-government relationship with the federally recognized Indian tribes, and that can be based upon treaties and upon laws. We are responsible for carrying out those laws concerning Indians. We’re the only ethnic group that has a part of the U.S. Code devoted to it – U.S. Code Title 25,” Keel said.

“We have tribes like the Iroquois with treaties dating back to 1794 that we still respect. It’s part of our Region’s job every year to provide the treaty cloth as payment agreed upon in that treaty to the Iroquois Nations in New York.  

“In 1887 the Indians had on their reservations roughly 138 million acres, and, of course, before European contact it was the entire country coast to coast, but in 1887 there were 138 million acres of land that belonged to the Indian tribes. By 1934 those lands, because of the assimilation and allotment policies of the U.S. government, had decreased to 48 million acres.

According to Keel, the Meriam Report in 1928 reviewed American Indian policy and found for the most part it had been a failure. Thus, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Indian Reorganization Act was passed so that Indian tribes could purchase land and bring it back into federal trust as part of those laws in order to help restore and build up the tribal land base.

“For any tribal culture, especially American Indian tribal cultures, their land is where their heart is. It’s where their soul is, if you will, and they have a deep connection to that land. Part of that Act is intended to allow them to restore (through purchase) those lands,” Keel said, noting that his office is responsible for the half-million acres of tribal lands and natural resources in the East as well as working with the tribal governments to encourage economic development.

The regional director said the budget for the Bureau is approximately $1.6 billion a year, plus another $800 million for the BIA education budget.

“Interestingly enough, $1.6 billion is less than the aid we give to Afghanistan or Pakistan. So you see where the nation’s priorities are,” he said.

Keel and his associates deal with some of the most successful Indian tribes on the eastern side of the country as well as with some of the poorest, such as the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island.

While gaming (operating casinos) has been a financial boon for some tribes, Keel said most tribes are not successful. Others, however, have economic portfolios which cover a wide array of businesses.    

“The Eastern Band of Cherokees in North Carolina have not only a casino, but all sorts of small businesses owned by tribal citizens, many of whom are very good businessmen. For some of the other tribes, gaming has been a doorway to economic development. Tribes out West have oil, gas and uranium. When they were made, some of those mineral agreements were not favorable to the Indians, but today, I think for the most part they are getting fair deals in keeping with appropriate market and business practices. Some tribes have forests and sell timber. Other tribes have fish hatcheries for business purposes as well as replenishing the resource.”

As for the major issues facing Native Americans today, Keel believes they are similar to those facing the rest of the nation: drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and unemployment. And, tragically, suicide rates on some reservations are four times the national average.

“Right now on Indian reservations you have the same sort of social problems that you have anywhere. Poverty is still rampant on most Indian reservations, in addition to the social problems of alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic violence,” he said.

“Those things were not traditional to American Indian societies prior to the 1850s. For the most part they controlled those themselves. In those days, if you abused your wife, the tribe would punish you. You did not abuse your child or the tribe would punish you, kill you or banish you. You took care of each other. You took care of your family. A man was responsible for being a hunter or a provider or a farmer, whatever men in that tribe did, but whenever many of these tribes were removed from their traditional hunting grounds or traditional lands that disrupted the entire society. Many are still recovering from that disruption.”

Unemployment rates on Indian reservations soar up to 80 and 90 percent, which raises the question: why not leave the reservation?

“For one thing, that’s their home,” says Keel said. “I know people in Lebanon who haven’t been outside of Tennessee. Why haven’t they left and looked around? They don’t want to. Indians are no different than other people in that regard.

“The other part is they are ill prepared to seek employment elsewhere. The Bureau of Indian Affairs had a relocation program from the 1950s through the 1970s to help Indians get training and relocate them to a major urban area where they could become a steel worker or other blue-collar worker, and if they stayed, they might fit in and adapt. But they might decide they didn’t enjoy being in an urban area and go back to the reservation. There are no simple answers, I guess.”

Keel says the obstacles have proven tougher for the Plains Indians because the eastern tribes adapted well to functioning in the dominant society.

“The eastern tribes had their own tribal governments, their own schools and tribal infrastructure. They had jails and courts, and that’s what they brought with them when they moved from the South. The Plains tribes had not adapted like that, and what was really interesting to me is that when the Eastern tribes were moved to Indian Territory (Oklahoma did not become a state until 1907), they brought this adapted society with them which gave them a veneer, if you will, which would enable them to function in any city in the eastern part of the U.S.”

Back in Indian Territory before the Civil War, Keel had ancestors who fought against other tribes, because the Plains tribes, understandably, did not welcome the intrusion of five of the great southeastern tribes into their territory. 

“I had a great-great uncle who had some of his horses stolen by Comanches, and to give you an idea of how the Indian culture was in my tribes, this was a man who had a ranch or a farm and when his horses were stolen, he saddles up and tracks the Comanches, kills them, makes his bed there and brings his horses back the next day,” he said.

Keel’s father attended the federal Indian schools with young men and women from other tribes and learned their dances.

“When he died, I found that he was a member of the Kiowa Dance Clan. (Kiowas are a Plains tribe located in Oklahoma.) It’s a Kiowa warrior society, so it’s a great honor for an outsider to be brought in. He was also a Native American church practitioner. The Native American Church uses peyote as a part of its ceremonies.

“He was probably one of the few Eastern tribal persons in Oklahoma to know the old-timers in those western tribes and to be accepted by them. In fact, I was given some beaded buckskin moccasins when I was born that were made by a Kiowa woman, the wife of a friend of his, and I still have his peyote fan and rattle,” said Keel, who does not practice the old tribal traditions but whose children all wore his moccasins for a few months after they were born.

“My mother’s mother was a Choctaw medicine woman and her father was a devout Christian, and I’ve often wondered how those two met. My mother grew up around that, and by tradition she would have been the daughter who would have learned that traditional knowledge and also become a medicine woman. But with the intervention of the federal boarding school, where she was encouraged not to practice her culture or speak her language, she went the other way,” he explained.

Keel and his wife Kathie have three sons, a daughter and 11 grandchildren. Son Joseph works on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming as a lieutenant in BIA law enforcement. Son Christopher is in the National Guard in linguistics with military intelligence in Utah and served in Bosnia and Afghanistan. Son Andy, a veteran of the Air Force, lives in South Carolina. Daughter Caroline is a sophomore at Lebanon High School.

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at


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