Last month, I published a piece in The Chronicle that investigated claims of American Indian identity by the late actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather. After speaking to her biological sisters and reviewing her family tree back to the 1850s, I found that Littlefeather was not of Apache heritage, as she presented herself the night she became internationally known for taking the Oscar stage in March 1973 in lieu of Marlon Brando. She was of white and Mexican descent — and had no legitimate claims to a tribal identity.
I knew the piece would be controversial; taking down an icon, especially in the wake of her death, was bound to raise anger from those who found her work meaningful. But I will concede that I wasn’t fully prepared for the debate that followed — one that posited Littlefeather’s identity, and all Native American identity, as an existential question too complicated to verify or fact-check. This line of argumentation largely conceded that Littlefeather was dishonest in her self-presentation, but nonetheless suggested that her claims to American Indian heritage, however threadbare, were open to a wider and more fluid interpretation.
A New York Times story on my piece headlined, “Sacheen Littlefeather and the Question of Native Identity,” quoted Littlefeather’s longtime friend and Shoshone/Ojibwe poet, nila northsun (she lowercases her name), as saying Native identity is “what you feel in your heart, and what your belief system is.”
The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, meanwhile, which recently held an internationally publicized event to apologize to Littlefeather for how she was treated at the telecast of the Oscars, told the Times it would not reconsider how it characterized Littlefeather’s identity in response to the findings of my article; The museum “recognizes self-identification.”
Perhaps most egregiously, a headline in the Washington Post — on the first day of Native American Heritage Month, no less — asked, “Sacheen Littlefeather may have lied about her identity. Does that matter?”
Yes. Yes, it does.
Muddying the waters of American Indian identity enables non-Native opportunists to play Indian for clout or money. And you don’t have to look very hard to find the evidence of the harm these “Pretendians” cause.
In 2019, the Los Angeles Times found that a fake Cherokee “tribe,” the “Northern Cherokee Nation,” had wrongfully collected nearly $300 million in government contracts intended for actual Native Americans.
Just days before my story was published, UC Berkeley Professor Elizabeth Hoover, after questions had been raised regarding her claims to a Mohawk identity, released a statement saying that she and her family had conducted genealogical research and “found no records of tribal citizenship for any of my family members in the tribal databases that were accessed.”
In other words, she was a fraud.
In response, a group letter by some of Hoover’s former students demanded her resignation, an apology to the Mohawk of Kahnawake and for Hoover to stop performing Native American identity. They went on to insist that UC Berkeley administrators “work with other departments on campus to understand how the campus can adopt a better hiring and screening process to protect Indigenous communities.”
All of that seems unlikely to happen, as a campus spokesperson said in a statement that Hoover’s ethnic identity is a “deeply personal matter,” and Hoover seems intent on continuing her work in the field of Native American food sovereignty.
A failure by academia, the media and others to appropriately specify what it means to be American Indian is the origin of this Pretendian grift — and enables its prevalence. Refusing to define what it means to be Native gives con artists free rein to exploit American Indian heritage, with no accountability. After all, how is verification possible if anyone can claim authenticity without any proof?
There is clearly a need for a definition that employers and allies can use to weed out false claimants. The U.S. government’s legal definition of American Indian is any member of one of 574 federally recognized tribes. While there may be occasional outliers to this definition of American indigenousness — people who qualify for citizenship, for instance, but for whatever reason are not enrolled — tribal citizenship is indeed an excellent place to start.
Tribal enrollment in the United States is predicated upon a relation to immediate family members who have experience as nationals of a Native nation that pre-existed European colonialism and whose homelands are in the lower 48 states of the United States. This makes Native American identity in the United States political –– not racial. American laws surrounding tribal membership do not apply in Mexico or Canada, nor to other indigenous nations of Hawaii or in territories like Puerto Rico. Only American Indian tribes navigate a nation-to-nation relationship with the most powerful country on Earth. Only citizens of these tribal nations are subject to the political and legal consequences of this particular relationship. Only we who are citizens have the standing to address the resulting issues and trauma born of this relationship. It is therefore perfectly reasonable that anyone seeking to advance their career through a claim to Native identity, who isn’t a citizen of a tribal nation, should be subject to scrutiny.
Many of Littlefeather’s defenders continue to trumpet her father’s Mexican ancestry as a way of propping up her claim to American Indian identity. This argument is based on a couple of assumptions: If you go far enough back, many Mexican people are part indigenous, and tribes routinely crossed borders, so being indigenous to Mexico should be no barrier to calling oneself “American Indian” or “Native American” and claiming the trauma of these tribes as their own.
In a Variety opinion piece addressing my investigation into Littlefeather, Laura Clark, a Mvskoke citizen who works for Yahoo News, raised the specter of blood quantum as a reason to tread lightly with suspected fraudulent claims to American Indian identity. “Some Natives are reconnecting with their tribes,” Clark wrote. “Some Natives don’t have enough ‘Indian blood’ to register because of blood quantum minimums. And some Natives have had their tribes nearly erased to the point that organized citizenship records simply don’t exist.”
I would never deny the right of Littlefeather or anyone else to respectfully “reconnect” with their Native ancestry so much as it exists. But Clark’s argument lacks an accurate definition of “Pretendianism,” something similarly missing from the broader coverage of Littlefeather. A Pretendian is not someone who is privately and genuinely trying to find their Native relatives. A Pretendian is someone falsely claiming Native identity who uses this fraudulent claim for clout and in monetization schemes. They write books and speak for American Indians on the national and international stage, before Congress, the United Nations, or, as in Littlefeather’s case, the Oscars. The moral weight of their voice is born not from any singular ability, but from the power of a collective trauma that is not theirs to wield.
Prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the Arizona Supreme Court found that because American Indians were legally wards of the federal government, they had the same status as insane people, and could not vote. Only American Indians, citizens of Native nations, were subject to these policies.
For my mother’s people, the Navajo or Diné people, as we call ourselves, the trauma inflicted on us by the United States included being rounded up and sent on the Long Walk to Hweeldi or Bosque Redondo, a concentration camp. Thousands died there. For my father’s people, it led to Wounded Knee, where the U.S. Army massacred Lakota people. My Dakota grandmother’s uncle, the Rev. Charles Cook, a young Dakota Episcopal minister at Pine Ridge, worked with Dr. Charles Eastman, the Dakota author, and medical doctor, to save the survivors. The two young Dakota men rode out for days during a blizzard, looking for anyone left alive. The church, decorated for Christmas, was turned into a makeshift hospital, with wounded women, children and elders lying beneath a banner that read “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.” My great-great-uncle lost his faith that day. My grandmother claimed he died of a broken heart a few years later.
Experiences like these are directly tied to being American Indian.
Littlefeather’s relatives were legally white. They were allowed to vote six decades before the passage of the Voting Rights Act. They were never subject to the federal or state policies and laws American Indians were subject to when they lived in Arizona and California. The harm caused by U.S. policies directed at American Indians never happened to them. Ever.
For many Americans, the notion of the “secret Indian” in the family hiding out several generations ago is a compelling one. However, even if true (and it often is not), this is not enough to confer a national identity — any more than being an American of minuscule French descent gives one the same status as a French national. To argue otherwise doesn’t just put tribal sovereignty under threat, it undermines genealogy, the methodology used to verify tribal claims.
Some schools of thought in academia suggest that tribal documentation is inherently colonial, thus, using it to prove fraud is not “decolonial.” But according to David Cornsilk, a renowned Cherokee genealogist, this thinking is ahistorical.
“The genealogies upon which (Native people) rely are not a byproduct of colonial constructs,” he told me. “Genealogies are often sacred to specific populations including kānaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) and Cherokees. Most indigenous populations place a high degree of reverence for ancestors and the interrelationships between past and present our genealogies represent. When genealogy is attacked to defend false claims of tribal heritage, the attacker is actually besmirching the ancestors that genealogy represents.
“For Cherokees, the most appropriated ethnicity by race shifters, what we call the Great Spider Web of Families, representing every Cherokee family and their connections to each other by blood, marriage, clan and community, is torn apart when a Pretendian attempts to force themselves into that web.”
This has particular relevance to two U.S. Supreme Court cases heard in the past month, one regarding affirmative action and the other on the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, which demands that Native children placed for adoption first go to immediate relatives, then to other tribal members and then to other Native American households.
Conservative justices, including Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Amy Coney Barrett, have questioned whether American Indians constitute a “race” or a political affiliation based on tribe. If they decide we are a “race” based on some notion of distant DNA, it will almost certainly destroy the current political status of tribes and completely undermine tribal sovereignty to the extent it exists today.
Tribal enrollment requirements are currently set by tribal nations and can only be changed by the tribe’s citizens. Tribal citizenship, based on the right of blood (jus sanguinis) rather than the U.S. standard of the right of soil (jus soli), is an expression of the nation’s sovereignty to determine its citizenship requirements. Kim TallBear, a professor at the University of Alberta and citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe in South Dakota, is the author of “Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science,” which investigates how Native American claims to land, resources and sovereignty that have taken generations to ratify may be seriously — and permanently — undermined by those using fractional DNA test results to support a claim to Native identity.
“Genetic ancestry tests are useless for tribal enrollment or even making a definitive statement about one’s descent from a particular tribe,” she said in an interview. “False claimants to Native identity may take a genetic ancestry test. But it does not verify descent from a named individual ancestor. Rather, such a test links one probably to distant genetic ancestors that cannot be definitively affiliated with a contemporary tribe.”
While a move toward a preferred Native identity — a real-life cosplay experience — may be liberating for the individual, it dangerously erases the political reality and history of oppression experienced by tribal nations and their citizens. The confusion about Native American/American Indian identity created by those who seek to eclipse our political nature for personal gain is only providing ammunition to conservative Supreme Court justices to complete the genocide of our nations.
On Oct. 31, at a Supreme Court hearing on the affirmative action case, Justice Alito asked the attorney defending affirmative action policies at the University of North Carolina what is preventing students from falsely claiming to be Native American — a practice colloquially called “box checking.”
When asked by Alito if family lore of Native ancestry would be enough to be considered American Indian, North Carolina Solicitor General Ryan Park responded by saying, no.
Alito rephrased the question: “I identify as an American Indian because I’ve always been told that some ancestor back in the old days was an American Indian.”
Once again, Park agreed that the student was unlikely to be telling the truth.
This exchange was interpreted by news outlets as Alito referring to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, who has been excoriated by the right-wing press for marking herself as American Indian on her Texas bar registration card. She was also identified by Harvard as a minority faculty member. In the 1990s, the university used her as an example of a diversity hire when it was challenged for the lack of people of color on the law school faculty.
Warren is far from the only person non-Native in academia to benefit from such an arrangement. And she isn't close to the most pernicious example, as demonstrated by Hoover. I have been told by any number of professors who are tribal citizens that even questioning a colleague’s vague claims of Native identity can lead to accusations by college and university administrators of “racism.”
“Hiring white people who self-identify as Cherokee or some other tribe but with no lived experience as a Native person does nothing to redress centuries of systematic exclusion of Native people from educational opportunities,” TallBear said. “In fact, it constitutes another hand-out of resources to white people stolen yet again from Native people.”
Pretendianism, therefore, is not just about replacing authentic Native voices with mummers in red face. It constitutes a cynical stealing of gains made by people of color in this country. It is a disturbing financial theft from some of the poorest people in America. The cost of Pretendianism is more than just the misleading play-acting of a role for an unsuspecting American audience. It causes harm to Native nations, communities and individuals who have already endured enough.
Fact-checking claims of Native identity may appear unseemly to some, but it is a small imposition to reduce the continued trauma of Native Americans and the theft of our culture.
A Lakota journalist I respect, Avis Little Eagle, who did reporting on fake New Age “Native” practitioners in the 1990s, recently reminded me of the old journalism adage: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
Jacqueline Keeler is a Diné/Dakota writer living in Portland, Ore., and the author of “Standing Rock, the Bundy Movement, and the American Story of Sacred Lands.”