Education | Opinion

Brandon Ecoffey: Confronting the dangers of instant Indians

The following editorial by Brandon Ecoffey appears in the latest issue of the Native Sun News. All content © Native Sun News.

Brandon Ecoffey

Looking at the dangers of instant Indians

One of the greatest dangers to Native American communities is the Indians created by the elite institutions of higher learning.

Each year many young, reservation-raised Native American scholars graduate from the top Native American Studies programs across the country. Dartmouth, the University of Minnesota, Stanford, and ASU all provide our young people with the academic credentials needed to be allowed access to the exclusive pundit party that guides the public discourse on policy issues affecting our communities.

These young Native scholars provide a much-needed service when they step forward to protect our communities by voicing their opinions.

The young people that have been raised on reservations and have attained a degree from one of the elite academic institutions possess a unique understanding of their community’s culture and needs, as well as an awareness of both the local and regional political realities present in their part of Indian country.

They have overcome odds that even the luckiest gambler would not be willing to wager their money on to achieve what they were once told was impossible. Much in the same way that iron sharpens iron, being raised on a reservation creates a hardened mindset and worldview that prepares these young people to speak out on behalf of their communities. Their positions on the issues impacting Indian country are formed by their upbringing and the living conditions they have experienced firsthand in either their own home or a friend’s on the reservation. They view the world with “indigenous eyes.” These are not the ones I speak of when I mention the word danger.

The ones I speak of are those who not only go to college for an academic education in Native Studies, but also for a social and cultural experience that they will use to show the even less informed that they know what it means to be “Indian.” Unlike the Native American students from the reservation who earned their stripes smoking joints and arguing for calls on the Y.O. cement basketball courts in downtown Pine Ridge, or preparing food for Pueblo Feast Days, or shearing sheep somewhere on the Navajo Nation, these newly invented Indians will instead base their experience off of the papers and books drafted by out- of-touch academics and the real life accounts of the few homegrown Native students they encounter while at one of these universities.

The problem arises when these people whose personal experience of being a Native American consists of playing dress up at an Ivy-League Pow-Wow or gaining membership in a “Native” sorority/fraternity feel entitled to speak on behalf of Indian communities that they have no connection to whatsoever.

Recently, there has been an emergence of columnists that possess all the right academic credentials in their mini biography: Ivy League educated, enrolled member of a tribe, book about to be published and…it ends there. These people are speaking out on behalf of tribes whose reservations they have never been to, and if caught on the wrong block in one of these tribal communities wouldn’t even know the prefix to dial for someone to vouch for them. They could well be the Ward Churchill’s of the next generation.

There is a very real and risky danger in allowing those playing Indian to speak as if they have credibility in our communities. When those who do not have an understanding of how an issue will play out and will not feel the impact of certain policy choices on them or their family are promoted as the authority, it is a slap in the face to the people suffering on reservations.

There are media outlets that are allowing this misrepresentation to take place. It must stop now. There are Indian impersonators, some real and some fake, who have gained notoriety simply because the media failed to check them out. An old CBS radio announcer named Rob Armstrong said to a group of aspiring journalists, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Vine Deloria warned us over 40 years ago of the danger of anthropologists, and in reality those who are speaking on our behalf without having any significant connection to any reservation community are simply the second coming.

Brandon is a lifelong resident of the Pine Ridge Indian reservation and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux tribe. He earned his education at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, where he studied Native American Studies and Government. Brandon is currently the Managing Editor of Native Sun News weekly and a contributor to and can be reached at

Copyright permission by Native Sun News

Related Stories:
Brandon Ecoffey: Native Sun News is a forum for Native writers (4/26)

Join the Conversation