Doug George-Kanentiio: Imposters bring harm to Native people

Ward Churchill. Photo from Steve Rhodes / Flickr

Impostors have caused Natives great harm
By Doug George-Kanentiio

The recent revelations regarding the lies of Eastern Washington State University ethnic studies instructor and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People regional representative Rachel Dolezal bring up a very sensitive issue to Native people.

Far from being a benign issue the decision by individuals such as Ms. Dolezal to elect to represent themselves members of an ethnic group they were not born into can cause serious problems not only for themselves when they are exposed but to the people they claim to represent.

Native nations have long had to deal with these fabrications.

Sometimes the person who makes this claim does so out of a need to belong or a sense of fantasy as to Native culture. They may do so based upon obscure family tales or because they may have heard a whisper as to a distant aboriginal ancestors somewhere in their past. They may also have other motives such as government grants, academic advancement or securing federal, state or provincial benefits targeted for Natives.

Perhaps, in some instances, the impostors chose self identification in a time of great social, political, culture and economic changes since belonging to an indigenous nation does give one psychological grounding along with the basic urge to be a part of something unique, special and with some degree of enhanced social status.

Claiming a Cherokee grandmother has been the fashion for some time, ever since the stigma of a Native identity was removed during the civil rights era. Cherokee because they were one of the "five civilized tribes" and most like the Americans in terms of dress, living standards and outward appearance. There are not too many of these impostors who cite a Chemehuevi, Passamaquoddy or Nlaka'pamux ancestor.

Besides the Cherokee impostors like to identify with the Blackfeet of Montana for some odd reason and will remain fierce in their defense of these wild claims even when confronted with hard facts and common sense. Just how did these mysterious Blackfeet manage to either impregnate or give birth to thousands of children a continent away from their Rocky Mountains homeland?

These claims are serious. For years many of these impostors undermined the real Natives by marketing art and crafts as 'Indian made." There are Natives across the continent who rely on their skills as performers, musicians, craftspeople for their living. For anyone else to do so adversely affects Native jobs and is also a violation of US federal law. The 1990 Indian Crafts Act (PL 101-644) was passed by Congress to expose the frauds and apply criminal penalties for their actions.

So too in academia where there is a very shallow pool of Natives holding advanced degrees and doctorates. Since universities and colleges do not investigate applicants who elect to claim Native ancestry those who do so gain an advantage over other candidates. US Senator Elizabeth Warren is one such individual who was touted as a "Native American" at Harvard until her claims as to Cherokee ancestry were challenged. Was there a real Native instructor in that pool who was denied employment because of this? Only Harvard knows.

Then there is Ward Churchill, a professor at the University of Colorado who self identified as-you guessed it-Cherokee until his 2005 speech comparing the victims of the 9/11 tragedy as "little Eichmanns" placed him in the national spotlight and ultimately revealed him as an impostor. He was fired from his lucrative job at the university.

Iron Eyes Cody pretended he was Indian for most of his adult life. Photo from Find a Grave

There are others whose ethnic deceptions have hurt Natives. Johnny Depp is an actor who is not Native yet managed to cast himself as such in the horrible "Lone Ranger" movie so perhaps he actually did real aboriginal actors a favor. But others have done so: Charles Bronson, Espera Corti (aka Iron Eyes Cody), Chuck Conners, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Boris Karloff, Steve McQueen, Audrey Hepburn, Katherine Ross: impostors, all of them.

There are others who secured book contracts based upon their lies of having Native ancestry: Archibald Belany, aka 'Grey Owl" was one whose credible work as an environmentalist in Canada in the 1920's was unravelled when it was discovered he was an Englishman. So too, the case of Gregory Markopoulos, the Armenian-Greek who passed himself off as "Jamake Highwater" and took publishers and the Center for Public Broadcasting for a ride when they bought into his deceptions.

Carlos Castaneda was a Peruvian studying at UCLA in California a generation ago when he wrote a series of best selling books about the mystic teachings of the imaginary Yaqui Don Yuan. His novels were presented as fact and sent thousands of students into the southwestern deserts searching for the shaman only to learn much later that Castaneda fabricated much of what he wrote. Perhaps those deluded, dehydrated students should be compensated.

There was another very talented writer whose also said he was Cherokee when he was not. This author was born Asa Earl Carter in 1925 and used the pen name Forrest Carter. His book "The Education of Little Tree" was an excellent summary of Indian boarding school life while his other "The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales" was made into a film highly sympathetic movie towards Natives starring Clint Eastwood and the late Chief Dan George (no relation but I do ave a brother named Dan George). George was a real Native of the Salish nation while co-star Geraldine Keams is Dine (Navajo). The issue with Carter is that he was a regional leader of the Ku Klux Klan, had no Native ancestry and wrote the infamous Governor George Wallace quote "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

Others like Timothy Patrick Barrus disguised themselves as Natives; his books claimed be to written by a Navajo named "Nasdijj". They were not.

On the political from there are two impostors who come to mind: Douglass Durham, head of the security wing of the American Indian Movement during its heyday in the 1970's and a lost soul named Charles Adams, aka "Charlie Smoke" during the trouble times of the 1990's among the Mohawks. Durham was an FBI plant and a close associate of the leadership of AIM. His disruptive tactics and information given to the FBI effectively crippled AIM.

Adams showed up on my home community of Akwesasne in the early 1990's. He claimed to have taken part in defending our territory and to have played an important role in the cross border smuggling activities. He later showed up on Lakota territory where he gave himself a Native name then drifted into Saskatchewan before being arrested by the Canadian authorities who exposed him as an impostor before he was deported back to the US.

These people are not of us but they do affect us. While some may say their actions are harmless we live with the results of their actions. If they want to play Native, and honor our heritage, have them join the Koshare Dancers of the Boy Scouts of America, the Hakawi Tribe or maybe the Cleveland Indians and Chief Wahoo.

Doug George-Kanentiio is an Akwesasne Mohawk currently residing on Oneida Territory with his wife Joanne Shenandoah.

More from Doug George-Kanentiio:
Doug George-Kanentiio: Victory with Mohawk land claim in Canada (06/08)
Doug George-Kanentiio: World population sits out of balance (05/06)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Death rituals among the Mohawk people (04/16)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Aboriginal homeland of the Six Nations (03/17)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Native snipers among world's deadliest (03/02)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Mohawk man stands up for his people (02/17)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Bering Strait migration theory a big lie (02/04)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Late governor was no friend to Iroquois (01/09)

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