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NY Post
New York Post
8 Apr 2023


NextImg:Why ‘Pretendians’ are for bad for Native Americans

“Pretendianism,” or “Playing Indian,” has become one of the most contentious issues among Native Americans today. The topic sparks heated conversations over the very meaning of Native identity. 

Last year,  the Native origins of activist and actress Sacheen Littlefeather – made famous in 1973 when she accepted an Academy Award on behalf of Marlon Brando – were disproven following her death in October.

Amid the subsequent uproar, there were those –including her own sisters – who derided her duplicity, while others defended the crumbling honor of a heroine and star.  

Being a pretendian goes far beyond the “Indian grandmother” many people have in family lore. Pretendians seek a voice that isn’t theirs to build careers and shape how the wider world views Natives like me, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, and the issues we face. 

They are often actors, authors, artists, and academics who influence popular culture. They’re politicians such as Elizabeth Warren and Hollywood producers like the recently outed Heather Rae.    

Pretendians are remarkably effective and much of this has to do with how little most Americans know about Native culture. A mere 2.9% of Americans identified as Native American or Alaska Native in the 2020 Census and many Americans have never met a Native person.

Further complicating matters, Native Americans are not a ‘race’ of people, but citizens of sovereign nations – much like being American, British, or Pakistani. And each Native nation defines its own criteria for citizenship.  

Littlefeather’s case came to light after she passed away last year. The activist and actress was “outed” by her own family. Despite the severity of Littlefeather’s duplicity, she has managed to retain many, many defenders.
ZUMA24.com

With so few Native Americans, those who reach a national platform have an outsized influence on how all Natives – and our unique challenges – are viewed. Pretendians cravenly capitalize on these opportunities.  

Take Rae, a white woman who claimed Cherokee ancestry and used her false identity to become influential in Hollywood.  Along with producing 2008’s Oscar-nominated film Frozen River, Rae serves on the Academy of Motion Pictures’ Indigenous Alliance and previously led the Indigenous Program at the Sundance Institute. 

Through this, she shapes what Native films people see and what stories audiences hear. Rae also used her influence to coordinate the Academy’s “apology” to Littlefeather last year for the damage her Oscar activism had on her career.

For decades Sen. Elizabeth Warren claimed Native American heritage; the one-time presidential candidate eventually apologized to the Cherokee Nation after DNA testing revealed otherwise.

For decades Sen. Elizabeth Warren claimed Native American heritage; the one-time presidential candidate eventually apologized to the Cherokee Nation after DNA testing revealed otherwise.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

In another case, Erika Wurth, a white woman who claims to be of Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Apache descent, published a book called “White Horse” that was featured by media such as The New York Times and “Good Morning America.” 

Wurth drew readers in with her own lurid family story, tying in Native American stereotypes such as alcoholism, hypersexuality, and violence. A detailed review of her claims by the Fake Indians Blog and shared by The Post later found that they were all made up. 

One reason Pretendians like Rae and Wurth succeed is that they exploit the complexities of Native identity, which can be contentious.

A source at IllumiNative, a nonprofit social-justice organization for Native Americans, told The Post that “blood quantum minimums and citizenship requirements within the Native community continues to be a sensitive and nuanced issue that has a dark and complicated history.”  

Hollywood producer Heather Rae is another high-profile "Pretendian" who has abused her access and status to not only deny authentic Native folks a voice in the industry, but influence efforts to create a more diverse and inclusive entertainment community.

Hollywood producer Heather Rae is another high-profile “Pretendian” who has abused her access and status to not only deny authentic Native folks a voice in the industry but influence efforts to create a more diverse and inclusive entertainment community.
Jerod Harris

This is, on the surface, true. The problem is when non-Natives inject themselves into these conversations. Particularly non-Natives who falsely claim a Native identity such as Rae.

Indeed, not only did Rae “pretend” to be native, via IllumiNative’s “Good Relatives” initiative, she worked to expand and redefine Native identity itself. This initiative could open the door for anyone to become Native because they, like Rae, identified as such. And this undermines the right of sovereign nations to define themselves and their communities.

Perhaps the greatest damage Pretendians inflict is to people who, like me, reconnected with their Native ancestry later in life. 

For many complicated reasons, Natives have often missed out on opportunities to be an active part of their community.  Many grew up away from their Nations and even those who were raised within their tribal boundaries may have taken their Native culture for granted. Some also want to know if they can even be a part of their Native community or consider themselves Native. 

Pretendians, and even some Natives, capitalize on the fears and insecurities of reconnecting Natives.

Ojibwe scholar Anton Treuer recently argued that while Pretendians may be harmful to Native peoples, challenging them risked “scaring people who do have Native blood in their veins from embracing their Native identity [and] . . . learning about their culture.” He added, “If our pushback on the Pretendians is too hard, is too mean-spirited, we actually end up chasing away our own people.”  

Author Wurth's recent book "White Horse" played off of Native stereotypes such as alcoholism to great critical and commercial success. Sadly, Wurth is actually a "Pretendian."

Author Wurth’s recent book “White Horse” played off of Native stereotypes such as alcoholism to great critical and commercial success. Sadly, Wurth is actually a “Pretendian.”

But Pretendians are not reconnecting with Natives, despite their parasitic attempts to align themselves with them. Pretendians claim a Native identity for their own personal gain and must be called out for doing so. At the same time, Native communities should still embrace reconnecting Natives as members of their tribal family.  

Try as they might, Pretendians will never be Native. In their hearts, they know it and it angers them.  They ingratiate themselves with Native communities, hoping enough Natives believe their stories–or become dependent on their power–to survive the eventual backlash once their lies are revealed.   

In Britain, the Exeter Chiefs rugby team worked with Native groups and their non-native allies to adjust and amend branding imagery many found offensive.

In Britain, the Exeter Chiefs rugby team worked with Native groups and their non-native allies to adjust and amend branding imagery many found offensive.
Getty Images

One does not have to be Native American to support Native Americans and celebrate their cultures.  There is plenty of room for allies and advocates.

Last year, for instance, British rugby team the Exeter Chiefs changed their offensive Native American branding following an outcry from almost entirely non-Native fans. 

Pretendians cross the line by putting themselves before the people they claim to be. If they truly value Native Americans – and our cultures – they would step back, listen and respect Native Americans for who they are and the journey they’re taking.   

Anthony Perry is a Chickasaw author and analyst living in England.