Sunday, June 14, 2015

Nobody went "huh?" when Rachel Dolezal said she lived in a tipi...

I've been following the news stories about Rachel Dolezal. There are many. All the major media outlets are reporting about--and questioning--her performance of a Black identity.

This post is less about her than about those who apparently believe what she said about her childhood.

In a Feb 5, 2015 interview she gave to Shawntelle Moncy of The Easterner, she said she was born in a tipi in Montana and lived off the land, hunting food with a bow and arrow for most of her childhood.

Nobody, it seems, went 'huh?' when they read those parts of Moncy's article.

Moncy believed her. Moncy's editor believed her. Did someone question it, somewhere? Anywhere? (If you see that questioning, let me know.)*

That lack of questioning is important. 
It tells us that people are pretty ignorant 
about American Indians. 

Elsewhere, her mother said that she (the mother) lived in a tipi in Montana for awhile, but wasn't living in it when Rachel was born. In an article at the Spokesman Review, her mother said they have "faint traces" of Native heritage. When she lived in that tipi, was she (like her daughter) performing an identity?

As I noted above, this post is less about Dolezal and more about what people believe about American Indians. As many have said, Dolezal is likely mentally ill. That may excuse what she did regarding claims to a Black identity.

The lack of questioning of that born-in-a-tipi story, however, points to the need for children's books and media that accurately portray our lives in the past and the present so that people don't put forth stories like the one Dolezar did, and so that that those who hear that kind of thing question such stories.

Dolezal's story about living in a tipi is plausible but not probable. The power of stereotyping is in her story, and in those who accepted it, too. That is not ok. Look at the images of Native people you are giving to children in your home, in your school, and in your library. Do some weeding. Make some better choices. Contribute to a more educated citizenry.

*Native media is addressing the story. My use of "nobody" is specific to non-Native media. Some Native stories on it include:

Fake Black Folks, Fake Indians, and Allies, by Gyasi Ross of Indian Country Today

Rachel Dolezal, Blackface, and Pretendians, by Ruth Hopkins of Last Real Indians 

Imposters bring harm to Native people, by Doug George-Kanentiio at (added June 18, 2015)

Update: June 14th, 2015 at 1:50 PM

People in children's literature with questionable claims to Native identity include John Smelcer, Paul Goble, Jamake Highwater, and "Forrest" Carter.

Update: June 15th, 2015 at 8:00 AM

In her comment, K.T. Horning notes that Jamake Highwater's fraudulent claim to Native identity was exposed by Akwesasne Notes. I've had Highwater on a list of "future blog posts" for some time and ought to prioritize it. For now, if you're interested in knowing more about him, see Kathryn W. Shanley's article, "The Indians America Loves to Love and Read." Published in American Indian Quarterly, Volume 21, No. 4, in Autumn of 1997, she excerpts the Hank Adams article in Akwesasne Notes in 1984, and one by Jack Anderson in The Washington Post. 

Update: June 18, 2015 at 6:30 AM

In a television interview at Today, Dolezal said she was not born in a teepee,but followed those words with "that I know of." She's casting all manner of disclaimers that aren't disclaimers, leaving a lot of wiggle room for... what?


KT Horning said...

I don't think there's anything questionable about Jamake Highwater. After Akwesasne Notes exposed him as a fraud, he pretty much disappeared from the children's book world. I thought about his story the minute I read about Rachel Dolezal.

Debbie Reese said...

KT--your comment prompted me to say a bit more about Highwater.

Beverly Slapin said...

Jean Mendoza wrote an excellent essay about Jamake Highwater's plagiarism of Charles Eastman's work. It's entitled, "When I Look into Your Eyes of Darkness," and can be found in A BROKEN FLUTE, pp. 155-157.

Unknown said...

I didn't know about that comment. It IS important that everyone accepted this. Also, the mother's behavior linked with the daughter's behavior is important. Thank you for educating me. <3

Pamela said...


I would really enjoy a longer post/discussion of Highwater. When I was young and stupid (like, 9), Anpao was recommended to me by a teacher. At the time, I thought it was fascinating, but now I utterly cringe when I even think about it.