Native? Or, not? A Resource List

February 24, 2021

Dear AICL Reader,

Some of you are aware of the ongoing conversations about claims to being Native. A high profile case right now is Michelle Latimer, who said she was Native. People believed her. But then it turned out the people she claimed did not and do not, know her. 

Starting with this post on Feb 24, 2021, I am building a resource list of articles, books, and podcasts that I think others should be aware of--especially if you are editing, reviewing, or teaching material that is presented as being created by someone who says they are Native.

The items are presented chronologically by date of publication (and I'm highlighting the date in the entry). This arrangement is helpful because some later ones refer to or cite previous ones. I am inserting the date I added an item in brackets because it is helpful to me to have a record of what I did and when.

For many of you, this conversation is new. To Native people, it is not. You'll see several phrases used--like "playing Indian" and "pretendian"--and you'll see that I include items about DNA testing. 

If you know of a resource I could add, please let me know by email or by using the comment form, below. And please share this page with your family, friends, and colleagues. 

Update on March 2: People are suggesting articles on Elizabeth Warren. In this list I am providing resources on the phenomenon of playing Indian and pretendianism, but not necessarily articles on individuals. On Oct 20, 2018, I did a page on Elizabeth Warren that you can take a look at if you're interested in her case (and I will update that one with items people are sending to me). 



"Meeting of Indian Professors Takes Up Issue of Ethnic Fraud" by Elizabeth Cook Lynn, published in Spring of 1993 in Wicazo Sa Review. [Added on Feb 28, 2023]

White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men by Terry Macy and Daniel W. Hart, is an award-winning documentary that deals with the popularization and commercialization of Native American spiritual traditions by Non-Indians. Released on November 1, 1996. [Added on April 15, 2022]

Playing Indian by Philip J. Deloria, published in 1999 by Yale University Press. [Added on Feb 24 2021]

The Boston Tea Party, the Order of Red Men, Camp Fire Girls, Boy Scouts, Grateful Dead concerts are just a few examples of the American tendency to appropriate Indian dress and act out Indian roles. This provocative book explores how white Americans have used their ideas about Indians to shape national identity in different eras—and how Indian people have reacted to these imitations of their native dress, language, and ritual.

At the Boston Tea Party, colonial rebels played Indian in order to claim an aboriginal American identity. In the nineteenth century, Indian fraternal orders allowed men to rethink the idea of revolution, consolidate national power, and write nationalist literary epics. By the twentieth century, playing Indian helped nervous city dwellers deal with modernist concerns about nature, authenticity, Cold War anxiety, and various forms of relativism. Deloria points out, however, that throughout American history the creative uses of Indianness have been interwoven with conquest and dispossession of the Indians. Indian play has thus been fraught with ambivalence—for white Americans who idealized and villainized the Indian, and for Indians who were both humiliated and empowered by these cultural exercises.

Deloria suggests that imagining Indians has helped generations of white Americans define, mask, and evade paradoxes stemming from simultaneous construction and destruction of these native peoples. In the process, Americans have created powerful identities that have never been fully secure.

"American Indian Identity Conference" at Michigan State University on Oct 16-17, 2008. Speakers include Gwen Westerman Griffin, Debbie Reese, Pacio Quispe-Agnoli, Kate Fort, Angeline Matson, and Steve Russell. Link goes to Youtube recordings of the conference. [Added on Feb 28, 2022] 

Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the Twenty-first Century by Circe Sturm, published in 2011 by the School for Advanced Research Press. [Added on Feb 24 2021]

In Becoming Indian, author Circe Sturm examines Cherokee identity politics and the phenomenon of racial shifting. Racial shifters, as described by Sturm, are people who have changed their racial self-identification from non-Indian to Indian on the US Census. Many racial shifters are people who, while looking for their roots, have recently discovered their Native American ancestry. Others have family stories of an Indian great-great-grandmother or -grandfather they have not been able to document. Still others have long known they were of Native American descent, including their tribal affiliation, but only recently have become interested in reclaiming this aspect of their family history. Despite their differences, racial shifters share a conviction that they have Indian blood when asserting claims of indigeneity. Becoming Indian explores the social and cultural values that lie behind this phenomenon and delves into the motivations of these Americans—from so many different walks of life—to reinscribe their autobiographies and find deep personal and collective meaning in reclaiming their Indianness. Sturm points out that “becoming Indian” was not something people were quite as willing to do forty years ago—the willingness to do so now reveals much about the shifting politics of race and indigeneity in the United States.

Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science by Kim TallBear, published in 2013 by University of Minnesota Press. [Added on Feb 24 2021]

Because today’s DNA testing seems so compelling and powerful, increasing numbers of Native Americans have begun to believe their own metaphors: “in our blood” is giving way to “in our DNA.” In Native American DNA, Kim TallBear shows how Native American claims to land, resources, and sovereignty that have taken generations to ratify may be seriously—and permanently—undermined.

 'There is no DNA test to prove you're Native American' by Linda Geddes, is an interview with Kim TallBear in New Scientist on Feb 4, 2014[Added on Feb 24 2021]

I'm Not Indian by David Shorter. Originally published at Indian Country Today on July 1, 2015;  available online at "I'm Not Indian Revised 10/30/20." [Added on Mar 2, 2021)

Joseph Boyden exploits mythical Native identity by Doug George-Kanentiio at Indianz is an Opinion piece subtitled "Joseph Boyden: An Imposter Under Native Law" on Jan 6, 2017[Added on Feb 24 2021]

Questions Agents and Editors Can Use to Evaluate American Indian Content by Kara Stewart, includes a section on questions agents and editors can use when an author states they are Native. Published on Feb 22, 2017 at the blog, Reading While White. [Added on Feb 28, 2023]

Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity by Darryl Leroux, published in 2019 by University of Manitoba Press. [Added on Feb 24 2021]

Distorted Descent examines a social phenomenon that has taken off in the twenty-first century: otherwise white, French descendant settlers in Canada shifting into a self-defined “Indigenous” identity. This study is not about individuals who have been dispossessed by colonial policies, or the multi-generational efforts to reconnect that occur in response. Rather, it is about white, French-descendant people discovering an Indigenous ancestor born 300 to 375 years ago through genealogy and using that ancestor as the sole basis for an eventual shift into an “Indigenous” identity today.

After setting out the most common genealogical practices that facilitate race shifting, Leroux examines two of the most prominent self-identified “Indigenous” organizations currently operating in Quebec. Both organizations have their origins in committed opposition to Indigenous land and territorial negotiations, and both encourage the use of suspect genealogical practices. Distorted Descent brings to light to how these claims to an “Indigenous” identity are then used politically to oppose actual, living Indigenous peoples, exposing along the way the shifting politics of whiteness, white settler colonialism, and white supremacy.  

For more information on the rise of the so-called ‘Eastern Metis’ in the eastern provinces and in New England, including a storymap, court documents, and research materials, visit the Raceshifting website, created by Unwritten Histories Digital Consulting.

How 'pretendians' undermine the rights of Indigenous people by Rebecca Nagle, published on April 2, 2019 at High Country News. [Added on Feb 24 2021]

Fraud in Native American Communities, a Special Issue of American Indian Culture and Research Journal, in honor of Suzan Shown Harjo. Edited by Nancy Marie Mithlo, Volume 43, Issue 4, 2019[Added on Feb 24 2021]

  • Fauxskins, by Heid E. Erdrich
  • At the Center of the Controversy: Confronting Ethnic Fraud in the Arts, by Ashley Holland
  • Decentering Durham, by Nancy Marie Mithlo
  • Not Jimmie Durham's Cherokee, by Roy Boney, Jr.
  • Walk-Through at the Hammer, by James Lunda
  • A Chapter Closed? by America Meredith
  • What Shall We Do with the Bodies? Reconsidering the Archive in the Aftermath of Fraud, by Mario A. Caro.
  • Living in a (Shrodinger's) Box: Jimmie Durham's Strategic Use of Ambiguity, by Suzanne Newman Fricke
  • The Artist Knows Best: The De-Professionalism of a Profession, by Nancy Marie Mithlo
  • Hustling and Hoaxing: Institutions, Modern Styles, and Yeffe Kimball's "Native" Art, by Sarah Anne Stolte
  • Aspirational Descent and the Creation of Family Lore: Race Shifting in the Northeast, by Darryl Leroux
  • Closing the Gap: Ethics and the Law in the Exhibition of Contemporary Native Art, by Tahnee M. Ahtoneharjo-Growingthunder
  • Claims to Native Identity in Children's Literature, by Debbie Reese
  • Playing Indian, between Idealization and Vilification: Seems You have to Play Indian to be Indian, by Rosy Simas and Sam Aros Mitchell

Telling People You're Native American When You're Not Native Is A Lot Like Telling a Bear You're a Bear When You're Not A Bear video on Vimeo, by Joseph Clift [added on Feb 18 2023]. 

Exposing false Native heritage at Native America Calling on Feb 10, 2021[Added on Feb 24 2021]

After a CBC investigation called her claimed Indigenous heritage into question, Canadian filmmaker Michelle Latimer resigned as director of the CBC-TV series “Trickster,” a show she co-created. The National Film Board also dropped its intention to distribute her film “Inconvenient Indian” and pulled it from a Sundance Film Festival screening. It’s the latest in a continuing series of prominent people who initially benefitted from their Indigenous identity but were forced to backtrack when those claims couldn’t be documented. We’ll hear about the latest incident and an effort to expose those who improperly cash in on Native heritage. 

Cherokee Scholars' Statement on Sovereignty and Identity on Feb 13, 2020 at Think Tsalagi: A Cherokee-centric place by Cherokee scholars and educators. [Added on Dec 18, 2021]

The Pretendian Problem at Indian Country Today's newscast on Jan 28, 2021[Added on Feb 24 2021]

First Nation filmmakers are now pushing for new legislation in Canada to penalize people who pretend to be Indigenous in order to access grants, awards and jobs intended for Indigenous people. There’s a long history of non-Natives assuming a tribal identity...everything from using red face in a Hollywood film, to the antics of the Boston Tea Party. Jeff Bear is a seasoned journalist who makes documentary films. He’s Maliseet and one of his most recent films is, “Samaqan: Water Stories.” It’s about the power of rivers. He also has produced a new series "Petroglyphs to Pixels." Jeff Bear joins us today to discuss Indian Country's pretend Indian problem.

 A growing number of "Pretendian" artists and the potential repercussions at APTN's "InFocus" on Jan 28, 2021[Added on Feb 24 2021]

It's a bizarre phenomenon - people pretending to be Indigenous to get jobs or grants or even just attention, because it's cool to be us.

What's not funny is they are taking highly lucrative work from Indigenous people. They're teaching our histories. They're telling our stories.

On this episode, we are putting Indigenous identity fraud InFocus.

The Convenient "Pretendian" at Canadaland on Feb 14, 2021[Added on Feb 24 2021]
Latimer’s documentary Inconvenient Indian premiered at TIFF and reaped plaudits and awards. It’s now been pulled from distribution. Her series Trickster, based on a novel by Eden Robinson, debuted on the CBC and was slated for a second season. It’s been cancelled. Why does the Canadian cultural establishment make darlings of figures like Latimer? Ryan McMahon joins Jesse to discuss. Then documentary filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, who is featured in Inconvenient Indian, considers the ethics and responsibility of storytelling, and why this controversy has been hurtful to so many Indigenous people. And Steven Lonsdale, whose seal hunt Latimer filmed for Inconvenient Indian, explains what he’d like to see done with that footage.

Contemplating the Consequences of Colonial Cosplay at Media Indigena on Feb 24, 2021[Added on Feb 24 2021]

With issues of identity reaching a fever pitch of late, we thought we’d take its temperature. From Michelle Latimer’s contested claims to Indigeneity, to an ever-growing, quasi-underground list of Alleged Pretendians, not to mention a Twitter tempest over light-skin privilege, we’ll break down what’s at play, what’s at stake and—in part two—what might be ways out of this messy business.

Joining host/producer Rick Harp at the roundtable are Kim TallBear, associate professor in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience & Environment, as well as Candis Callison, Associate Professor in the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies and the Graduate School of Journalism at UBC.

Creating Culpability for Colonial Cosplay: Punishment for Pretendians at Media Indigena on Feb 27, 2021. [Added on Mar 1 2021]

Punishment for Pretendians: the back half of our extended look at colonial cosplay. And if part one was all about the problem, this part’s all about solutions. Just what is to be done about all these faux First Nations actors, authors and academics? What mechanisms might we use, and by whose authority? Does it make sense to target all the players, or would it be better to re-write the rules of the game?

Back with host/producer Rick Harp to assess what's been put forth as ways to sift through the grift are Candis Callison, Associate Professor in the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies and the Graduate School of Journalism at UBC, and Kim TallBear, associate professor in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta as well as Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience & Environment.

Playing Indian Constitutes a Structural Form of Colonial Theft, and It Must be Tackled, by Kim TallBear at Unsettle on May 10, 2021. [Added on May 11 2021] An excerpt:
Warren, Boyden, Smith, and Latimer are only four among many who make such claims. A current investigation by independent Diné and Dakota journalist, Jacqueline Keeler, demonstrates the widespread occurrence of false identity claims by public figures in academia, the arts, literature, TV/film, and other fields. She and her research team have compiled a much debated “Alleged Pretendians” list of nearly 200 individuals, and she plans to calculate the financial return to them in their roles as public-facing Natives. You can go to her Twitter feed @jfkeeler for more information on the list. I’m not doing a fuller explanation and analysis of the list here, but rather touching on structural problems related to “pretendianism” and how those are reflected in debates surrounding the list.

Understanding Indigenous Claims and Connections, a webinar hosted by the Native American Journalists Association on June 10, 2021. [Added on June 15, 2021] Description:

This roundtable is intended to help non-Indigneous editors and producers understand the nuance and complexity of Indigenous connections to better examine Indigenous claims by sources and authors. Join moderator Gabe Galanda (Round Valley Indian Tribes), attorney at Galanda Broadman, to hear expert Indigenous perspectives on aspects of identity including citizenship, enrollment, descendancy, kinship, blood quantum, DNA testing, federal and state recognition, and fake tribes. The moderator will take questions from the audience.

The roundtable panelists include:

  • Twila Barnes (Cherokee Nation), Genealogist specializing in Cherokee genealogy and author of the “Thoughts from Polly’s Granddaughter” blog.
  • Deb Krol (Xolon Salinan Tribe), Indigenous affairs reporter for The Arizona Republic, and award-winning journalist with an emphasis on Native, environmental and science issues, and travel.
  • Kim TallBear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate), Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience and Environment, Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta. She is the author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science.

We are not your dead ancestors: Playing Indian and white possession by Kim TallBear on June 14, 2021 at Unsettle. [Added on June 15, 2021].

Collective Indigenous Scholars' Statement on Identity and Institutional Accountability on June 14, 2021, on Google docs. [Added on June 15, 2021; on Dec 18, 2021 a new link was provided, to the document that is housed at the Internet Archive].

Allegations of 'Playing' Indigenous by Colleen Flaherty on June 15, 2021 at Inside Higher Ed includes links to statements issued by leading Native entities (professional associations). [Added on June 15, 2021]

Indigenous Identity Fraud at Warrior Life Podcast, on November 22, 2021. Warrior Life is hosted by Pam Palmater; guests for the episode are Dr. Winona Wheeler (Fisher River Cree Nation), Dr. Kim TallBear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate), and Dr. Veldon Coburn (Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation). [Added on November 28, 2021].

How the Native American population in the US increased 87% says more about whiteness than about demographics by Circe Sturm on Dec 15, 2021, at The Conversation. [Added on Dec 18, 2021]

Unsettling Genealogies Conference: A Forum on Pseudo Indians, Race-Shifting, Pretendians, and Self-Indigenization in Media, Arts, Politics and the Academy, organized by Gordon Henry (White Earth). Conference spanned several weeks, online, in 2021. The first panel is available to view on Youtube (link is at the site) and others will be added for the other panels. [Added on April 15, 2022]

Odanak First Nation denounces VT-state recognized Abenaki tribes as 'Pretendian' by Elodie Reed, Mitch Wertlieb, and Karen Anderson at Vermont Public Radio on May 5, 2022 is good summary of "Beyond Borders: Unheard Abenaki Voices from the Odanak First Nation" [Added on May 11, 2022]

Beyond Borders: Unheard Abenaki Voices from the Odanak First Nation - full video (approximately 4 hours) of event posted to Youtube on May 12, 2022 includes Opening Songs, Welcomes, "The Past" panel, "The Present" panel, Closing Comments, and an Honor Song. [Added on May 12, 2022]

Letter from Rick O'Bomsawin, Chief of the Abenaki Council of Odanak, to Phil Scott, Governor of Vermont, requesting a meeting to discuss Vermont recognition of groups that Vermont recognizes as being nations. Letter is dated September 6, 2022. [Added on October 3, 2022]

Odanak First Nation's Mali Obomsawin tells Indigenous stories through music by David Hess at Vermont Public Radio includes conversation with Obomsawin about groups in Vermont that claim to be Native. Broadcast is dated September 8, 2022. [Added on October 3, 2022]

Abenaki Nation in Quebec says tribes bearing its names in Vermont should not be recognized by Tom Fennario at APTN National News on September 12, 2022. [Added on October 3, 2022]

Indigenous Identity Fraud: A Report for the University of Saskatchewan by Jean Teillet, IPC, OMN, MSC, dated October 17, 2022. [Added on December 11, 2022]

Indigenous Identity: the Impact of Pretendians in the Academy, a roundtable at the University of Saskatchewan on December 2, 2022. [Added on December 11, 2022]

Yellow Medicine Review, Fall 2022 issue includes several items about claims to Native identity. I've read two so far. "American Indian Identities: Comment on Issues of Individual Choices and Development, Part Two" by Devon Mihesuah is about the claims in universities. And "To Marie Cruz, who called herself Sacheen Littlefeather and who is not my elder" is by Cedar Sherbert. His open letter draws a sharp contrast between the life of Cruz and the lives of actual Native people. The cover is shown below. Inside you'll find Arigon Starr's "Cover Artist's Statement" and I encourage you to read Gordon Henry's intro to the issue where he writes about her cover art. [Added on Feb 11, 2023]

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