March 28, 2005
The incidence of fake Indians is almost epidemic
JOHN J. MILLER
In his book The Education of Little Tree, Forrest Carter tells the tender tale of becoming an orphan and growing up in the Appalachian boondocks under the careful watch of his Cherokee grandparents. The book is full of sweet lessons about the importance of family and the need to live in harmony with nature. There’s quite a backstory to it as well. First published in 1976, The Education of Little Tree received warm reviews and garnered a cult following, but wasn’t a commercial hit. Ten years later, the University of New Mexico Press bought the rights to it for just $500.
That purchase ranks as one of the publishing industry’s most lucrative coups: The Education of Little Tree has since sold hundreds of thousands of copies. “The values as well as the prose touched many who didn’t usually read,” wrote Prof. Rennard Strickland in a foreword to the original paperback edition. “Students of Native American life discovered the book to be as accurate as it was mystical and romantic.” On June 23, 1991, the book debuted on the New York Times bestseller list for paperback nonfiction. It remained there throughout the summer and well into the fall, eventually rising to the top position. Then, on November 10, it vanished — and reappeared on the bestseller list for paperback fiction.
That’s because it had been exposed as a fraud. Forrest Carter was really Asa Carter, a white supremacist who had written speeches for Alabama governor George Wallace in the 1960s. Wallace’s viciously memorable line — “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” — probably came from Carter’s pen. Carter, who died in 1979, was a forerunner to such fabulists as Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair. He was no Indian and his famous book was no memoir.
Carter was one of the more spectacular examples of a white person trying to come off as an Indian. There is a long history of this make-believe behavior, going back at least as far as the Boston Tea Party. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the emergence of fraternal orders and other organizations that aped Indian identities. Yet nobody seriously believed the Campfire Girls were the authentic daughters of Sitting Bull. That’s not the case with some of the most recent forms of real Indian bull, as Carter and The Education of Little Tree demonstrate. “It’s an epidemic,” complains Vernon Bellecourt of the American Indian Movement. “These people are culture vultures, and their motive is to make money.”
Between 1960 and 2000, the number of Americans claiming Indian ancestry on their census forms jumped by a factor of six. Neither birthrates nor counting methodologies can account for this explosive growth. Instead, the phenomenon arises in large part from the increasingly idealistic place Indians occupy in the popular imagination. Much of it is based on harmless sentiment mixed into a hash of unverifiable family legends and wishful thinking among folks who hang dreamcatchers from their rearview mirrors. But for a distinct subset, it’s all about personal profit. They’re professional imposters who have built entire careers by putting the sham into shaman.
The most famous of these pretenders is probably Iron Eyes Cody, the actor who starred in those Keep America Beautiful television ads during the 1970s. It turns out that the tear — actually glycerin — trickling down his sad face wasn’t his only deception. Iron Eyes Cody was born Espera DeCorti, the son of Italian immigrants. His black hair and bronze skin apparently came from his mother’s Sicilian side. Although many Indians who met him harbored doubts about his true identity, Iron Eyes turned his trickery into a successful career in Hollywood. He performed as an Indian in more than a hundred films, all the while insisting that his father was Cherokee and his mother Cree. His published autobiography is a pack of lies. The full truth came out only after his death in 1999.
The latest phony Indian to be unmasked is Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado professor who recently ruffled feathers for calling the victims of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center “little Eichmanns” whose massacre was a “penalty befitting their participation in” global capitalism. Churchill is an all-too-predictable product of the modern academy. He is a tenured “ethnic studies” specialist, but he does not hold a doctorate in anything, and his scholarship, if it can be called that, is riddled with errors and left-wing posturing. The man is a buffoon.
Churchill can get away with so few credentials and such a heap of sloppiness because he claims to speak on behalf of a disenfranchised minority. The basis for this assertion rests on Churchill’s ancestry, which he has variously described as three-sixteenths Cherokee and one-sixteenth Cree. Yet he has never provided any documentary evidence on his background, which Indians commonly do to prove their status within a tribe. He did gain membership to the Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in 1994, but it was an associate membership that was temporarily available to people who aren’t in fact Indian. (Bill Clinton, who has said that his grandmother’s grandmother was a Cherokee, is also an honorary member of the Keetoowah.)
“You can spot these phony baloneys across the continent,” says Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee who first met Churchill about 15 years ago. “Right away, I could tell he was a faker because he refused to talk about his family.”
Churchill served in Vietnam — he has boasted about going on dangerous jungle missions, but Army records indicate that he mostly drove trucks — and at the time he listed himself as “Caucasian.” He switched this to “American Indian” in 1978, when he filled out an affirmative-action form as part of his application to become a lecturer in Native American studies at Colorado. He has maintained this identity ever since, though the only corroboration he can offer — apart from his obvious fondness for the long-hair-and-dark-sunglasses look of a reservation activist — is his own word.
A less extravagant but more common fraud than masquerading as an “ethnic studies” expert involves the marketing of non-Indian arts and crafts as “Indian-made.” The problem became so pervasive that Congress toughened truth-in-advertising laws against it in 1990. Businesses caught violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act face penalties up to $1 million. That’s peanuts to the gambling industry, of course, and the fast growth of tribal casinos has prompted many Americans to embark on genealogical hunting expeditions. The enormous Foxwoods casino in Connecticut, for example, was built by a small band of people who didn’t normally refer to themselves as Pequot Indians until they realized a tribal identity was their ticket to gambling riches.
For others, Indian ancestry is a gateway to government set-aside programs. A public-works contractor in California managed to qualify as a disadvantaged businessman because a great-great-grandparent’s contribution to the family gene pool had made him 1/64th Indian.
One of the most common forms of exploitation involves white writers who don’t pretend to be Indians themselves but who claim special insights into Indian spirituality. In 1968, Carlos Castaneda, a UCLA graduate student in anthropology, published The Teachings of Don Juan, which was allegedly based on his clandestine visits with a reclusive Yaqui sorcerer in the Sonoran desert. The book purports to describe the mystical secrets of an ancient Indian faith, which happened to involve using a lot of hallucinogenic drugs. Castaneda’s ramblings were in tune with the turn-on, drop-out times. His book became an international bestseller. Castaneda spent the next three decades refusing interviews and issuing sequels based on his supposed encounters with a man nobody else ever met. He died in 1998.
Another bestselling author, Lynn Andrews, has been dubbed “the female Carlos Castaneda,” and it wasn’t meant as an insult. Her first book, Medicine Woman, described a journey into the far reaches of Manitoba, where she met a pair of female sages. Then she returned home to Beverly Hills and has spent the rest of her life peddling New Age gobbledygook in subsequent books, through online courses, and at Hawaiian retreats. She is just a small part of a cottage industry that offers sweat-lodge “purification ceremonies” and tour-guided “rites of passage” in the wilderness. In 1993, the National Congress of American Indians became so frustrated by all these perversions of authentic religious traditions that it issued a “declaration of war” against “non-Indian ‘wanna-bes,’ hucksters, cultists, commercial profiteers, and self-styled New Age shamans.”
Nobody likes a con artist, and it isn’t difficult to find harsh critics of white people who “play Indian” for personal gain. One of their most scathing detractors has labeled Castaneda “the greatest hoax since Piltdown Man,” called Andrews “an air-head ‘feminist’ yuppie,” and branded Ruth Beebe Hill’s Hanta Yo — yet another book of doubtful legitimacy — a “ludicrous performance.” Taken together, these charlatans have “made a significant recent contribution (for profit) to the misrepresentation and appropriation of indigenous spirituality.” What’s more, they’ve “been tendered some measure of credibility by the ‘certified scholars’ of American universities.”
But that’s not all. By impersonating Indians and making them look like fools, these imposters are guilty of “cultural genocide.”
That would seem to make them little Eichmanns, too. The author of these words? Ward Churchill.