Playing Indian

pretendian (portmanteau of pretend and Indian) is a person who has falsely claimed Indigenous identity by claiming to be a citizen of a Native American or Indigenous Canadian tribal nation, or to be descended from Native ancestors. The term is a pejorative colloquialism, and if used without evidence could be considered defamatory.

As a practice, being a pretendian is considered an extreme form of cultural appropriation, especially if that individual then asserts that they can represent, and speak for, communities they do not belong to. It is sometimes also referred to as a form of ethnic fraud or race shifting.

Historian Philip J. Deloria has noted that European Americans ‘playing Indian’ is a phenomenon that stretches back at least as far as the Boston Tea Party. In his 1998 book ‘Playing Indian,’ Deloria argues that white settlers have always played with stereotypical imagery of the peoples that were replaced during colonization, using these tropes to form a new national identity that can be seen as distinct from previous European identities.

Examples of white societies who have played Indian include, according to Deloria, the Improved Order of Red Men, Tammany Hall, and scouting societies like the Order of the Arrow. Individuals who made careers out of pretending an Indigenous identity include James Beckwourth, Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, and Grey Owl. The academic Joel W. Martin noted that ‘an astonishing number of southerners assert they have a grandmother or great-grandmother who was some kind of Cherokee, often a princess,’ and that such myths serve settler purposes in aligning American frontier romance with southern regionalism and pride.

The rise of pretendian identities post-1960s can be explained by a number of factors. The reestablishment and exercise of tribal sovereignty among tribal nations (following the era of Indian termination policy) meant that many individuals raised away from tribal communities sought, and still seek, to reestablish their status as tribal citizens or to recover connections to tribal traditions. Other tribal citizens, who had been raised in American Indian boarding schools under genocidal policies designed to erase their cultural identity, also revived tribal religious and cultural practices.

In the years following the Occupation of Alcatraz, the formation of Native American studies as a distinct form of area studies, and the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction to Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday, publishing programs and university departments began to be established specifically for or about Native American culture. Hippie and New Age cultures marketed Native cultures as accessible, spiritual, and as a form of resistance to mainstream culture, leading to the rise of the plastic shaman or ‘culture vulture.’ All of this added up to a culture that was not inclined to disbelieve self-identification, and a wider societal impulse to claim Indigeneity.

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn wrote of the influence of pretendians in academia and political positions: ‘[U]nscrupulous scholars in the discipline who had no stake in Native nationhood but who had achieved status in academia and held on to it through fraudulent claims to lndian Nation heritage and blood directed the discourse. This phenomenon took place following the ‘lndian Preference’ regulations in new hiring practices at the Bureau of lndian Affairs in the early 1970s. Sometimes unprepared for such outright aggression or suffering polarization from the conflicts in the system, Native scholars in the academy often seemed to be silent witnesses to such occurrences. Their silence has not meant complicity. It has meant, more than anything, a feeling of utter powerlessness within the structures of strong mainstream institutions.’

By 1990, as noted in ‘The New York Times Magazine,’ many years of ‘significant pushback by Native Americans against so-called Pretendians or Pretend Indians’ resulted in the successful passage of the ‘Indian Arts and Crafts Act’ of 1990 (IACA) – a truth-in-advertising law which prohibits misrepresentation in marketing of American Indian or Alaska Native arts and crafts products within the United States. The IACA makes it illegal for non-Natives to offer or display for sale, or sell, any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization. For a first time violation of the Act, an individual can face civil or criminal penalties up to a $250,000 fine or a five-year prison term, or both. If a business violates the Act, it can face civil penalties or can be prosecuted and fined up to $1,000,000.

United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo (Mvskoke) writes: ‘We … have had to contend with an onslaught of what we call ‘Pretendians,’ that is, non-Indigenous people assuming a Native identity. DNA tests are setting up other problems involving those who discover Native DNA [sic] in their bloodline. When individuals assert themselves as Native when they are not culturally Indigenous, and if they do not understand their tribal nation’s history or participate in their tribal nation’s society, who benefits? Not the people or communities of the identity being claimed. It is hard to see this as anything other than an individual’s capitalist claim, just another version of a colonial offense.’ While Harjo refers to ‘Native DNA,’ there is no DNA test that can reliably confirm Native American ancestry, and no DNA test can indicate tribal origin. Attempts by non-Natives to racialize Indigenous identity by DNA tests have been seen by Indigenous people as insensitive at best, often racist, politically and financially motivated, and dangerous to the survival of Indigenous cultures.

There are several possible explanations for why people adopt pretendian identities. Mnikȟówožu Lakota poet Trevino Brings Plenty writes: ‘To wear an underrepresented people’s skin is enticing. I get it: to feast on struggle, to explore imagined roots; to lay the foundational work for academic jobs and publishing opportunities.’ Historian Patrick Wolfe argues that the problem is more structural, stating that settler colonial ideology actively needs to erase and then reproduce Indigenous identity in order to create and justify claims to land and territory. Deloria also explores the white American dual fascination with ‘the vanishing Indian’ and the idea that, by ‘Playing Indian,’ the white man can then be the true inheritor and preserver of authentic American identity and connection to the land, aka ‘Indianness.’

In 2016, Senator Elizabeth Warren claimed Cherokee and Delaware ancestry. She attempted to support her claim by releasing a video with DNA analysis, but her DNA claims were rejected by the Cherokee Nation, with then Cherokee Nation Secretary of State, Chuck Hoskin Jr. (now Principal Chief of the Nation) stating in a press release in response, ‘Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong.’ Warren eventually expressed regret and apologized for ‘claiming American Indian heritage.’ The claim gained significant attention after being satirized by U.S. President Donald Trump, who has a long history of insulting Native Americans.

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