Cultural Theft: People Pretending To Be American Indian
Pretendians: Pretending at being Indian
Being new to the internet in the 90’s, I happened upon a new-age type of online discussion group. This particular group is gone now, but back then it was a group of (mostly) women pretending to be American Indians practicing what they believed was American Indian spirituality….on the internet. Pretendians would have been a suitable moniker for them since the members professed to have obscure or no tribal bloodlines while claiming to be Native-at-heart. For them, being Native-at-heart meant that no tribal lineage was required to feel the calling of American Indian spiritual ways. Allegedly a lot of Indian Spirits were calling non-Native people to become Indian! As such, they chose romanticized Hollywood type "Indian" names such as Little Wolf, Dancing Bear or Morning Star. The members referred to their moderator affectionately as Buffy- short for her screen name of Buffalo Woman. Having no real life photos of themselves as avatars, they almost always chose internet images of scantily clad women petting wild animals.
The topics included every new age concept from "choosing your true Indian name" to "let’s learn how to find your animal guide or animal totem". Some topics evolved into some of the spiritual ceremonies that true Indians have been taught by the Elders as things we don't talk about in public settings, and particularly not online. Their particular brand of "spiritual soup"—concocted by tossing a good helping of stereotypical pan-Indian trifles, a sprinkling of Cherokee traditions, a half cup of Lakota ceremony (as detailed in several books and internet sites), and maybe some Celtic and Wiccan teachings tossed into the mix—cooked up to be a frightening new-age indigestion. This type of spiritual blending stands out like an enormous sore thumb to those who recognize pieces of their own authentic cultures.
Initially, they seemed like a wonderfully welcoming group. New members were welcomed into the fray with open arms, and encouraged to begin their soul searching within their discussion topics. Most entries ended with the usual phrases such as Love and Light, Blessed Be, and Peace and Harmony. Sarcastic humor is a common thread among many Native people, and a few of my friends would joke about the "Peas and Hominy" or how they stood for “whirled peas”. The distortions of their culture inevitably incensed many tribal folk, and humor was a type of therapy to deal with generations of cultural theft.
The way of the Indian is my birthright!
When Indigenous visitors asked the members to name their tribal affiliation, or specify whose traditions they were teaching, their peaceful and loving nature would suddenly metamorphose. What happens when a wild animal is backed into a corner? They usually come out snarling and ready to attack. This group was just like a cornered animal when put on the defensive.
The pretendian group seemed to have a really hard time when those with strong tribal ties would question them. Defensive measures typically started in a fervent assertion that "This is MY path and you have no right to tell me what I can or cannot practice spiritually!" With an idiotic sense of entitlement he/she would proclaim, "It doesn't matter if I am Indian or not- the way of the Indian is my birthright."
Discussions often developed into heated debates, and the group owner became protective of her snarling brood. Comments from the tribal-enrolled Indians would be deleted, their screen names banned from the site, due to the fact that "they were disrespectful to us." How can people be so blind in their own hypocrisy of wanting so badly to be Indian, yet so quick to eliminate the people who ARE Indian? I’m still shaking my head on that one.
A Real Life Insta-Indian
This scenario also happens in real life in nearly identical ways. I have seen non-Indian people who wanted so badly to be accepted as a Native person, join the local Native American organization to help out. Soon, their helping led to decision-making roles. As the leadership of the organization began to look less Indian and more like another white organization, many of the tribal-affiliated individuals left the group. The “pretend Indian” group then used their position to validate their (instant) Indian identity to the larger Indian community. Anyone who questioned that identity was called out for discrimination and called "Apples" (a derogatory term often used to say that a Native person is red on the outside and white on the inside). I've seen people who claim no tribal lineage one year ("not one drop", they'd say), suddenly claim a tribe the next year. There are cases in which a tribal member has "adopted" someone of European descent (nothing legal, but involves a ceremony); however this does not mean the adoptee is now a tribal member as some have claimed.
What is the harm in genocide and racism?
A friend once commented, "What is the harm if people want to pretend to be Indian? Who cares, just let them." To the casual observer, it may not seem like something worth complaining about. After all, unless they are enrolled in a tribe, they do not qualify for any tribal benefits (Don't even get me started on all of the monetary possibilities that go way beyond tribal benefits!) This issue is much more complicated and far-reaching than that.
A closer inspection reveals many various facets of social justice issues. One issue, mentioned earlier, is in allowing non-Indian people control of Indian organizations, which ultimately alienates Native people who are not interested in serving another white-majority group.
There is a common pretendian mindset- thinking they know more about Native culture than those who've lived it since they were born. The snowball effect begins when other social and educational groups seek out the fake organization as a reliable source of information in cultural traditions, ceremonies, teachings and other hot topics. Sadly for society, many of these posers talk a good talk, and easily make it sound like they know what they're talking about (as good manipulators do), and most ignorant folk accept the new information as fact.
At some point much of this misinformation gets around to those who don’t know fact from fiction. Going back to the person who thinks they know more about the culture than a Native person, imagine how foolish will they be when they tell the Indian guy he's doing it all wrong!
It's like the hobbyist powwows, where everyone is white and wearing the most expensive regalia money can buy (whereas Native people MAKE their regalia or someone gifts it to them). Sadly, the hobbyist believes they are doing everything right, and that they are being respectful or honoring Native people. In this end, ceremonies and cultural traditions are distorted and become a mockery. It's the last precept of genoside: take our land, take our resources, and take our culture. Trivialize it until it has no meaning.
The tragedy is the continued genocide, appropriation and distortion of a marginalized people's land, resources and culture! The irony of non-Native people taking ceremonies and traditions for themselves, is that until the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, it was illegal for tribes to practice their own ceremonies!
There are many more points to make on this, and if you are interested please check out the links following this article. Or google the words cultural theft or cultural appropriation to find oodles more.
Books that discuss cultural theft
The Native-at-heart group would often ask, "Why can't we all just get along?" Some believe that the issues of identity—who is Native and who is not, who can be enrolled in a tribe and who cannot—was made up by the government as a method to "divide and conquer". This issue is much bigger than "getting along" and it isn't about one Indian disagreeing with another. The bottom line is that cultural theft and identity theft is just another way to TAKE from Indigenous people again and again. Additionally, many different types of resources are given to these fakes, such as scholarships, grants, sponsorships, etc. Look closely to see just how many non-Native people are acquiring resources that were meant for our First Nation people.
Cultural theft has been a widespread issue for a long time. People are finally becoming proactive about it, and it is worth noting what is being said. In fact, it is such a big topic nationally that the University of Michigan hosted the first American Indian Identity Conference during the week of October 15-19, 2008.
In the news, we're seeing reports of people who say they are the "Chief" from a newly created tribe, while earning $30,000 a day by selling "dual-citizenship" in such tribes. Whoa, that's ludicrous! But that's not all- these people perpetuate other cultural theft issues such as medicine men who have no tribal affiliation, selling sweat lodge ceremonies for $9000/person, violations of the Indian crafts law such as dream-catchers made in China, spiritual traditions sold as books, hobbyist powwows, pan-indianism, etc.
“But don’t you have more important issues to deal with, like alcoholism, diabetes, crime on the reservations, etc.?” This question is inevitably asked every time a Native person condemns a social injustice against them. What many people do not understand is that all of these issues are connected. Each one affects another. The role of an activist is to educate, which hopefully will lead to changing the way we think about social issues like these.
Spirituality is NOT something you BUY
Please, do NOT EVER pay money to go to a sweat lodge. Those who charge money for spiritual ceremonies are exploiting and making a mockery of those who NEED those ceremonies as their way of life (aka the Tribal People whose culture it is). Fake shamans do NOT understand the true nature of sweat ceremonies and must be accountable for the countless and irresponsible deaths of their customers.
Seeking Native American Spirituality: Read This First!
- Seeking Native American Spirituality and Traditional Religion: Read This First!
A word to the wise for non-Indians in search of Native American religions and spirituality. Explains the differences between traditional American Indian belief and European paganism, Russian shamanism, and the New Age.
New Age Frauds and Plastic Shamans
- New Age Frauds & Plastic Shamans
A group that seeks to expose fraudulent shamans and exploiters of Native American culture
Books to Avoid
Alice Dalgliesh, The Courage of Sarah Noble. New York: Macmillan (1954, 1991)
Ann Rinaldi, My Heart Is On the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl. Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania, 1880. New York: Scholastic (1999)
The Indian in the Cupboard and The Return of the Indian. Both use stereotypical imagery including broken speech: "I help. . . I go. . . Big hole. I go through. . . Want fire. Want make dance. Call spirits."
The Education of Little Tree -- written under the pseudonym, Forrest Carter who claimed to be an orphaned Cherokee. In reality, the author was Earl Carter, a former member of the KKK and speechwriter for George Wallace.
Susan Jeffers, Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, Illustrated by the author. New York: Dial (1991).
Ann Turner, The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita, a Navajo Girl. New Mexico, 1864. New York: Scholastic (1999), Dear America Series
Albert Marrin, Sitting Bull and His World. New York: Dutton (2000)
Elizabeth George Speare, The Sign of the Beaver. New York: Dell (1983)
Michael L. Cooper, Indian School: Teaching the White Man's Way. New York: Clarion (1999).
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