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Indian Wannabes

In Z Magazine, December 1990, Janet McCloud (Tulalip) explained the basic problem with wannabes:

First they came to take our land and water, then our fish and game....Now they want our religions as well. All of a sudden, we have a lot of unscrupulous idiots running around saying they're medicine people. And they'll sell you a sweat lodge ceremony for fifty bucks. It's not only wrong, its obscene. Indians don't sell their spirituality to anybody, for any price. This is just another in a very long series of thefts from Indian people and, in some ways, this is the worst one yet.

In his book Red Earth, White Lies, Vine Deloria, Jr. discussed why Americans wish they could be Indians:

They are discontented with their society, their government, their religion, and everything around them and nothing is more appealing than to cast aside all inhibitions and stride back into the wilderness, or at least a wilderness theme park, seeking the nobility of the wily savage who once physically fought civilization and now, symbolically at least, is prepared to do it again.

A passage from Ward Churchill's book Indians Are Us? explains why this make-believe isn't just harmless fun:

Native American societies can and do suffer the socioculturally debilitating effects of spiritual trivialization and appropriation at the hands of the massive larger Euro-immigrant population which has come to dominate literally every other aspect of our existence. As Margo Thunderbird, an activist of the Shinnecock Nation, has put it: "They came for our land, for what grew or could be grown on it, for the resources in it, and for our clean air and pure water. They stole these things from us, and in the taking they also stole our free ways and the best of our leaders, killed in battle or assassinated. And now, after all that, they've come for the very last of our possessions; now they want our pride, our history, our spiritual traditions. They want to rewrite and remake these things, to claim them for themselves. The lies and thefts just never end." Or, as the Oneida scholar Pam Colorado frames the matter:

The process is ultimately intended to supplant Indians, even in areas of their own culture and spirituality. In the end, non-Indians will have complete power to define what is and what is not Indian, even for Indians. We are talking here about a complete ideological/conceptual subordination of Indian people in addition to the total physical subordination they already experience. When this happens, the last vestiges of real Indian society and Indian rights will disappear. Non-Indians will then claim to "own" our heritage and ideas as thoroughly as they now claim to own our land and resources.

Comment:  The above applies not only to non-Indians who appropriate Indian ceremonies and beliefs, but also to non-Indians who simply dress up and act like Indians. By making "us" into "them," we blur the real distinctions. Playing Indian does not make someone an Indian the way it may make someone a cowboy.

The "Indian princess" phenomenon
From Custer Died for Your Sins by Vine Deloria Jr.:

The early colonists, accustomed to life under benevolent despots, projected their understanding of the European political structure onto the Indian tribe in trying to explain its political and social structure. European royal houses were closed to ex-convicts and indentured servants, so the colonists made all Indian maidens princesses, then proceeded to climb a social ladder of their own creation. Within the next generation, if the trend continues, a large portion of the American population will eventually be related to Powhattan.

While a real Indian grandmother is probably the nicest thing that could happen to a child, why is a remote Indian princess grandmother so necessary for many whites? Is it because they are afraid of being classed as foreigners? Do they need some blood tie with the frontier and its dangers in order to experience what it means to be an American? Or is it an attempt to avoid facing the guilt they bear for the treatment of the Indian?

Wannabes and imitators in the Stereotype of the Month contest
Juliette Lewis plays Indian
Scam:  Kaweah "tribe" sells memberships to illegal immigrants
Ex-"Cherokee" heading W. Va. Monacans seeks recognition
"Eskimos" ride horses, "Navajos" paddle canoes at kid camp
Zack and Cody dress as Plains Indians for Boston Tea Party
Kids make tomahawks and throw them at Mass. Indian fair
"White Buffalo" of "The People's Nation" claims dead hawks
N.C. shopkeeper Eagle claims to be "ordained shaman," chief
Palestinians dress like faux Indians to protest Israeli oppression
Students taught that Indian means chief, warrior, teepee, pony
Not Enough Indians:  Town becomes "tribe" to open casino
Student is elected "Chief Sun Slayer" to sell land for wampum
Online company sells bogus Indian costumes, weapons, wigs
Ind. 4th-graders study Indians by dressing up, painting faces
Children dress up as Indians to celebrate Columbus's arrival
Sikh "faith healer" makes sun-dance dresses, crystal necklaces
MTV "Wild Boyz" dress as faux Indians, ride buffaloes, chant
Fla. fiesta goers don feathers, face paint to honor Indian killer
YouTube videos show models with feathers, face paint, bones
Website tells kids how to construct an Indian headdress
Card shows chief admiring Little Miss Sunbeam as Indian
Costume company sells "Indian princess" dress with spear
German "hobby Indians" say today's Indians aren't real
OutKast dances in fringed, feathered outfits at Grammys
"Wolf Clan" seeks county "recognition" to develop village
"Lady Hawk" teaches shamanism with drumming, totems
Students wear crowns of feathers, sing Pocahontas songs
Boy Scouts in "Order of the Arrow" dress up as Indians
3 Wishes Lingerie features Naughty Navajo, Sexy Chief
Dior fashions inspired by Natives consist of hats, furs
Professor teaches Blackfeet culture by playing dress-up
Facemaker Inc. sells badly caricatured Indian costumes
Idaho businessmen wear headdresses to "honor" Indians
Website costumes people as Sitting Bull and Pocahontas
Belgian New-Agers conduct "sweatlodge" in "igloo"
Green Nations gathering conducts "purification lodges"
Orthodox Wannabe League considers themselves Indian
Baby-product firm dresses tots in buckskins and war paint
Wal-Mart sells regalia patterns as Halloween costumes
Online stores sell Indian "warrior," "princess" costumes
Nugent dons an "Indian" headdress and shoots a "buffalo"
Mardi Gras:  "To be an Indian is a very special calling"

More on Indian wannabes
If Only I Were Indian
White Shamans at film fest
The hobby of being Indian
No peace for White Eagle
Sequoyah not a real Cherokee?
Another fraud like Churchill?
AhNiYvWiYa Inc.
Cherokee blood isn't necessary
Phony Indians "honor" real Indians
Which Cherokees are legit?
No honor among wannabes
Are you a reeeeeeal "part" Injun?
Non-Natives who claim expertise
Germans pretend to be Indians
Traditions of the "Apache shaman"
Learning shamanism in college?
Cherokee vs. Cherokee vs. Cherokee vs. Cherokee
The Smoki Museum
Faux Indian supports faux Indian
Medicine man heals New Yorkers
Tribe or no tribe?
Box-checkers in academia
Imitation isn't flattery
Real Cherokees tackle wannabes
Gerald Ford and Michigamua
Gerald Ford's secret society
Ford stereotyped Native people
Tricking or treating Indians
YMCA Indian Guides

More on "playing Indian"
White Americans Play "Indian," Professor Says
Playing Indian—Philip Deloria

Related links
"McIndian" Night
WASPs in kelp headdresses

Readers respond
"The current tribal 'chief' or 'chairman' was quoted...as stating 'one would think that to be a member of an Indian tribe, one would have to possess Indian blood.'"
Being Indian "is an almost-instinctive ability, sort of a genetic racial memory."

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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