‘Pretendians’: Elizabeth Warren not alone in making questionable claim to Native American heritage

‘Pretendians’: Elizabeth Warren not alone in making questionable claim to Native American heritage

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During an event at the White House honoring Native American World War II veterans, President Trump referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren as ‘Pocahontas.’ Sarah Huckabee Sanders later said it’s not a racial slur. USA TODAY

PHOENIX — After President Trump mockingly called Sen. Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” at a Navajo Code Talkers event this week, layers of outrage swept Native American communities.

Navajos and others in Arizona denounced the remark as an unmistakable slur, saying it minimized the tragedies that marked the real Pocahontas’ life while distracting from the veteran Code Talkers’ contributions. 

They also skewered the tone-deaf backdrop for the comment: a portrait of former president Andrew Jackson, who earned the nickname “Indian killer” on reservations for his deadly policies. 

But the debacle also revived Warren’s controversial Native American ancestry claims, “something we deemed a problem a long time ago,” according to Native American-issues advocate Amanda Blackhorse. 

Warren — a Massachusetts Democrat who claimed Cherokee and Delaware tribal heritage based on family lore — isn’t the first person to make questionable claims of Native American ancestry.

The term “Pretendians” was coined to mock those who engage in the practice, from Johnny Cash and Miley Cyrus to Bill Clinton and Johnny Depp.

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In 2015, a full 68% of people who identified as multiracial in a national Pew Research Center study said they were part American Indian.

“There’s this sort of fantasy or ideal type of Native people want to be, based on what they see in Hollywood,” said Blackhorse, a Navajo Nation member who lives in Phoenix. “When it comes to our land issues, to our water rights, to the constant battle we have to face every single day, where are these people that claim to be Native?”

A persistent pattern

Tiya Miles, a University of Michigan professor specializing in Native American, Afro-American and African studies, said the U.S. “has a long tradition of non-Native people performing as ‘Indians’ and/or publicly laying claim to American Indian identities, especially in the aftermath of dispossessing actual indigenous people of their lands.”

False claims of Native American ancestry date back at least 120 years, when a federal commission required Native Americans to register on the Dawes Rolls as part of a land-allotment plan.

“Mainly white men with an appetite for land” saw the Dawes Rolls as an opportunity, according to a report by Indian Country Today. They paid $5 each for fake documents declaring them Native American on the rolls “to reap the benefits that came with having Indian blood.”

In 1971, an iconic “Keep America Beautiful” ad featured Iron Eyes Cody as a Native American lamenting the destruction of his land. The actor claimed Native American heritage and took on Native American roles in hundreds of films before being exposed as Espera Oscar de Corti, a Sicilian-American with zero Native ancestry. 

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In 1976, the novel “The Education of Little Tree” debuted as a memoir based on Cherokee author Forrest Carter’s childhood in the mountains. Forrest Carter was later revealed as Asa Earl Carter, a former Ku Klux Klan leader with no Cherokee background.

Dubious declarations of Cherokee heritage persist today, particularly in the southeastern part of the country. At one point, the Cherokee Nation created a task force to address rampant false ancestry claims.

Though Cherokee people did interact with and marry white settlers more often than members of other nations — in addition to holding black slaves, who were granted Cherokee Nation citizenship after the Civil War — experts say the number of supposed Cherokee descendants seems unlikely. 

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The Tohono O’odham Nation’s traditional land straddles the U.S.-Mexico border, which divides the tribe physically and spiritually. A USA TODAY NETWORK video production.

Why fake it? 

Native American-ancestry claims might arise from a genuine desire to learn about one’s heritage, or stem from an oversimplified view of what it means to be Native American.

“The romanticization of American Indians, including stereotypical ideas about royalty and savage nobility, is a longstanding American cultural practice,” said Miles, the professor.

When early literature didn’t paint Native Americans as “savages,” it depicted them as free-spirited and almost magical — concepts reinforced by Disney’s version of the Pocahontas story.

“Some Americans today might still feel the desire, consciously or unconsciously, to capture a piece of that romance,” Miles said.

Another explanation involves not wanting to “be on the side of the oppressor,” according to writer Anna Pulley, who is half white and half Tewa.

Given the atrocities committed against Native Americans by Europeans and later the U.S. government, “ethnically aligning oneself with a historically oppressed people makes one feel less guilty,” Pulley wrote last year.

Others have charged that those who declare Native American heritage are trying to advance via opportunities given to minority applicants.

“Someone I know recently told me he just found out he was part Seminole,” said Mary Kim Titla, executive director of United National Indian Tribal Youth Inc. “There is no proof of it. There is just a family story of an ancestor who married a Seminole woman.”

Such a claim “becomes problematic when someone uses it to benefit his or herself in some way, when applying for a job or running for office,” said Titla, who is San Carlos Apache.

In 2012, Warren’s Republican opponent, Scott Brown, accused Warren of using her background to get hired at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Benefits without costs

Brown’s allegations haven’t been verified, and Warren’s heritage claims haven’t been disproved. But there’s truth behind the idea that white people who falsely claim Native American origins might obtain aid they have no right to.

Beyond scholarship and job opportunities, enrolled tribal members are eligible for health care, housing and casino profits. Descendants of the white settlers who paid for fraudulent inclusion on the Dawes Rolls could access those benefits.

At the same time, white people claiming small amounts of “Native blood” don’t have to endure the social costs associated with looking Native American.

In 1979, sociologist Herbert Gans introduced the term “symbolic ethnicity” to describe claiming the feel-good parts of a culture without fully participating in that culture and its downsides.

“Someone that doesn’t actually have Native ancestry hasn’t lived the life of turmoil and struggle that we have,” said Chandler resident Jared Yazzie, a Navajo fashion designer.

“If you came up in the Native community or with that skin color, you definitely experienced things in a different way. We need to be able to speak for ourselves.”

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