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The Pattern of Pretendianism
And the sort of nuanced analysis you can't have on Twitter
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Last month, on a long plane ride, I opened a browser tab with Michelle Cyca’s cover story for the latest issue of MacLean’s. The title of the piece was “The Curious Case of Gina Adams: A “Pretendian” Investigation.” I think I expected the piece to do what a lot of similar pieces have done: treat the subject’s identity claims as, well, a scam to unravel. There’s a car crash character to some of these pieces, particularly when, as is often the case, they’re written by and framed for white people.
But this piece was different, in so many compounding ways. Not only was the author, Michelle, Indigenous herself, she was also on staff at the university where Gina Adams had been hired as part of an overarching effort to recruit Indigenous faculty. What’s more: Michelle was on the communications staff, tasked with negotiating and negating any potential scandal that might arise from the hiring. It was Michelle’s job, in other words, to try and downplay the effects or import of a faculty hire’s false claims to Indigeneity.
Michelle eventually quit that job — and figured out a way to write not just about that experience, but the larger pattern of “Prentendians,” and the structures that both shield and, in a way, incentivize their scam. The way she tells the story is propulsive yet never salacious; the narrative and analysis gradually adds to its own power, and when, about two-thirds’ of the way through the piece, she writes that “by making Indigenous identity a qualification on a job description, institutions—including universities—have turned it into a credential. But credentials demand a degree of accountability, particularly when you’re talking about restricted opportunities meant for a designated group”…..I felt something, some understanding, unlock.
I don’t mean to suggest that I understood what it must feel like to be an Indigenous person negotiating their own identity amidst these claims — more that I understood why this phenomenon is so difficult to grapple with, why and how it springs from White supremacy, and why Twitter is the fucking worst place to talk about it. This feeling clarified last week, when I was halfway through putting together some questions for Michelle — and the San Francisco Chronicle published a piece by Jacqueline Keeler questioning the Indigenous claims of activist Sacheen Littlefeather, and the conversation on Twitter was just shit. Michelle emailed me, and said if we wanted to talk about that, too — on how that case had been reported and published and retweeted — she was prepared.
What follows is a detailed account of how Michelle came to understand this pattern of Pretendism — but it’s also a story of how she became a remarkable journalist. I can’t wait to see what she tackles next. Read on, and I’m certain you’ll agree.
How did you get interested in the things that you’re interested in, both as a writer and as a person? What was your path to here?
It’s only very recently that I’ve gotten (more) comfortable calling myself a journalist, because I didn’t go to journalism school or study writing. I have zero qualifications! I studied anthropology and then went to graduate school for public health, and spent the first decade of my career working on community health initiatives— mostly, trying to figure out how to communicate health information to the public in accessible, culturally appropriate, and engaging ways. I worked at a sexual health non-profit, a social marketing start-up, a cancer prevention research centre, and a government agency.
But on the side of all of those jobs, I was writing. I always loved to write— when I was 10 I wrote a “novel” called Murder at Kerrisdale Elementary!— but I didn’t think it was a viable career. My parents both grew up working class, in tough circumstances, and they managed to build a very secure middle-class life for their three kids, complete with piano lessons and science camps, thanks to their pursuit of higher education and unionized employment. They always encouraged my writing, and they saved every little story and poem I ever wrote, but I really internalized the idea that the most important thing to look for in a career was stability. Writing was just something I did in the evenings and on the weekends for a very long time.
Two things helped me make the leap to full-time freelance journalism. The first is that for several years, two friends and I co-published a magazine called SAD Mag, about our local arts and culture community. Working with so many writers was an incredible education, and it taught me one particularly invaluable lesson: almost any problem with a first draft can be fixed. The most important thing is just to get it on the page, and ideally to file it on time, so you and your editor can figure the rest out together. This helped me get over my anxiety of producing less-than-perfect first drafts and ideas, and while working on SAD I started pitching other outlets. A perk of writing as a side hobby and not as my primary source of income is that I could choose to only write about things I was really interested in: Indigenous issues, books, reproductive rights, roller skating.
The second catalyst was the pandemic. I spent most of 2020 and 2021 sensibly avoiding in-person gatherings, and spending all of my evenings at home meant I had more time than ever before to write. I would not recommend this to anyone— in retrospect I think I was avoiding my anxiety through hyper-productivity, which eventually burnt me out— but I got enough assignments and built enough relationships with editors and outlets that I realized I could actually make freelancing work. This came at the same moment when I was completely disillusioned with my job in university communications (for reasons detailed in the Maclean’s story), and genuinely felt like I could not continue to get up in the morning and write institutional missives that I didn’t believe in.
There’s a lot of privilege involved in making a decision like that, particularly in a city as insanely expensive as Vancouver. My husband and I have shared a house with my parents since 2019, which gives us an uncommon degree of housing and financial security. Journalism is an increasingly difficult profession for anyone to break into, particularly in major cities where the cost of living is prohibitive. So I know how lucky I am to have the circumstances to support this career shift.
Your recent cover story in Maclean’s focuses on the specific case of Gina Adams’ hiring at Emily Carr University — part of a concerted effort to hire more Indigenous faculty. Can you talk more about how you found yourself inside this story, and the process of reporting it? The level of difficulty on telling a story like this is just so high — and very personal. Did it feel cathartic? Essential? Interminable?
I wrote this story from an unusual perspective: I was an employee at Emily Carr when Gina Adams was hired, and when allegations were made that she had falsely claimed to be Ojibwe and Lakota. At the time, there was a Twitter account called NoMoreRedFace posting these incredibly detailed investigations into so-called Pretendians, and one day they posted a thread about Adams. I worked in communications, so part of my job was to control the narrative for Emily Carr’s benefit: minimize the issue, prepare to deflect difficult questions.
I was also responsible for writing a lot of statements proclaiming the university’s commitment to reconciliation and our allyship with Indigenous peoples. I think there’s a lot to be said about how spiritually alienating it is to be the “voice” of any institution, but being an Indigenous person in that particular position was truly soul-crushing. After a few weeks, it was clear that the risk of a media shitstorm had passed, and the university took that as tacit permission to pretend nothing had ever happened.
When I quit, I wanted to write about what had happened at Emily Carr— or, more specifically, what hadn’t happened. I felt like I had to— I couldn’t stop thinking about it. But I had never written a piece of investigative journalism, I’d only ever written one feature-length story, and I didn’t know where to start. Impulsively, I applied for a literary journalism residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts, which is a two-week, fully-funded program where journalists can work on a feature-length story and receive one-on-one mentorship from writing faculty.
It felt like a really big stretch— I had to google “literary journalism” to make sure I understood what I was applying to— but I thought that putting together a proposal by the deadline would at least help me think through the story. Getting into that program and working under Carol Shaben was one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me, and I really encourage other journalists to apply when the next cycle opens in 2023— it’s open to writers everywhere.
About a month before I left for Banff, I had a call with the editor-in-chief at Maclean’s, Sarah Fulford. I’d been writing back-of-book pieces for them for about a year, and Sarah asked if I had any feature stories I wanted to pitch. I started describing my Banff proposal and she immediately said yes to it, which was both thrilling and terrifying: now I actually had to figure out how to write it. I want to mention my friend Karen Pinchin, an incredible investigative journalist who also read through my first story proposal and helped me puzzle through some of the reporting challenges of this story— everything I have learned about journalism has come from the editors and fellow journalists that I’ve been lucky enough to know.
A lot of Pretendian stories are very sensational, for obvious reasons. No one can resist reading about a scam, and race-shifting stories tend to be especially wild. People who pretend to be Indigenous are pretty over-the-top about it. Carrie Bourassa claimed she had been given the spirit name “Morning Star Bear,” Adams claimed her Ojibwe ancestors spoke to her in dreams— it’s like Indian cosplay, just stereotypes all the way down. That’s worth calling out, but I also didn’t want to tell a story that was just about the bizarre spectacle of identity fraud, or one that framed it as an individual transgression. Because what I learned at Emily Carr, and what is obvious from every other Pretendian story, is that people are able to perpetuate their deception through leveraging the power and protection of institutions. That’s why they’re so hard to call out, and why they can evade consequences for so long. It’s not just someone sneaking into a university and taking a job that wasn’t meant for them; it’s that university choosing to look the other way for as long as they can get away with it.
I also genuinely wanted to help non-Indigenous people understand us better. When I brought my concerns to the leadership at Emily Carr, I realized they just did not get Indigenous identity: how it worked, what it meant, how it was more complex than race or biological ancestry. “Reconciliation” is everywhere right now, in Canada at least: organizations and institutions are trying to support Indigenous people through hiring, grants, opportunities, outreach. I don’t want to be entirely cynical; I think concrete efforts to compensate for generations of systemic oppression and marginalization are important.
But I also think those efforts are doomed to fail if they’re being led by people who don’t understand anything about the people or communities they’re trying to uplift, regardless of how good their intentions are. It was challenging to navigate my former relationship to Emily Carr, because I think a lot of people who still work there were hurt by the story; they perceived it as a betrayal. But at the end of the day, I felt like not writing the story would have meant choosing to protect the reputation of that institution over the community and students that it's meant to serve.
I talked to a lot of Indigenous people while reporting this piece— some connected with Emily Carr, some who had crossed paths with Gina Adams elsewhere, some who had encountered Indigenous identity frauds in other universities, or had worked on the issue. A lot of these conversations didn’t make it directly into the piece, but they informed my approach and my thinking; I wanted to know the way the issue of identity fraud impacted other Indigenous people, and ensure that I wasn’t just generalizing from my own experience. It was also important to me that the story did not do more harm to Indigenous people who had already been negatively affected.
A lot of folks I spoke with were understandably wary of being named in the piece, because they still relied on Emily Carr for their education, employment, reference letters... At some point I realized that the perspective anchoring the story had to be my own, because I couldn’t ask someone else to take on that risk. The most vulnerable part of writing the story was putting so much of myself in it. But I wanted people to understand that when someone pretends to be Indigenous— when they dress up in the tragedies of residential schools and colonialism and cultural disconnection— those are real traumas that Indigenous people live with, and it hurts to see someone put them on like a costume for profit.
Unsurprisingly, given everything I wanted to cram into this story, I arrived at Banff with a mountain of research, dozens of interviews, and a 10,000 word draft that sprawled in a lot of different directions. The literary journalism faculty members (Carol, Charlotte Gill and Michael Harris) helped me figure out the structure and focus the narrative, and with their help I worked through four drafts in two weeks, and sent it to Maclean’s in mid-July, the day I got home from Banff. From there, things moved really quickly: the story was published online about seven weeks later.
The speed was a relief, because I didn’t have too much time to be anxious about it; after thinking about it obsessively for months, I just wanted it to be out in the world. My editor, Sarah Fulford, was incredible and very supportive of helping me tell the story the way I wanted to, which was amazing. And I was so, so grateful to work with Ali Amad as the fact checker on the piece, who made sure every element of the story was air-tight. Fact checkers should get more glory! They’re incredible.
You write: “The relationships that constitute Indigenous identity have been deliberately fractured across generations, through residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, and the ongoing overrepresentation of Indigenous children in foster care. As a result, many Indigenous people don’t know where or who they come from, and they deserve respect and care as they navigate their journeys of reconnection. But finding one’s way back to a community is very different from using an identity claim as currency to buy one’s way into a prestigious job. And anyone in a position of power should be held to a high standard of transparency and truthfulness.”
I’ve been looking at the recent revelations about UC Berkeley professor Liz Hoover’s lack of tribal affiliation — and how her negligence of that high standard of transparency and truthfulness had very real effects on advisees and other Indigenous scholars. (There’s a collection of threads from one of Hoover’s former advisees here). I think of your experience, which you describe so vividly, with LE, NONET at the University of Victoria, and how that might have changed if someone had abused that responsibility for transparency and truthfulness as a leader within the program. I think some people think these questions of claims to identity are all about an individual, but the ramifications of claims, and false claims in particular, can be incredibly harmful. Why does this matter, far beyond the question of individual fraud? What are the larger stakes?
People do tend to zero in on the individual fraud because it’s so salacious, and it’s easy to read these stories as heists: someone has put on a disguise and stolen something meant for Indigenous people. But I’m more concerned about the systems and institutions that have incentivized these deceptions, which have perpetuated the framing of Indigenous identity as an individual quality rather than a set of relationships and responsibilities that are rooted in community. Because outing Pretendians one by one does nothing to address the underlying issues that have led us to this point of crisis. There have always been people who fantasized about being Indigenous. (Even Jessica Simpson’s memoir has a scene of her looking in the mirror at her cheekbones and fantasizing about a supposed Native ancestor! Girl, come on!)
The difference is that now they can capitalize on those claims and accrue power and influence because so many institutional structures (grant bodies, universities, museums, government agencies) want to acquire Indigenous people as symbols of their progressive commitments without understanding them, and without building relationships to Indigenous nations or communities. And as we’ve seen, it’s very difficult to hold those bodies to account; I haven’t seen any evidence that the universities who have been embarrassed by these scandals are doing anything to reconsider how they have turned Indigenous identity into a commodity for their own benefit. I really want people to look away from the individuals and focus their attention on the systems and structures of power that have brought us to this point, and hold them accountable too.
In terms of larger stakes, I think the group that is most directly harmed by race-shifting scandals are those Indigenous people who are trying to reconnect. Every time someone is revealed to have fabricated their Indigenous identity, it’s Indigenous people who face more scrutiny, particularly those who don’t have easy and straightforward answers about their identity— who come from families affected by the Sixties Scoop or the Indian Adoption Project, whose parents or grandparents lost their tribal status through assimilation policies, or who may have grown up not knowing their Indigenous parent. Black-Indigenous folks are particularly harmed by this atmosphere of suspicion, as anti-Black racism exists in Indigenous communities too, and many have been excluded from federal recognition of their Indigenous identity.
As Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers has written, Indigenous people are protective; they “want to avoid doing harm to those who have experienced the trauma of displacement.” Our spaces have historically been open to those who don’t know exactly where they come from or how to navigate their identities. Part of the role of the community has always been helping to repair the damage of colonialism by welcoming Indigenous people in and reassuring them that they belong. I worry that the atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia that is being cultivated by Pretendian discourse will erode that, shutting out Indigenous people who are trying to find their way back to their communities.
There’s also all the collateral damage of Indigenous people who have often known and worked for years alongside a fraud, whose own careers and livelihoods are damaged by the revelation, not to mention how profound that betrayal would feel on a personal level. While reporting this story, I spoke to one person who had learned that her graduate advisor was a fraud, and she said it was so upsetting and destabilizing to find out that this trusted mentor who she had chosen in part because of their shared background wasn’t who she had claimed to be. It’s such a profound violation of that trust. To think of how many Indigenous scholars crossed paths with Liz Hoover, for instance, is devastating to consider.
But race-shifting has huge implications beyond the individual sphere of influence; en masse, it presents an enormous threat to Indigenous rights and sovereignty. In Eastern Canada and the US, there are a lot of fake “First Nations”, and a ton of fake Métis organizations. These organizations grant “membership” to anyone who can find a single Indigenous ancestor in their family tree. If you go back 12 generations, it turns out that a lot of people have one or two Indigenous ancestors (out of 4,094 ancestors in total!). The same two Indigenous ancestors show up in the family trees of over a million Canadians, many of whom have taken this distant connection to proclaim themselves Indigenous. This is very different from having a living connection to the Métis Nation through your immediate ancestors, but to someone who is unfamiliar with Métis identity, the fake nations and the real ones look pretty similar. (I really recommend the work of Darryl Leroux to understand the explosion of sketchy claims to Metis identity, and their political and legal implications.)
Currently, a member of an unrecognized “Métis” community that sells memberships (scam alert) is running for mayor of Winnipeg and being described as an “Indigenous candidate” in the press. There’s also a custody battle over a girl from the Gitxsan Nation in Northern BC who is being cared for by her family and clan on her traditional territory. As with the ICWA in the US, Indigenous children in case are supposed to be placed with relatives or Indigenous homes wherever possible.
One disturbing element of this case is that non-Indigenous relatives of the girl in Ontario are trying to gain custody by claiming membership in the “Eastern Woodland Metis Nation” of Nova Scotia— another recently-formed, unrecognized group that lets anyone join. Some people are using their membership in a fake nation for petty personal gain, but others are going to court to contest Indiegnous land claims, or argue that they should be entitled to federal funds earmarked for First Nations. Together, these efforts are aimed at undermining Indigenous rights, and they’re making progress.
Lastly, I think the pattern of Pretendianism reveals how deeply embedded white supremacy still is within all our major institutions. The colour of your skin or your blood quantum does not determine “how Indigenous” you are, but let’s not pretend that every Indigenous person faces the same barriers or has the same experiences. Racialized Indigenous people are far more likely to experience racism and violence; they’re more likely to be discriminated against in classrooms, in the health care system, by police. So when institutions say they want to “Indigenize'' and end up exclusively hiring mixed and white-passing Indigenous people (and, too often, people who aren’t Indigenous at all), they’re still perpetuating white supremacy and upholding the systems that continue to exclude racialized Indigenous people. As the brilliant Celeste Pedri-Spade has written, ”challenging Indigenous identity fraud in academia must name and focus explicitly on structures of whiteness.”
As I was preparing these questions, the San Francisco Chronicle published a piece by Jacqueline Keeler claiming that Sacheen Littlefeather’s “faked” her Native heritage. Watching the reception of the piece on Twitter, I’ve been struck by how many white people in particular have shared the story with something close to glee.
There are numerous problems with the story itself, both journalistically and as relates to larger, far more complex questions of Indigeneity. Can you unpack some of this? I feel like all of it’s way too nuanced for Twitter, and there’s a lot that’s getting lost in the current conversation, particularly when it comes to non-Native people whose exposure to these questions is limited to, say, Elizabeth Warren and Littlefeather.
The Sacheen Littlefeather story has two challenging aspects: how it was reported, and what people are taking away from the story.
A lot of Indigenous folks have concerns about Jacqueline Keeler’s methods of investigating Indigenous people and her list of so-called Pretendians. Folks have pointed out that while the story claims that Littlefeather’s sisters approached Keeler about their ancestry, their social media history suggests that Keeler reached out to them— and that they believed they were Indigenous until that point as well. As writer Angelina Newsom has pointed out, Keeler has made mistakes in the past by putting real Indigenous people on her list, which has also undermined her credibility among many Indigenous communities.
And the list itself is troubling— it reinforces the idea that Indigenous people have to prove their identity to anyone who asks, and it causes harm to people who don’t have documentation due to colonial violence and assimilation policies. Indigenous nations and histories are complicated, and very different from one another, which is why it’s frustrating when these stories are oversimplified in the public imagination. I’ve appreciated hearing from Yaqui folks like Carly Butler explaining why, for instance, it would be hard to “prove” your Yaqui ancestry given the tribe’s history.
The other unfortunate thing about that story is that Littlefeather is dead; there’s no opportunity for her to be accountable to questions, or to speak for herself. But while she was alive, she did a tremendous amount of activism on behalf of Native people, and it’s hard to know what benefit it has to the Indigenous community to denigrate that legacy after her death. To go to Littlefeather’s funeral and film people as they grieve doesn’t do anything to advance Indigenous sovereignty or protect Indigenous identity. It’s just painful, and for what? So bystanders can participate in the spectacle of another Pretendian scandal without learning anything about Indigenous identity?
The response to the story, and the glee that accompanied it, really speaks to how shallow the engagement with a lot of Indigenous issues is. It’s depressing to think that the Littlefeather story has gotten more attention in the past two weeks than the current Supreme Court challenge to the Indian Child Welfare Act, which has enormous implications for tribal sovereignty and the wellbeing of Indigenous kids and families.
I think people enjoy Pretendian stories because it gives them a way to shrug off Indigenous issues and people; if their main engagement with our communities is through people who are accused of fraud, then they don’t need to take us very seriously. (All the “Pocahontas” jokes about Elizabeth Warren really drive this home.)
I think it’s important that people look at the deeper issues behind these stories: how does this impact Indigenous rights? How is this story hurting or helping Indigenous communities? What are the motives and responsibilities of the person telling it? What nations are involved, and what are their community members saying? Those questions require more reflection and more critical thinking, but without them, you’re still treating Indigenous people as two-dimensional, simplistic, reductable. And we’ll never get anywhere if non-Indigenous people can’t learn to acknowledge our complexity and our humanity. ●
This Week’s Things I Read and Loved: (This Usually Goes Out to Paid Subscribers Only — if you want it every week, consider subscribing)
The Only Two Choices I’ve Ever Made
This apple and cheddar crisp salad RULED
The Friday Open Thread was so chaotic and lovely (I especially loved all the people unpacking the psychology of thread lurking) and I found like five new amazing sounding shows I didn’t even know existed in the Tuesday What Are You Watching Thread (currently ripping through The Watcher and it is fucking me up)
A really cool look at the future possibilities of postcapitalist design
This week’s just trust me
This Week’s Fav Discord Corner: #Discuss-Latest-Podcast (YES I’M BIASED) but also #navigating-friendships
This Week’s Pick from the Culture Study Archive: What's That Feeling? Oh, It's Fall Regression
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