The Pretendians

This week, I’ve handed the newsletter over to Chris La Tray — who you may remember from this interview a few months ago. One great pleasure of running this newsletter = the ability to use it as a space to interview others at length, and watching you, as a readership, respond to, push back on, and just generally appreciate their ideas. Because many of you have opted to become paying subscribers, I’m able to pay Chris a very good rate to take over the newsletter today and this past Thursday, where he interviewed U.S. Senator Jon Tester. I told Chris that he could write about anything on his mind. I hope what he’s written here will occupy yours for some time as well.

Last fall, a television series called "Trickster" debuted on Canadian television's CBC network. It opened to critical acclaim and was quickly renewed for a second season. The show, based on a series of novels written by Eden Robinson, a member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations, was praised because of its use of Indigenous people in both cast and crew. It came to USA television in January via a streaming service called The CW, which I hadn't heard of until about ten minutes ago. You can't binge on "Trickster," but so far there are six episodes you may watch.

The series seems like something I'd be interested in checking out except now I don't know that I will; the second season has already been cancelled. It turns out that director Michelle Latimer, who has claimed to be of “Algonquin, Métis and French heritage, from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg (Maniwaki), Quebec,” isn't Indigenous at all. She's a white woman, according to this study published back in December. No one in the Kitigan Zibi community had heard of her, and as investigations into her background unfolded Latimer was revealed not to be who she claimed to be. Or who she thought she was; in her defense she claimed that "family lore" had always led her to believe she was of Indigenous descent, and she apologized for not doing the research to verify her family truly had the roots she claimed to have.

So Michelle Latimer has been branded a "pretendian." This is a word for folks who claim to be Indian, for whatever reason, but aren't. There are multitudes of them at various levels of society in both the United States and Canada. There's the leathery old white person at the farmer's market draped in beads and turquoise and feathers and buckskin who just desperately wants to be something cooler than they think they are. Hell, there have even been American presidents and would-be presidents claiming Indigenous ancestry. It's not a new thing. Nor is it something that only happens in the Native community. I mean, remember Rachel Dolezal?

The real blow in this “Trickster” story isn't to Latimer's career because she has talent and a track record of being a good filmmaker and, if she embraces her white woman-ness, has a pretty good chance at redemption (if she were a white man she'd already have another lucrative project presented to her, I'm sure). Nor does it seem to me that she was acting from a place of cynical craftiness to "cash in" on being an Indian. It just turns out she wasn't what she thought she was. When I started investigating my personal ancestry several years ago I had a fear that maybe all the stories I'd grown up concerning my background would turn out to be false. For me, thankfully, my history turned out to be deeper than I even realized.

No, the ones who are going to suffer in the "Trickster" cancellation are all the people unrelated to Latimer who are now out of a job that would gain them much-needed, paid exposure for their own careers. And that sucks. It’s one part of the ripple-effect damage that someone claiming to be something they’re not can have.

There is still more fallout from the Latimer story. She directed a documentary called Inconvenient Indian, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2020 and won multiple awards. The movie is an "urgent feature ... [that] will take viewers on a journey into the mind of one of the world’s foremost Indigenous intellectuals, and one of our greatest storytellers: Thomas King." Yet as of December, in the wake of the Latimer debacle, the film has been withdrawn from distribution. Which is unfortunate, again, because of all the legitimate Indigenous folks who are involved in the production.

Curious too because Thomas King himself is allegedly a pretendian, at least according to what I will call "The List." Also, let me just say straight up: The List sucks.

The List is a spreadsheet floating around online Indian Country, compiled by writer/journalist/activist Jacqueline Keeler. Keeler is of Dineh and Yankton Dakota heritage, and is the editor-in-chief of Pollen Nation Magazine. She kindly published this piece of mine back in November. The List is over one hundred names of people who are "alleged" pretendians. Writers, academics, artists, anyone who at some point, perhaps for their entire lives, have claimed Indigenous heritage but somehow crossed Keeler and her team's radar as being worthy of "investigation." At least I think there is a team behind the list, though I don't know who they are; Keeler tends to use "we" when describing her work so I'm assuming she has others helping her.

In a January interview on Canada's APTN InFocus titled, “How are ‘pretendians’ hurting Indigenous people,” Keeler defines a pretendian as "someone who has zero ancestry with any Native tribes." This does not include Natives who have been disenrolled from their tribes, or Natives who were adopted out, or even Natives who can't meet tribal blood quantum requirements (I'm not going to go into disenrollment or BQ bullshit in this piece, just roll with me here in understanding that they suck).

In an interview on the Decolonized Buffalo podcast, she explains further that pretendians can't prove generational descent from anyone who was either enrolled with a recognized tribe or even raised in a tribal community. In the same interview, in speaking about the complexities of academia (where pretendianism is rife due to academics being allowed to self-identify), Keeler says, "Often I will call a Native academic for a quote on an entirely unrelated issue, and they will say, 'You know, we have something going on in my department right now, they're getting ready to hire a fraud who is going to be my boss and we've tried to deal with this in the hiring process but no one is listening to me.'"

So there is an example of how one may land on The List. Could be legit, but could also just be academic sour grapes (hard to imagine, I know).

Investigations of fraud in academia are necessary. As CNN's Brandon Tensley writes, "As the news of another academic who was pretending to be a person of color unfolds, it's important to keep in mind that the consequences of this sort of racial deceit are more intricate than the initial narrative lets on." It is an important issue. But is hearsay and finger-pointing the path to take toward publicly outing people?

I requested access to The List and took a look at it. I feel greasy for it. There are names here of people I know and like. I don't know how they landed here, who "outed" them, why, or anything. Take Thomas King, who I mentioned above. Why is he here? Who said he's a pretendian? And where on this list is it detailed the steps made to put him here in the first place? In interviews Keeler talks a lot about research but what exactly are the steps taken? I can tell you you don’t have to go very far back in my family tree to see the father’s name, always some form of European but tending French, but the mother’s is only listed as “Indian woman.” And yet somehow my BQ number puts me at just over “a third” so-called Indian blood. Which in itself is horseshit. No, I don't like this list at all and I feel like the most alleged part of it is the research.

A social media friend posed a question on Twitter the other day inquiring what the proper means for addressing Natives these days is; should he call us Native American, or Indians, or Indigenous? There were several answers and none I disagree with. My somewhat flippant response was, "I prefer Indians if only because that’s what my tribe has chosen. I almost never use Native American myself but it doesn’t bother me. But get ten Indians together and you’ll get seven different answers and three arguing why none of the other nine are even Indians."

That is how it is in Indian Country. There is so much bullshit tied up in blood purity and how dark-skinned one person is, who looks Indian and who doesn't, that people who never wade into the cesspool of this kind of online rhetoric would be stunned. 

There are Indians who would argue I am not really an Indian anyway, despite my status as an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe. I didn't grow up on a reservation (we don't have one). I didn't grow up in a community of Indians and participate in the culture. I still don't. My situation is largely what it is because 150+ years ago some white fucking bureaucrat couldn't get my chief to cooperate with an insidious land grab (the McCumber Commission of 1892), rounded up a bunch of Indians who would, called them "chiefs," and just like that my people ceased to exist in the eyes of the federal government. I'm not alone in this. But my experience in finding my way back to my people is its own distinct form of Indigenous experience. My entire tribe’s effort to regain our lost culture is its own distinct form of Indigenous experience. Which is also why an image like this, from Keeler's Instagram feed, troubles me:

A post shared by Jacqueline Keeler (@jfkeeler)

It's disappointing.

I'm tired of all these identity politics. Are we supposed to rely on the authority gained by a journalist writing for big name settler magazines and websites as being the arbiter of who is Indian? Of using settler databases built on rolls established by settler bureaucrats who determined Indian-ness based on what a given individual looked like? This is all garbage.

This isn't about race or blood or any of that settler hogwash. This is a tribal sovereignty issue. Michelle Latimer was outed because the tribe she claimed to be a part of, the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg (Maniwaki) of Quebec, heard their name was being dropped, looked into it, and said, "Umm, actually you aren't one of us." What if they decided to let her join the tribe, to be enrolled? I kind of wish they would. Because from what I can see—and I could be wrong—Michelle Latimer got caught up in the mess that so many of us in North America struggling with our “am I/am I not” Indigenous identities. She bought in and seems to have done a lot of good work on behalf of Indigenous people. My own mentor, Nicholas Vrooman, was a white guy adopted by the Turtle Mountain Chippewa because he was a tireless researcher, advocate, and defender of our people. Without him the Little Shell would likely not be recognized today. He literally wrote the book that is the written record of our tribal history, The Whole Country Was … One Robe.

Nicholas Vrooman never claimed Indigenous heritage but he was as much Little Shell as I am. More, actually. Which is why tribes need to throw out blood quantum requirements and all that settler bureaucracy and determine for ourselves how we want to build our nations. Enroll people committed to being members of the tribe, just like any other nation does, blood purity be damned. Like we did pre-colonialism. That is the only way we survive.

The List feels like some kind of McCarthyismish bullshit. It is some McCarthyismish bullshit and the strife it is creating among the Indigenous community is unfortunate. I respect Jacqueline Keeler's work as an advocate for Native issues and as a journalist and writer. I blurbed her new book Standoff: Standing Rock, the Bundy Movement, and the American Story of Sacred Lands, due out next month from Torrey House Press and it's a book I recommend.

But there is a story here in this discussion of pretendians. There is a need to uncover folks directing Indigenous curriculums and putting themselves out in the world as Indigenous spokespeople. But throwing a list of names out there for people to eyeball and gossip over isn't the way to do it. This is no way to cover a story that has direct influence on people's lives. It's hard enough reclaiming who we are as Indigenous people. This kind of unsubstantiated rumor mongering has no role in moving us forward. If you are going to name names, you need to come with facts. This list has none.

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