When I received Gyasi’s piece, I thought long and hard about how to respond.
His piece felt a bit like a slap – exactly how were we supposed to evaluate Queen Chief Warhorse’s credentials on the fly, especially after she had been vetted as a speaker by an organization intent on working locally with organizations that impact their communities? Why would we doubt her, just based on her face? I know it’s been quite a few years, but Racialicious started as a blog called Mixed Media Watch, which spent a lot of time exploring how phenotypes can be deceiving. It wasn’t so long ago that Addicted to Race boasted a “racial spy” section, which featured mixed race people recounting stories of receiving stereotypes intended for others. So we would never, ever question someone’s identity on phenotype alone. If we did that, we would have challenged Brandann for not looking properly Indian instead of just letting her tell her story.
However, Gyasi is correct – there are many, many people who have claimed to speak for Indian Country who have fabricated their identities, and we need to denounce those who would use an indigenous identity to seek profit for themselves. But are the answers so cut and dry to the point where they should be immediately obvious to all outside of the various nations? Over the years at Racialicious, we’ve come across many places in which someone’s heritage has been declared false. And each time, we try to figure out how to proceed. But the truth isn’t always easy to understand – and questions of identity are far more complicated than the Young Black Teenagers publicity stunt.
From Peggy Seltzer to Tinsel Corey, from Taylor Lautner to Cher, and from Princess Pale Moon to Andrea Smith, public proclamations of Native identity are often swiftly challenged and debated. So let’s examine the ones who made headlines, and then apply what we’ve learned to Queen Chief Warhorse.
This wouldn’t be the first time that someone has claimed Native background for fame and profit.
The easiest example to debunk from recent history is the Peggy Seltzer scandal. In 2008, one “Margaret B. Jones” published a memoir called “Love and Consequences” about her life as a mixed Native-White girl who fell into gang life as a foster child placed in a black home. The problem? The memoir was a fake.
While most reviewers focused on Seltzer’s affectation (see the video that Harry Allen wisely copied), quite a few missed that she had chosen to fabricate a Quinault affiliation.
Now, Seltzer wasn’t debunked because of the things she wore or the color of her skin – people (who unfortunately were not the ones publishing this memoir) figured out the truth by finding friends and family members who quickly copped to the truth.
Yet, even still, some chose to defend her bizarre appropriated experience. From Fishbowl LA:
Gordon Sayre, the professor at U of Oregon who taught Peggy Seltzer, semi-defends the practice of false memoir writing:
If Peggy’s assertion that she had spent part of her childhood on the Quinault reservation was untrue, if the paper she had written about this experience was based on false premises, at least it was backed up by enough research to be convincing.
There’s a moral assertion–lying is okay, provided you’re good at it. Or else, a professor of Native American literature knows little or nothing about the lives of actual Native Americans.
So let’s look at another well known example, that was also eventually sidelined. After releasing her song “Half-Breed,” pop star Cher began claiming that she was part Cherokee.
However, while her song and video made it sound like Cher had lived the mixed Native struggle, it turns out that Cher is actually Armenian and white. As Mental Floss explains:
Prior to 1973, Cher’s biography always listed her father (John Sarkisian) as being of Armenian heritage, while her mother, Georgia Holt, was of Irish and German extraction. But when Cher’s single “Half Breed” started climbing the Billboard charts (it would eventually hit number one), suddenly she remembered that she was 1/16th Cherokee on her mother’s side. That biographical revision probably helped stem protests from the Native community when Cher performed her hit in a full feathered headdress on an episode of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.
Taylor Lautner also played the numbers. After being cast as the brooding, hot blooded werewolf foil to Robert Pattison’s cold, sparkly vamp peen, Lautner suddenly discovered his Native roots. However, it appears that it was a casting feint, possibly done because the director made a huge deal about asking all the Native actors for “their papers.” But will Lautner keep promoting his ancestry after the final Twilight movie airs in November? Probably not.
However, some people do more than to use their tenuous Native heritage to boost sales. Back in 2000, Colorlines published an expose titled “Charity Scams: Making Big Business Out of Native American Poverty” which pointed to American Indian Heritage Foundation, run by one Princess Pale Moon.
Koren Capozza reports:
This practice became apparent to Eleanor McMullen, chairwoman of the Port Graham tribe in Northern Alaska, when she learned that 1,000 pounds of beef liver were en route to her tiny coastal village. The donation was made in 1991 by American Indian Heritage Foundation (AIHF), a charity in Falls Church, VA, which had solicited funds on behalf of the Port Graham tribe but had not consulted with the Port Graham people.
McMullen was offended and demanded that the beef be returned to sender. “We weren’t looking for any donations, we were just trying to adjust to being without what we normally have.” The Port Graham Aleuts were hard hit by the Alaska oil spill that year. “I found out that this occurred amongst many people and that a lot of that money went to [the AIHF president’s] program, her wage, her staff.”
My investigation showed similar dubious practices by the National Relief Charities, the Native American Heritage Association, the Southwest Indian Foundation, and the Southwest Indian Children’s Fund.
As of 2010, the American Indian Heritage Foundation was still being run by Princess Pale Moon, who was initially credited as being Chocktaw, but now identifies (as of her blog post from 2010) as Cherokee/Ojibwa. Capozza continues:
Princess Pale Moon is the personality behind the American Indian Heritage Foundation (AIHF), the charity that sent the unwanted beef liver to Alaska. Pale Moon claims Native ancestry and says she created the organization so that young American Indians wouldn’t have to feel ashamed—the way she supposedly did—about their heritage. The only problem is that no records support Pale Moon’s claim to be Native American. She’s not registered with any federally recognized tribe and was actually asked to leave the 1992 World Expo in Spain by U.S. intelligence when it discovered she was a fraud.
“We remind her that we don’t have any royalty,” says Vernon Bellecourt. “They’ve always got to be ‘princesses’ or something or other. It’s a white woman masquerading as an Indian and, of course, she has some Indians on her board to give her a cover.”
Pale Moon has nonetheless had a great deal of success as a Native American spokesperson. She sang the national anthem at two Republican conventions and has raised millions of dollars for Native causes. Unfortunately, those causes are often aimed at her own self-promotion. Of the $197,000 AIHF spent on programs in 1998, $24,566 was spent on “TV and public appearances to present cultural values and to educate the non-Indian public of the aspirations and needs of Indian people,” according to the charity’s 1998 IRS filings.
The IRS has currently revoked the tax-exempt status for the American Indian Heritage Foundation, after failure to file tax returns.
But from here, it gets harder to definitively call people out, in part because we start getting into race and history. Taylor Lautner was not the only actor to fall under scrutiny from the Twilight saga. Tinsel Korey was also put in the crossfire for claiming Native heritage. While she has not reversed her position, others around the net have pointed to her birth name (Harsha Patel) and lack of registration as proof that she is not truly Native. However, most of these sites are tumblrs and wordpress sites without much else to go on but a few posts detailing the (usually anonymous) perspective on Korey’s heritage. For her part, Korey has declined to specifically name a tribe affiliation, though she has thrown out Ojibway and Anishinaabe at different points. Though sources close to Korey say that she is who she claims to be, there isn’t definitive evidence either way. Korey’s parents have not (to our knowledge) publicly gone on the record about their daughter’s background, and as far as the internet knows, no tribe has denounced her as being fraudulent. So do we assume she is being truthful, or assume she is lying?
Our final example is one that almost made me fall out of my chair when I heard it. During the Warhorse conversations, Deb Reese told me that the Cherokee nation challenged and rejected Andrea Smith’s claim to status. My initial reaction was complete and total disbelief, and some quick Googling didn’t turn up anything about the problem. A more specific search turns up a reference on Indian Country today – but it is an op-ed, written by Steve Russell and it essentially argues that if Smith is committing identity fraud, it isn’t that serious:
So we come to the question whether Smith is an ethnic fraud like Ward Churchill. My position is that even though not Cherokee, she cannot be a fraud of Churchill’s stature. He made public statements that no tribal person I know would endorse. He then abused Hannah Arendt’s work when he claimed that her study of Eichmann supported the idea that some undocumented worker washing dishes in the Windows on the World restaurant deserved his fiery death on Sept. 11, 2001. […]
If the University of Michigan wants a researcher and teacher, it would appear by objective criteria they have one. If they want a Cherokee, not.
Smith’s record does not appear to require augmentation by hereditary advantage. Ethnic fraud is harmful to tribes and sometimes to individual real Indians if they are passed over for a fake in a job that really does call for a tribal person. Ethnic fraud is not harmful to universities unless they allow it to be. The University of Michigan should articulate its values and rule according to those values.
That’s the university. That is not me. I’m not sure I would want to associate with an ethnic fraud, as some I have met are truly disturbed individuals. How can somebody choose to insult his or her real relatives so gravely? Often, these people are outed by offended relatives. If they do take something meant for real Indians, they are no better than any other thieves. That’s my moral judgment. That’s not a judgment that is open to a public university unless ethnicity was a bona fide qualification for the job.
If the purpose of Indian studies is to create jobs for incompetent Indians, let alone incompetent fakes, Indian studies has no business existing. It breaks my heart to hear Indian scholars claim their scholarship would not stand up to the level of scrutiny that Churchill’s antics drew. Pray tell, why not? Are we scholars or, as the Rush Limbaughs of the world would say, ”race pimps?”
There are no news articles about the announcement, and the official statement may be known to those in Indian Country but is not available online. The only references are, once again, whispers around the fringes – while there have been some comments fiercely debating Smith’s identity, there is very little that directly refers to what happened. So who are we to believe as there is a lack of evidence that Smith was outed by the Cherokee nation. And, from the scant details, it appears that their official statement was not that Smith is not Native, but rather she is not registered. Which means Smith could well have Cherokee lineage, but she is not officially acknowledged by the tribe. Does that mean she is not truly Indian? Does it simply mean she failed to file her paperwork, or is holding off for other reasons? These allegations are far from clear. And if those within Indian Country do not make these kinds of challenges explicit, how are those outside of Indian Country supposed to know?
Let’s return to Queen Chief Warhorse.
From a paper trail perspective, Warhorse’s bonafides are light, but not non existent. There is a community that identifies as Chata in New Orleans and they were established in 2009. They have met with The White House and Elwin “Chief Warhorse” Gillum, as leader of the tribe, is currently seeking $43 million dollars for the Tchefuncta Nation’s economic development programs. She came to the America Healing conference, recommended by the mayor of New Orleans.
This is not to say that Warhorse is legitimate – as Deb pointed out, the “Queen” title is normally a red flag, and as Gyasi pointed out on Twitter, she is mixing a lot of traditions together to signal “Nativeness.” (From an outsider’s perspective, I wonder if there is a pan-Indian movement, in the way that black movements embraced pan-Africanism which might explain some of the conflation. But I’ll also point out here that many folks have come to reject the colonialist nature of pan-Africanism that collapses individual nations into one mass, despite its unifying aims.)
As far as we know, she has only made claim to be a part of one tribe. Her tribe does have members, and is acknowledged as legitimate in New Orleans. If each nation has their own sovereignty, why would we doubt she is who she claims to be? If each nation has their own standards for inclusion, how are we to challenge Warhorse’s legitimacy? Gyasi pointed out on Twitter that she is generally unknown in Indian Country, and does not organize with other Native groups? But if she is receiving challenges to her identity based on her physical appearance, would she seek out Indian Country as part of her family? After all, the debates around the “IndiVisible” exhibit show that blacks with Native ancestry aren’t always accepted by Native Americans.
So where does this leave us? Unfortunately, not much further than before. We are never going to be a space that challenges someone’s identity based on physical appearance. More evidence is necessary before we feel comfortable jumping on a table and yelling “You, madam, are a charlatan!” And with the Warhorse case, there doesn’t appear to be much evidence to denounce her as a fraud. Her identity presentation doesn’t add up, but is that enough to challenge her identification? In some cases, the truth about heritage is fairly cut and dry. But in others, we need far more evidence than is normally made available.
It is vital to remember that there generally are no perfect solutions to solving issues of racial justice. This is because this idea we base it on – race – is an ever changing fiction, albeit one that has wrought real world consequences. As an organization, we seek to sift through the fiction to unearth the truth – but there will be times when this is much more of an art than a science. We will continue to look to Indian Country to help guide us through these conversations – but if that information is not forthcoming, or easily verified, it is unreasonable to expect that we will challenge the identities of others.