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Cowboys & Pretendians
The strange world of fake Native Americans and the cat-loving crook who called himself Reverend Big Chief White Horse Eagle.
So called race-fakers have been a subject of angry and amused mainstream conversation ever since 2015 when Rachel Dolezal, President of the Spokane chapter of the N.A.A.C.P (the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People), was exposed as a white woman masquerading as an African-American. The spate of news stories about her was followed by periodic exposés of other people posing as members of various non-white identity groups.
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Many of those people appear to have a compulsion to pretend to be Native American or members of indigenous Canadian tribes. There are so many of these high-profile fakes that genuine indigenous North Americans have started using a wittily disparaging word to describe what could be described as a new tribal group—the pretendians.
A young Native American journalist named Jacqueline Keeler has even circulated a list of 195 “Alleged Pretendians”. In her preface to it, she wrote, “Everyone on this list has made public claims through interviews, in books… documentaries, and even in Congressional testimony. They are also all monetising their claims. These are not privately-held beliefs.”
The Alleged Pretendians include a wide range of people, among them celebrities such as Johnny Depp and the Democratic Party’s onetime Presidential candidate, Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose claims to possess Native American ancestry had already attracted a lot of derision. Keeler’s list also features academics, broadcasters, artists, writers, activists, plus minor film and TV actors, who allegedly possess no documented Native American heritage yet have used their bogus racial status for various forms of personal gain, not least jobs with organisations dedicated to the study of Native American culture.
One such person cited by Keeler is actress-turned-activist Marie Cruz, who had variously claimed to be White Mountain Apache and Yaqui, though her true heritage turns out to be Mexican. Under the assumed name of Sacheen Littlefeather, she’d become famous for giving a short speech at the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony. On behalf of Marlon Brando, who was boycotting the event in protest against Hollywood’s treatment of his country’s indigenous people, she refused to accept the Best Actor trophy, which Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann were poised to hand her.
Despite being outed on the list of Alleged Pretendians and being the subject of long-standing rumours, Littlefeather wasn’t conclusively exposed as a fraud until after her death last year. In the wake of this, one of her siblings said to the San Francisco Chronicle, “The best way that I could think of summing up my sister is that she created a fantasy. She lived in a fantasy, and she died in a fantasy.”
We can only speculate about what motivated that fantasy, but there’s every reason to think that she ended up believing it. Perhaps her epic role-playing was the product of mental illness. Like other such racial imposters, attention-seeking may have been another motivating factor. Imposters of her ilk may also be driven by a yearning to be part of what they perceive as a group with a clearer and more attractive identity than the groups into which they were born. The desire to indulge in moral grandstanding could provide additional motivation. So too could the craving for the sense of purpose provided by joining their chosen race’s civil rights movement.
What’s evident, however, is that a few pretendians have been using their feigned racial identity to snaffle jobs in academia and government for which that otherwise disadvantageous identity is advantageous. Professor Carrie Bourassa, for example, passed herself off as having indigenous Canadian ancestry, in the process landing the post of Scientific Director of the Indigenous Health Arm of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Late in 2021, she was forced to resign after the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation revealed that her true ancestors were not members of the Métis or other indigenous communities. They were, instead, from Eastern Europe. “It makes you feel a bit sick,” said Janet Smylie, an academic colleague who belongs to the Métis. “To have an imposter who is speaking on behalf of the Métis and indigenous people… about what it means to be Métis… that’s very disturbing and upsetting and harmful.”
For all its modern freak-show aura, the phenomenon of racial fraud goes back centuries. But it isn’t always the clear-cut story it seems. Nobody highlights its inherent complexities better than Sylvester Long, the journalist, film actor, and memoirist who achieved fame under the name, Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance (1890-1932). Faced by the prospect of being outed as what would now be called a pretendian, he committed suicide. Yet the sad thing is that, according to the present-day rules determining whether someone has sufficient Native American ancestors to be categorised as Native American, he wasn’t a fake.
Of all the early twentieth-century’s pretendians, however, the most enduringly famous of them must be Archie Belaney, a.k.a. Grey Owl (1888-1938), who was played by Pierce Brosnan in a high-profile movie about his adventures. Born into an English family in Hastings, he emigrated to Canada where he reinvented himself first as an Apache and then as a leading conservationist.
Environmental and civil rights activism are causes to which a high percentage of these racial imposters are drawn. Complicating our binary perception of them as being either delusional or criminal is the possibility that they might—whatever the reasons behind their deceit—have done some good.
Another trait common to so many racial imposters from both past and present is the tenacity with which they cling to their fraudulent backstories, even when confronted by the truth. In that context, a farcical incident springs to mind. Its elderly protagonist was a now obscure but once quite well-known conman, who swanned around in a Hollywood version of Native American regalia, which incorporated a beaded necklace supposedly made from the seeds of an extinct tree and coveted by the Smithsonian Institute. He called himself Chief White Horse Eagle. If he was feeling even more expansive, he morphed into the Reverend Big Chief White Horse Eagle.
He posed as a miraculously energetic hundred-and-something-year-old member of the Osage tribe, or sometimes the Lakota Sioux. Prone to the vainglorious embellishment of his persona, he told people that he was a graduate of Princeton, that he’d been present at Custer’s Last Stand, that he was descended from the chief who shared the first Thanksgiving feast with the Pilgrim Fathers, and that he’d appeared in hit movies such The Covered Wagon and The Big Trail. He also spoke about staying with Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace, as well as meeting Buffalo Bill, the Emperor of Japan, Otto von Bismarck, and “every President save one from Lincoln to the present day.”
White Horse Eagle’s modus operandi involved delivering lectures on Native American culture and infiltrating monied white communities. He’d then charge the more gullible of his new friends for the privilege of granting them honorary membership of his tribe. A variety of bogus titles, such as Princess Ka-Wa-Na, were on offer, too.
During the mid-1920s, he was plying his trade in Southern California, where he adopted the identity of Jackson Burnett, often dubbed “the world’s richest Indian” on account of the oil-wells he owned in Oklahoma. Presumably using these assets as his fictitious collateral, White Horse Eagle swindled a Pasadena resident out of $1 million—equivalent to around $9.2 million in today’s currency. More than enough to bankroll his subsequent tour of Europe, during which he visited Paris, Munich, and Berlin.
While he was in Germany, he had his memoirs ghosted by the Nazi writer, Edgar von Schmidt-Pauli, on whom he conferred the title Chief Larga. Echoing Nazism’s admiration for what it viewed as primitive, pagan, and martial cultures, von Schmidt-Pauli used the book’s introduction to describe him as a “representative of his people, the noble, simple and warlike race for which apparently the world has no further use.”
The book—often treated even now as an authentic memoir—found eager publishers in Germany and America. It was shamelessly titled We Indians: the Passing of a Great Race and advertised as “the recollections of the last of the great Indian chiefs.”
On his return to America in the latter half of 1931, White Horse Eagle pitched up in Los Angeles. But he soon got into trouble with the authorities when he tried to sell honorary tribal memberships to the city’s mayor and head of public health. The self-styled chief ended up being summoned to an interview with Margaret Gardner, LA’s senior criminal prosecutor. He arrived there to find he had an audience of real members of the Osage.
In an effort to humiliate and unmask him, Gardner asked him to demonstrate his tribe’s sign-language for water. To which he declared, “The Osage has no sign like that.”
His response provoked laughter from the genuine Osage. Then one of them stood up and made the requisite sign, causing White Horse Eagle to blush.
The District Attorney gave him just over three weeks in which to prove his ancestry or face trial. He responded by decamping to a different part of California, where he could resume his scam, poor communications between cities making news of his fraudulence slow to travel. Despite the scepticism of some local journalists, he carried on distributing fake titles and presiding over phoney ceremonies at which he smoked the peace pipe and, in what passed for the Osage language, intoned “the prayers for the four winds”.
Death was the only thing that could put an end to his con trickery. “Stray cats lost one of their best friends when Chief White Horse Eagle died here at the age of 115,” the United Press news agency reported from the city of Sunland in June 1937. “Neighbours had him into court once on a complaint that nocturnal yowlings from the direction of the chief’s home kept them awake. The Indian was found to be caring for more than a hundred cats.”
My most recent book, King Con (U.S. Penguin Random House), tells the story of another fake Native American—the self-styled Chief White Elk, who became a celebrity in Jazz Age Europe. Visit my website, www.paulwilletts.com for more details.
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