Scarcely a week goes without the exposure of another high-profile person claiming some form of Indigenous ancestry. Most recently, American artist Lewis Anthony Rath, who is known for his wood carvings and totem poles, “admitted that he is not a lineal descendant or an enrolled member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe.” The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 is a truth-in-advertising law that makes it a crime to sell counterfeit Native American artifacts and collectibles in the United States. Rath and his totem poles are in deep trouble.
The simple fact the Apache are not exactly known for their totem-pole work should have alerted somebody. It would be like hiring a Blackfoot to build you an igloo: It is possible, but why?
More important, the non-stop revealing of these white wolves in Indigenous clothing could be developing into a potentially problematic situation.
In the past few weeks, I’ve received emails and tweets from various people urging me to publicly out various individuals in Canadian society. The emailers feel that these people are guilty of cultural obfuscation in the line of Carrie Bourressa and Joseph Boyden — the kind of people who were referred to historically as “going Indian.” Back in my youth, we called them wannabes; nowadays, they are referred to as pretendians or race-shifters. In popular culture, this style of “outing” is historically most associated with revealing those suspected of being closeted gays and lesbians. Now it has been adopted by some as a way of shining a spotlight on those thought to have questionable ties to Indigenous culture or those who are simply not Indigenous enough.
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While I have written frequently about the phenomenon, I usually base my work on other peoples’ extensive research and investigative labour. I’m lazy that way. It would never occur to me to write something claiming somebody wasn’t Native, just because of a few rumours.
But the people in my inbox think otherwise. They get angry at me for not bowing to their wishes. “Why don’t you tell people about [redacted]? Are you buddies with [them] and don’t want to get [them] in trouble?”
Possibly, I might be a little gun shy. About once every year or two, the odd allegation about my background will pop up, and people will ask for hard proof of who I am and where I come from. Some time ago, somebody went out of their way to research me, finding different reports on Wikipedia, Google, and other websites saying I was born in Curve Lake, Peterborough, Toronto, and even in the United States. My poor mother — that must have been a long labour. Another person tweeted at me strongly suggesting I take one of those DNA tests. Damn these blue eyes. Having been on the other end of those accusations, I do not take them lightly.
I am not alone. Others who work in the media have told me they're receiving the same types of messages. The need to protect our heritage and people can make people do questionable things. The playwright in me finds the current situation somewhat reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which was inspired by the Salem witch trials. Several hundred years later, history repeated itself with the House Un-American Activities Committee, as Washington and Hollywood tried to ferret out Communists that may or may not have actually existed. Essentially, in both cases, all it took was an allegation, with little or no supporting evidence. Lives and careers were ended as a result.
It’s notable that most outings are of well-known people in influential positions. You do not often hear stories of janitors or plumbers being outed. It’s always those with a higher profile. Essentially, the dominant culture doesn’t really care whether their butcher had a Cherokee princess for a grandmother.
It’s all beginning to get so technical. For instance, many legitimately Indigenous people have also been accused of not being Indigenous enough, of being “apples” — red on the outside, but white on the inside.
Then there are the shouldabeens. As stated, wannabes are those who act Native with little or no logical justification. They just want to be Indigenous. On the other side of the wannabe coin are the shouldabeens. All Native people know one or two of them: people who, for one reason or another, would have been born Indigenous but for the cruel fate of the Gods. They have the same sympathies, understandings, maybe even the same humour, but their origins began across the big pond. The important difference here is they know they are not and never will be Indigenous. They are not a member of the family, but they like to come for dinner.
The bottom line is, I am all for truth and reality. People should definitely not claim to be something they are not. I’ve stopped telling people I used to be a circus aerialist. But please don’t get mad at me for refusing to spread opinion and rumour. Call the National Enquirer.