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5 Fake Indians: Checking a Box Doesn’t Make You Native

Perhaps no one causes more confusion and muddies the water more than fake Indians.

Perhaps no one causes more confusion and muddies the water more than fake Indians. We used to call them wannabe Indians, affirmative action Indians, Johnny come lately Indians, census Indians, among others.

They mislead the public. My uncle, Tom Godwin, an electronics genius, worked for Martin Marietta in Denver for 30 years. During that time he was the team leader for building the lunar lander, was the chief tech rep for the Titan missile sites, was the team leader for the design and build of the Little Red School House satellite communication system, and the team leader for building the $2 billion launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

But when the affirmative action thing came about in the late 1960s, somebody looked on his records and saw that he was Indian. He was immediately given the additional duty of identifying and working with other Indians at Martin. All of a sudden people who had never claimed to be Indian said they were. They thought it would help them with promotions, job opportunities, and advancement. Some of them were obviously not Indian.

In 1976, I met with the two gentlemen at Lockheed in Sunnyvale, California, who were in charge of affirmative action. I was working for the Indian Center of San Jose at the time, setting up an education program. During the meeting they told me Lockheed was the largest employer in the Bay Area. They proceeded to pull out this big computerized logbook (they were using the old IBM 360 in those days) of several hundred “Indians” who worked there.


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I was amazed. As we went through their list, I recognized none of the people they had listed. By that time I had been in the Bay Area for eight years, and had met most of the urban Indian leaders in San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco, and outlying cities. I had served a term on the board of the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland, worked as the Mainland Coordinator for the Alcatraz occupation, taught for three years at Cal State Hayward, and worked at the Indian Center for several months. I still wonder about the real ethnicity of the people at Lockheed who were claiming to be Indian.

The affirmative action managers were happy. They had met their quota of Indians—exceeded it in fact. Meeting the quota was a federal requirement. Almost all their funds came from the federal government for defense contracts. However, to be a Lockheed Indian, all one had to do was check a box.

Most of the fake Indians are people who are just trying to get hired, to get a scholarship, to get promoted, and the like. In some cases, however, they have tried to do what my mother used to call “get above their raisings.” Several of them have written best-seller books, making them rich and famous. Ultimately, however, some nosy Indian started looking at their genealogy and their credentials and found them out.

Some of these fake Indians have risen to national prominence on the strength of their fake Indian credentials. Jamake Highwater: (He pronounced it “Juh-MAH-kee.”) He claimed starting in 1969 that he was a Cherokee. However, when he was born in the 1920s (the date is disputed), he was named Jay Marks or Gregory J. Markopoulos and was Greek. Under that name he finished school at Hollywood High School and attended a few years of college in Los Angeles. He then lived in San Francisco for several years.

One of Highwater’s many books.

He later moved to New York and wrote books under the Highwater name. He also obtained a huge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, allegedly $840,000, to produce a controversial PBS documentary called “The Primal Mind.”

He died in 2001, with his name still controversial. Hank Adams researched his life and published an exposé about him before his death. Joe De La Cruz, the late leader of the Quinault Nation and President of both the National Congress of American Indians and the National Tribal Chairman’s Association, condemned his fake Indian credentials and the pap he was pushing. But Highwater/Marks carried out his Indian charade successfully for over 30 years.


Carlos Castaneda wrote a series of books about a mythical Yaqui medicine man he allegedly met in Mexico. His first book, The Teachings of Don Juan, became a best-seller and earned him a doctorate in anthropology from UCLA. It now appears he made the whole thing up. There was no Don Juan, there were no long stays in Mexico, and there was no apprenticeship in what Castaneda called “sorcery.” The anthropology department at UCLA later stripped him of the doctorate because of his fictional accounts, which he made up instead of doing actual ethnographic research.

One of Highwater’s many books.

RELATED: The Fake Carlos Castaneda

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Even so, he got away with it, in a real sense. His 12 books sold over eight million copies, making him a rich, defrocked academic. They are unfortunately still selling well, leading many novitiates down a false path toward obfuscation about Indians.

Later it was documented that Castaneda had even lied about his birth date, having been born in Cajamarca, Peru in 1925. He claimed to have been born in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1931. He died in 1998 with his name and his books still embroiled in controversy.


Hyemeyohsts Storm: He claims to be an enrolled Indian of the Cheyenne Tribe, and a Breed, or mixed-blood person. After his book Seven Arrows came out in 1972, he was reviled by people from the Cheyenne Tribe and other tribes for misinterpreting their sacred practices. He has also been accused of not being an Indian.

Swan Storm left) and Hyemeyohsts Storm.

Ward Churchill: In May 2005, after he had called some of the victims of the 9/11 attacks “little Eichmans,” Churchill caught hell from many quarters. His comparing the victims of the World Trade Center bombing to one of the leading Nazi villains of World War II was sure to bring him notoriety, which he seems to crave.

One of those responding was the United Keetoowah Band of the Cherokee Nation. Chief George Wickliffe said: “Mr. Churchill is NOT a member of the Keetoowah Band.” Churchill has also claimed over the years to be Creek, Cherokee, and Metis.

He got himself hired at the University of Colorado in 1978, without a doctorate, and within two decades had gotten promoted to the chair of the Ethnic Studies Department. Over his career, he has had 14 books published on genocide against the American Indian, racism, and the boarding school experience of Indians. His books are filled with left wing cant, and he clearly supports AIM. He was a member of the Colorado chapter of AIM for many years.

Former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill before oral arguments June 7, 2012 in the Colorado Supreme Court over free-speech issues and his potential right to reinstatement.

The University of Colorado, after a lengthy investigation, fired him in July 2007. He had been charged with improprieties in research methods, fabrication of his Indian heritage, and falsifying his academic credentials. Professors Barrie Hartman, Marianne (Mimi) Wesson, and Eric Iliff were on the committee that reviewed the charges. They concluded that seven of the nine allegations against him warranted looking into. The charges of his ethnicity and his possible copyright infringement were not related to the conduct of research.

He was charged with plagiarism, misuse of the work of others, falsification, and fabrication of authority. His comments about the 9/11 victims were ruled to be protected under the free speech provisions of the Constitution. But it led to the investigation that got him fired.


Terry Tafoya was for a time on the faculty at Evergreen College in Washington in the Department of Psychology. He claimed to have a Ph.D. from the University of Washington, a claim that later turned out to be false. In the meantime he traveled around the United States telling “Indian” tales and claiming to be a mental health worker as well as an Indian traditionalist.

He even got himself on the board of the famous Kinsey Institute. He claimed to be from Taos Pueblo, but later admitted he was not, after the tribe’s enrollment clerk, Alicia Romero, stated she had never heard of Terry Tafoya.

Jake Schoellkopf/Special to Seattle P-I

Known across North America as a pre-eminent American Indian psychologist, Terry Tafoya, of Seattle, speaks at a state-sponsored seminar in Albuquerque.

He has also claimed to be Apache and from Warm Springs, Oregon, which has three tribes living on it. However, he has no proof of enrollment in any of these tribes.

His cousin Jack says they grew up in Pompano Beach, Florida, and that Terry was born in Trinidad, Colorado. Thus, there is a good chance that he is Hispanic; much of the population of Southern Colorado is Hispanic. He claims to be a licensed therapist, but does not have a license from the state of Washington.

When we took over Alcatraz Island in 1969, these fake Indians bothered us to death. Jamake Highwater, Ruth Beebe Hill, Semu Haute, and many others tried to suck the blood out of us. We ran them off.

This column is adapted from the book “Racism in Indian Country.” Dr. Dean Chavers is Director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship and school improvement program based in Albuquerque. Contact him at