Another Indian impersonator is unmasked: Nasdijj, who masqueraded as a
Navajo and made a pile of money from best-selling books about his life as a
poor reservation kid with an alcoholic mother.
It turns out that Nasdijj is a very white man with some very dark secrets.
He really is Tim Barrus of North Carolina. He did not grow up on or near
any Indian territory. Neither parent is Navajo or Indian of any nation. His
mother was not a drunken Navajo.
At the very least, Barrus and his promoters owe all Navajo people,
especially the women, an apology.
Nasdijj's true identity was exposed by Matthew Fleischer in an extensive
article in LA Weekly's Jan. 25 issue, "Navahoax," which asked the question:
"Did a struggling white writer of gay erotica become one of multicultural
literature's most celebrated memoirists -- by passing himself off as Native
The Nasdijj expose hit the stands the day before Oprah Winfrey's grilling
of author James Frey about misrepresentations in his memoir. In less than
one week, Random House's Ballantine imprint announced it would cease
shipping Nasdijj's "Geronimo's Bones" and "The Boy and the Dog are
Nasdijj was the darling of publishing for a hot minute. He won a
prestigious award intended for Native writers. Critics heaped praise on his
writing; one called it "achingly honest."
Native people who read Nasdijj's work did not believe he was a Native
writer because there was nothing familiar about the content. Non-Natives
embraced his work because of its familiarity -- it "derives its special
power from his ability to capture the universal emotions that we all
share," as one book cover put it.
It is this very familiarity that allows pseudo-Indians to rise so far so
fast in circles controlled by non-Indians. They write with what non-Indian
reviewers like to call "universal appeal," meaning that they appeal to
other non-Indians because they are non-Indian.
Once these pseudo-Indians are revealed as the non-Indians they actually
are, many of their enablers continue to support them, even chiding those
who have brought the hoax to light as mean-spirited, small-minded or
And what happens to the posers? Like actors who've deep-ended in their
roles, they either hold on to their fictionalized personae until the
laughing dies down and then adopt a "so what" attitude -- so what if I'm
not actually an Indian? I'm now an Indian expert by virtue of having
portrayed an Indian -- or they shift into another shape to please a new
And what happens to all the damage they caused and the money they made and
the accolades they garnered under false pretenses? They abscond with the
money and goods and leave the mess for the people they pretended to be.
The pseudo-Indians should not be held harmless. They should be made to pay.
There ought to be a law, you say? I couldn't agree more.
During the hearings in the 1980s on amendments to the Indian Arts and
Crafts Act, I testified on behalf of the National Congress of American
Indians that Congress should establish a new law that would authorize a
tribe to bring a federal action against those who profit from false claims
that they are people of that tribe.
And what about people who don't profit from their false Indian identities?
This is not the norm. In the vast majority of these cases, the non-Indians
are pretending to be Indians for profit of some kind -- for tenure, a job,
a book contract, a record deal, a movie role. Look into the eyes of a
pseudo-Indian and you see gold.
A new cause of action for Native nations should be more than a cease and
desist order. Budding pseudo-Indians should know that there are potential
consequences for identity theft.
There should be a law for Navajo Nation to sue Barrus for the profits he
made while committing the crime of stealing tribal identity.
There already are ways for Native writers, who were finalists for the
Native writing award that the Poets, Essayists and Novelists organization
bestowed on Barrus, to seek redress. Both Barrus and PEN should hope that
the snubbed writers don't use those laws to recover damages.
Some Native nations might not want to engage these fakers. Some may not
consider this offense against Native people to be offensive; perhaps the
same ones who think that the mascoting of their tribal identities and
heroes is not a problem. So, they wouldn't sue the pseudos.
Other tribes could exact some of the profits the pseudos made off their
good names and reputations, and could provide time in the slammer for the
offenders to reflect on their next career moves.
Here are four ways Congress could legislate to address this problem.
First, enact a statutory cause of action for Native nations to pursue
impostors across state lines, try them in tribal courts and impose triple
damages against those found to be guilty. These are offenses against a
particular people, who should have the authority to do something about
them. This authority does not exist under current law.
Second, amend the Indian Arts and Crafts Act to include all artists,
including but not limited to writers, dancers, singers, actors and
curators. The law now covers only visual artists. When its penalties were
increased more than 15 years ago, many pseudo-Indians traded their visual
art careers for writing and curating careers, and continue to vex Native
Third, amend the Federal Trade Commission's Indian arts and crafts statute
to include all arts marketed to the public. The FTC pursues these cases as
consumer fraud and encourages arts and crafts outlets to clearly mark
products as Native-made and non-Native made.
Bookstores do not differentiate between books written by Native people and
those whose authors are not Native. Anyone can write about anything they
want, but the public should be informed about which books are in a Native
person's voice and experience, and which are not.
Fourth, enact an updated version of the pseudo-Indian act, which was first
introduced in 1933, as part of the Indian Reorganization Act package. The
bill would have made it a "crime to represent one's self to be an Indian,
and providing punishment therefore." Its language was simple and direct:
"It shall be unlawful for any person other than an Indian to represent
himself to be an Indian for the purpose of obtaining employment or any
contract for the rendition of services, or of obtaining pecuniary or other
assistances, or of securing to himself or to any other person any of the
privileges or benefits conferred by law upon Indians. Any person violating
the provisions of this Act shall, upon conviction thereof, be fined not
more than $2,000 or imprisoned for not longer than one year, or both."
Congress needs to enact new authorities and to remove present restrictions
against tribes acting on their own in these areas. Congress also needs to
exercise its oversight responsibilities and let the federal agencies know
that this is a priority, and to provide monies to enforce existing laws.
Congressional members and staffers know what to do to properly address the
Barruses who perpetuate a fraud on Native and non-Native people. The
question is: Why don't they do it?
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the
Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian