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Identity, part deux

In l'affair Churchill, many non-Native people are amazed that there are
non-Native people who take on the identity of a Native person.

Pseudo-Indianism is a well-known phenomenon in Indian country.
Pseudo-Indians usually have some useful skills, but their real talent is
their ability to con kind-hearted, trusting people into validating them as

Here are some familiar traits of pseudo-Indians.


There are many legit Indian and non-Indian people who are enthusiastically,
unselfishly, tirelessly helpful to Indian people and causes. These generous
traits are welcomed by many Native people, especially those who are
overworked, understaffed, impoverished, stressed out or under siege.

Educator Norbert Hill, Oneida, gave Ward Churchill his first job at the
University of Colorado - even though Hill recognized him as an Indian
"wannabe" - because Hill's program needed help and Churchill was an eager

Churchill and many pseudo-Indians initially act like eager beavers. The
difference between Indian and non-Indian eager beavers on the one hand and
pseudo-Indian eager beavers on the other is that the pseudo-Indians are the
ones pretending to be something they are not: Indians.

There are people who don't think that lying about being Native is a serious
matter, or even a lie. It's more like a white lie, a pen name or a hobby.
Actually, lying about being Native is more like identity theft, using a
stolen passport or falsifying sworn documents. It is not victimless.

Pseudo-Indians are masters of distraction. Churchill is a classic
obfuscator, as evidenced by the way he has kept reporters in Colorado
running in circles chasing his biography, which is an unbroken chain of
white roots linking back to southern Illinois and northern Europe.

When pressed, Churchill plays the "Indian" victim and makes a bid for
sympathy. When pressed harder, he goes on the attack. These are typical
reactive traits of pseudo-Indians.


When asked about their Native nation or relatives, the weeping willows duck
the answers and sob on the shoulders of peaceful folks about the mean
"inquisitors" who hurt their feelings, when all the weepers are trying to
do is to help the Indian people (as opposed to the mean Indians who don't
do anything to help the people).


These pseudo-Indians are defensive to the point of offensiveness. When
asked about their identity, they strike out against the "accusers." The
pricklies attack anyone who doesn't support their false claims about their
Indian-ness, usually accusing the questioners of being pseudo-Indians.


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This is a unique subset of pseudo-Indians. The spy's Indian persona is also
calculated for effect, but the spy is on a particular mission and the
non-spies are more random. All pseudo-Indians are mercenaries adopting
Indian disguises for profit - and it's often hard for communities to know
what they're dealing with until and unless there is an unmasking.

In Churchill's case, he says he's 1/16 Cherokee, although he's not been
able to produce any evidence to support any claim to being any Indian of
any nation. His mouthpiece, activist Russell Means, has defended Churchill
in recent weeks by condemning one of his detractors as "only 1/8 Indian."
Let's see, that would make Churchill's nemesis twice as much Indian by
blood as Churchill.

Churchill is not a citizen of any Native nation. That is to say, he is not
recognized by any of the various peoples he has claimed. Muscogee (Creek)
Nation says he is not a Creek citizen. Cherokee Nation says he is not a
Cherokee citizen. The Keetoowah Band says he's not a Keetoowah citizen.

When confronted with these facts, Churchill attacks the sovereignty of
Native nations to determine their citizenship, much as Means has attacked
the sovereign authority of Navajo Nation to prosecute him for abuse of
Navajo citizens.

Means says that it's what's in your heart that matters. But he knows well
that his own Oglala people would laugh anyone out of the room who used that
criteria for stepping into treaty deliberations, voting in tribal elections
or obtaining kidney dialysis treatment.

It is important for people who deal with affirmative action and the honor
system in educational settings to understand that being a tribal person is
not a matter of self-declaration or a racial matter. It is a political,
legal matter. It is citizenship and only a Native nation can determine its

Churchill and his supporters would substitute themselves for Native nations
in deciding who are Native citizens, but tribal and federal laws say they
can't do that.

Churchill's lawyer is attempting to distract the University of Colorado
faculty members who are examining this issue by raising the specter of Nazi
racial purity. He, his client and Means are the only people talking about
blood and pedigree, and Churchill is the only German in the debate.
Cherokee Nation doesn't have a blood quantum standard for citizenship.

Let us review.

Churchill is not a citizen of any Indian nation, so he is not Indian by any
known political standard based in tribal law, treaties, nation-to-nation
dealings or federal Indian law.

Churchill is not Indian by family. This is not a situation where a person
cannot qualify for tribal citizenship, but has an Indian mother or father,
or even an Indian grandparent.

Churchill is not Indian culturally. He was raised by white people as a
white person in white communities. No amount of bombast turns that into an
Indian cultural background. At nearly 60 years of age, he has not connected
culturally with any of the Native peoples he has claimed.

This, by the way, is usually what people mean by "Indian at heart" -
someone who sings, dances and takes part in the cultural life of a Native
nation, even if that person is not Native. In Churchill's case, he has done
none of that.

Churchill is Indian by imagination. He is now concocting a tale that he
believed he was Indian by family mythology, to which he applied zero
critical examination. He then needs to explain how this thread became
specific to varying Native nations and became a special tribal, cultural
experience that gave him the edge in employment and publishing.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the
Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C. and a columnist for Indian
Country Today.