Skip to main content

Jimmie Durham and the Race Pimps We Admire

Jimmie Durham has long employed the strategy of misrepresenting himself as Native for his own profit—and he’s not alone.

There’s a “Cherokee” artist named Jimmie Durham showing publicly for the first time in a long time in the U.S. Durham has at various times claimed to be born to the Wolf Clan (the most numerous Cherokee clan, conveniently enough) and to have known Cherokee before he knew English.

If anybody interrogates those assertions, they get pummeled by arguments that enrollment in the Cherokee Nation, the Eastern Band, or the United Keetoowah Band is no reliable marker of Cherokee culture. That is, the response is to an assertion nobody has made.

If you are a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, you can be hammered for being too white or too black as if your color were your identity. The argument is that you’re a paper Cherokee, co-operating with fake institutions set up by the colonists to divide us.


If you identify with the Eastern Band or the UKB, then you’ve bought into blood quantum, a method introduced by the colonists to disappear Indians over time. Once more, you are—knowingly or not—playing the colonial game.

Interrogating Durham’s identity is like interrogating Ward Churchill’s or Andrea Smith’s identity used to be. The conversation quickly falls down the rabbit hole and you easily lose sight of the truth in the smoke from all the burning straw men.

There is a body of English common law that might have pertained to the wannabe phenomenon if the same laws applied to everybody. There’s an old tort called “passing off” that allows entities being spoofed in the market place to recover whatever profit the faker raked in.

The common law got codified in copyright and trademark law and rules became necessary to divide the intellectual property turf. Indians, having more urgent work for the few lawyers they could afford, lost the rights they were born with to not just profit from tribal names but to control the quality.

You know, just like they lost the lands that now go by the United States, Canada and Mexico?

I do think one reason we get exercised about identity theft is that they’ve not just taken our identity—they have monetized it. It represents an ongoing process of separating Indians from anything that might be an asset up to and including their names.

Durham makes a fetish of refusing to translate the Cherokee words he laces into his works. I, too, lace a few Cherokee words into my work but not translating when you can is just rude.

However, Durham is 76 years old and in declining health. When The New York Times covered his new show, they came away with hints of an artist who may finally be figuring out nobody is going to say anything to him if all he claims is that he’s a descendant of Cherokees.

After having spent most of his career in Europe—where there is no end to the interest in American Indians or the gullibility of those who will offer their Euros for the label—he’s beginning to sound like a changed man, claiming to be “fed up at being pigeonholed as a Cherokee artist. I am perfectly willing to be called Cherokee,” he said, speaking slowly, thoughtfully. “But I’m not a Cherokee artist or Indian artist, no more than Brancusi was a Romanian artist.”

I can’t decide whether to cheer him on for his hard won wisdom or ask, sarcastically, how he thinks people got the idea that he’s a Cherokee artist? My heart tugs me toward the former. Persons of our age and state of health should appreciate wisdom, whatever the source. But I admit it’s hard to handle some of those fawning comments from the mainstream art world reported in the Times.

How did it feel, I wonder, to be a real Yaqui when Carlos Castaneda was riding high?

Anybody who dares to interrogate the Indian identity of somebody who has monetized it with no apparent connection to any Indian community had better be prepared for responses that have nothing to do with the questions being raised and for allegations that raising the questions carries the colonizer’s water.

Agreed that identity politics can be poisonous.

Agreed that the anthropologists finally got it right. “Race” is a category made up to explain differences but only does so in a probability sense. Blue eyes in a full-blooded Indian population are rare but not impossible.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Between 1948 and 1994, when South Africa practiced the industrial strength version of apartheid, babies born the “wrong” color came often enough that the government had a protocol for dealing with the birth certificate.

Indians had swapped genetic material with Norsemen before the Tainos discovered Columbus.

We need civil rights laws that ban disadvantaging people for looking different because the white supremacy movement is very much alive and feeling its oats with the election of President Trump, who kicked off his campaign claiming that brown people are rapists, though he’s careful to say he means brown people sin papeles.

Whenever racial fantasies get loose, “race pimps” slip into politics—but only the non-white race pimps catch hell. The white race pimps are clothed in an impenetrable armor of normalcy. When white race pimps act to protect the status quo, they are not change agents and therefore not threatening.

Indian identity is in a class by itself because so many Indian children have been stolen and raised without their culture, a culture that was, without exception, non-Christian before Columbus. Unless you are a fundamentalist Mormon, in which case Jesus Christ appeared here before the Middle East and people on this continent rode around on magic horses that left no trace in the fossil record.

In the 21st century, Indian identity among the settlers is all stereotype all the time. Race pimps abound, box-checking for fun and profit.

When a full blood may not be carrying indigenous culture, how do you make a principled decision about a box checker? How do you distinguish an Indian who has had the Indian in him killed to save him as a man from a card-carrying citizen of the Wanabi Nation?

With all of the practical issues that resist resolution, I am still not sure there is no line to be drawn.


Tribal governments get to define citizenship by blood quantum, direct descent, paternal descent, maternal descent, location of residence, service to the tribe—whatever.

But isn't the bottom line that you can't claim to be Indian? Rather, some Indian community has to claim you?

I'm not well fixed to set myself up as the identity police. If I go to a Stomp Dance, I'm a guest and lucky to be invited. I have long since given up what I called "the Battle of the Cherokee Verbs." The Cherokee verbs won.

But even if I am not very Indian, I can point to the same blood quantum as Chief John Ross and I didn't have to hire a genealogist to find what connections I have. I do have family in the Nation, and I can be embarrassed there by things I do here, and my public positions can embarrass my relatives.

My Indian identity, such as it is, frees me in some senses but limits me in other senses. (As does my judicial identity.) There are some places I can go because I am Indian (or a judge) and there are other places I can't go because I am Indian (or a judge).

When we allow people to self-identify as Indian they arrogate to themselves the freedom without the responsibility. They owe nothing to a tribe, whatever warm fuzzies they may have for "Native Americans" and our "plight."

Anybody besides me get tired of that "plight" crap? If my ethnic identity is a “plight,” what does that make the actual relatives of the wannabes? Everybody has real relatives and everybody has a real culture. It’s never necessary to go out and steal either and doing so disrespects the people you come from as much as it disrespects the people you exploit for profit.

If I need to shut up about drawing lines, I will. If the consensus among Indians is that we cannot and/or should not draw lines I will cease and desist. But until that consensus emerges, I will freely acknowledge the practical problems but still keep circling back to ask: isn't there a line somewhere? If the lines are imaginary, then we are all race pimps.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a retired Texas trial court judge and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.