In 2015, the media exploded with coverage about a woman who claimed she was African American. Her name is Rachel Dolezal, and her name has since become synonymous with racial scandal and identity confusion. While the world watched Dolezal’s tall tales unfold, and while her web of lies and deception grew more and more tangled with each passing (news)day, I inwardly sighed and tried to impress upon my social circle, those IRL and on social media, “this is nothing new for us, Natives.” And to borrow an apropos lyric “that don’t impress me much” from Shania Twain, a white pop star from the 90s, whose own identity was not without its share of complications (her stepfather was Ojibway).
Well, wouldn’t you know it, like the Eveready Energizer bunny, Dolezal is back in the news again, giving interviews and promoting her new book, so I thought this would be an opportunity to share my riveting story about the time I personally met Rachel Dolezal—back when she used to be Indigenous! Yes, that’s right, Rachel Dolezal used to be Native American! An obscure fact only myself and a handful of people are privy to. Today, I’m breaking my silence.
It happened over a decade ago when I was writing an investigative think piece in response to pretendianism. Critical questions I wished to explore were, who are these pretendian persons? Where did they come from? Why are they here? Why did that one steal my job? What’s with all the turquoise accessorizing and black shoe polish? I needed some answers. Interestingly enough, since pretendians make up somewhere in the ballpark of 54 percent of the population in the United States (I’m no statistician, but that’s a huge percentage!) I didn’t have to journey far for answers. Turned out, it wasn’t the epic quest I’d imagined. I didn’t have to team up with Gandalf and my hobbit friends, and traverse through mountains, snow, darkness, forests, rivers and plains, facing evil and danger at every corner to destroy the One Ring in the hopes for ending the Dark Lords reign. But, boy howdy, it was close!
I called up a friend of a friend of this one guy who had a cousin, who knew a pretendian, and the pretendian graciously agreed to meet me at a nearby teashop for an interview. (Speaking of a friend of a friend, I assumed pretendians fit into the rubric of six degrees of separation, except they actually don’t—more like two degrees of separation, again, I’m not a statistician.)
Upon entering the teashop—aptly called Animal Spirit Teashop—I noted the ambient tones of the so-called Native American flute wafting from the speakers, the sweet aroma of sage and patchouli, patrons lounging on large cushions, some quietly talking, some blissfully nodding off. I had the odd sensation of being inside an opium den, circa 1920, San Francisco. Had I just blood quantum leaped?
The pretendian subject’s name was Faith Eagle Nebula, and yep, that’s right, known today as Rachel Dolezal! Ms. Dolezal—or rather Ms. Eagle Nebula—indicated in her email that she had long, black hair (a weave it turns out), and that she would be wearing a peasant skirt and Birkenstocks, a description that fit 99 percent of the patrons in the teashop, which forced me to break out my specialized Indian radar to locate her. When that didn’t work, fortunately, the Grandfathers stepped in and brought Faith Eagle Nebula to me; Faith tapped me on the shoulder and introduced herself. Pure magic!
Faith Eagle Nebula was adorned in her pretendian regalia just as she described, her peasant skirt pooling onto the floor and dragging behind her like a bridal train. “I’m Faith.” She said, her eyes sparkling, her cheeks rosy as a postcard sunset. She smelled strongly of spices and wind chimes tinkling in the breeze, that is if wind chimes even had a particular smell. Very strange. She led me to a cozy nest of pillows and we laid down to begin the interview. From my lounging position I scanned the ceiling, taking note that it was plastered with figures from the Zodiac. Faith offered to massage my back, but I managed to politely decline.
My first question to Rachel Dolezal, aka Ms. Eagle Nebula, was how she got her name. I’m sure it was impolite of me to ask, but any investigative journalist worth her salt has to ask the hardline questions. She responded by gesturing dramatically, and then said that her name came to her in a dream. Elaborating further, she said that like many other pretendians she’d carried other names throughout her life too. Her first pretendian name was “Roadkill Squirrel,” a name which she said she couldn’t talk about, because it was too upsetting. Other pretendian names she’d carried in previous lifetimes included “Dances Thru Meadows Womyn,” “Frolics on Freeways,” “Laughs With Salad,” and “Stands With Handcuffs”—the last one, she explained, was given to her during her political activism years. She asked me my own pretendian name, and I humored her and said it was “Dances Through Drive-thrus.” She nodded and mumbled “Aho.
I asked Rachel Dolezal, aka Ms. Eagle Nebula, about her ethnicity, her specific tribal affiliation, and who her relatives were. Ms. Eagle Nebula responded quickly by excusing herself to get us another pot of yerba mate. It was almost as if she was avoiding my question! She was gone for what seemed an eternity, and when she came back to our soft nest of colorful cushions, she was without the pot of yerba mate, but said she’d like to smudge me. I reluctantly agreed, and while she checked her iPhone for sacred winds and good medicine, I crossed my fingers behind my back to ward off whatever strange spell she might be putting on me. You can never be too careful.
When I resumed my interview, asking again about her ethnicity, tribe, and relatives, she said that whenever she filled out the ethnicity sections of job, grant, or health applications, she always checked the “it’s complicated” box. I told her that wasn’t a box but a relationship status on Facebook, and she replied that she was aware of that, but that she always added it, as a safeguard. She also said that she writes in “high cheekbones” when applications ask for proof of tribal citizenship, implying that she’s from the “High Cheekbone band of the Pretendian Nation.” Then, Faith made the sign of the cross, and said that her spirit animal was the wolf, at which point I threw up in my mouth a little bit.
I asked Ms. Eagle Nebula whether she was aware that pretendians present a real and present danger to the integrity of Native communities, because they usurp authentic Native voices, dilute, cheapen, and perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Ms. Eagle Nebula appeared unfazed by this information, and pivoted my questions by announcing that she had received a vision while browsing the Aztec-inspired crop tops at Old Navy. “Those crop tops were amazing! I bought a dozen of them.” She said. And followed with excitedly telling me about her lunch the day before at Panda Express. “You know, I used the WHOLE part of the Chicken Kung Pao entrée, even the leftover chopsticks!” Faith removed the chopsticks from the top knot bun in her hair, and placed them in my hand, as a gift, after which the fire alarm sounded off and the tea baristas began ushering people out of the shop. I gathered up my belongings and rushed out, following the stampede of dream catcher earrings, turquoise squash blossom necklaces, and Birkenstocks to safety. Off from the distance, I heard fire trucks and emergency vehicles speeding to the scene. What kind of uncanny magic was this?!
Once on the street, I waved goodbye to Rachel Dolezal, aka Faith Eagle Nebula, and offered a shrug, which is the international gesture for wadda ya gonna do. She bowed in return, before being whisked onto the back of a pink unicorn and ferried away into a puff of rainbow cotton-candy clouds. On the way back to my office, I ran through a set of lawn sprinklers, in hopes that I could shower off the encounter and rid my clothes from the reek of patchouli.
While I did not complete the interview, I hope to interview Rachel Dolezal again some time, and once and for all, get to the bottom of the perplexing phenomena of pretendian culture; a mystery akin to the Egyptian tombs, the Bermuda Triangle, and the Lost City of Atlantis. Aho.
Tiffany Midge is an assistant poetry editor at The Rumpus, and an award-winning author of The Woman Who Married a Bear. Her work is featured in McSweeney's, The Rumpus, Okey-Pankey, The Butter, Waxwing, and Moss. She is Hunkpapa Lakota. Follow her on Twitter @TiffanyMidge.