Another "Indigenous" Icon Outed.
Today's newsletter is about journalistic malpractice, mystery horses & swamp devils, Sacheen Littlefeather, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond & some other things. Not in that order. But connected. Trust me.
So it’s turned out that the famous 1970s-era Native American Oscar gala celebrity activist, model and actress Sacheen Littlefeather wasn’t Apache or Yaqui or Native American in any way, after all, this past weekend’s San Francisco Chronicle has awkardly divulged.
Gosh. Who could have guessed? This edition of the Real Story is going to be a scandalous and content-rich long read, so get comfy in your seats.
It’s a small mercy, perhaps, that it is only now that some big-city journalism is being devoted to this half-century of pantomime, because Ms. Littlefeather died three weeks ago. You can read the New York Times’ glowing obituary here. And it’s just a little over three months since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got around to ceremonially apologizing to Littlefeather for how rudely she was treated on Oscar night in 1973.
That was when best-actor Oscar winner Marlon Brando refused to accept his award and had Littlefeather go up on stage in his place to protest Hollywood’s depiction of Native Americans down through the years. Quite a few of the celebrities in attendance that night were indeed vulgar and rude to Littlefeather. Until Will Smith smacked Chris Rock upside the head last March, the Littlefeather protest was the biggest awards ceremony disruption in the history of Ocars.
As it turns out, Sacheen Littlefeather never really existed. It was the invented name of a person with an invented life story and an invented Native American identity. This had been fairly widely understood in “Indian Country” for quite some time, and full marks to author, activist and journalist Jacqueline Keeler for telling the story straight, and for putting up with a barrage of abuse for doing so.
Littlefeather in fact was born Maria Louise Cruz in Salinas, California in 1946, the daughter of Manuel Ybarra Cruz, an American-born Mexican of Spanish ancestry, and Gertrude Barnitz, a white woman. The White Mountain Apache of Arizona know nothing about her or her family, and there is no evidence of any Yaqui connection to her family at all. Her sister Trudy told Keeler: “My father was who he was. His family came from Mexico. And my dad was born in Oxnard.” Her sister Rosalind: “It is a fraud. It’s disgusting to the heritage of the tribal people."
Before the weekend was out, a deafening roar of messenger-shooting erupted all over the place. Keeler has attracted the attention of quite a gallery of grudge-holding umbrage takers over the years, and they’re banging on about Keeler like crazy again.
Keeler’s alleged transgressions include nitpicky identity-policing and deference to colonialist tribal enrolment rules and an insistence on blood quantum and on rigid authenticity standards in her habitual outing of “pretendians.” So far as I’ve been able to determine these allegations against Keeler are rarely backed up by much in the way of real-world evidence. They’re all beside the point here anyway.
The complexity of Indigenous identity is a very real and often heartbreaking phenomenon arising from dislocations and adoptions and family dysfunction and stupidly wicked disenfranchisement laws. Debates about genuine “identity” and belonging, and differences of opinion and policy options, have been going on for decades among and between Indigenous scholars and tribal jurisdictions and lawyers.
It’s all very interesting. But it’s a distraction to bring any of that into Littlefeather’s case, just as it was a manipulative diversion to do so in the case of Joseph Boyden, Canada’s internationally-acclaimed author, high-society Indigenous interlocutor and friend of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who collaborated on a thing about residential schools with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
Boyden had variously claimed Indigenous identity as Metis, Mi’kmaq, Nipmuc, Anishinabe, Ojibwe, and Wasauksing. He once somehow situated his understanding of Indigenous life at least partly in his Uncle Erl (an irony alert is warranted here). Uncle Erl was a white man who boasted about having masqueraded for the tourists as “Injun Joe” selling curios from a wigwam at Algonquin Park in the 1950s, where he’d famously shot a tourist in the head, by accident.
After he was outed, Boyden settled on being an “eighth” aboriginal, and his legions of supporters insisted that this was a sufficient claim; after all, he was such an eloquent spokesperson for the Indigenous perspective, it was all for a good cause, so everyone should back off.
But all of that, too, was beside the point: Boyden had made a series of claims about himself that were patently untrue. Robert Jago’s inquiry into the whole Boyden affair for Walrus magazine is absolutely magisterial, and I don’t say that just because Jago speaks well of me in it.
The headline on Variety’s response to Keeler’s findings in the San Francisco Chronicle: How the Sacheen Littlefeather Controversy Exposes the Complexities of Identity and Who Gets to Call Themselves Native. Actually, no, it doesn’t. It appears quite plainly that Littlefeather was not who she said she was, and was not what she said she was. Either it’s true or it isn’t. It’s not complicated.
The wringer Keeler’s being put through for her trouble comes down at least partly to the emergence of what the essayist and author Wesley Yang calls a “successor ideology” that is replacing liberalism, all the while appropriating the language of liberalism. It’s an “authoritarian utopianism” that demands the substitution of fact-finding with the reinforcement of narrative, and the replacement of what we can say we know about the world with what we’re required to believe.
(I should confess that I’m sympathetic to Keeler here, having been put through that very wringer myself not long ago. It’s bruising, and I’d rather avoid the abuse altogether, which is why I’m leaving the matter of some recent revelations, and some Canadian acts of abominable journalism, on the far side of the paywall, below. If you don’t already, you should subscribe for the full ride.)
Contemporary truth-problematizing sociopathologies notwithstanding, the phenomenon of the “pretendian” is more than a century old. The beginning of Littlefeather’s story wasn’t so much in Salinas in 1946 as in a posh household in the English seaside town of Hastings, on September 18, 1888. In that place and on that date Archie Belaney was born. Belaney was a philanderer, a bigamist, a drunk and a fabulously successful author and self-promoter known to the world as Grey Owl, eventually eulogized by the Globe and Mail in 1938 as “the most famous of Canadian Indians.”
Except, of course, Belaney made it all up. He wasn’t a Scottish-Apache frontiersman from the Rio Grande, and as with Littlefeather, the facts about Grey Owl didn’t come into public view until after his death. The very day he died: “The North Bay Nugget ran a story it had sat on for three years, revealing that the famous Indian naturalist was actually an Englishman. . . a binge-drinking bigamist who had had five ‘wives.’ ”
Long story short: Belaney was a life-long con artist who met a teenaged Ojibway girl shortly after his arrival at Bear Island, married her, got her pregnant and abandoned her, then met a Metis girl and abandoned her as soon as he learned she was pregnant. After he married an Englishwoman and dumped her, he returned to his Ojibway girl, got her pregnant again, and dumped her again. He then married a strong-willed young Iroquois woman who more or less dumped him, then he married another woman who knew nothing about his previous liaisons, or about who he really was. Really sincere, that Grey Owl.
In the intervening years between the Englishman Grey Owl and the Mexican-American Littlefeather there has been a grotesque parade of white people masquerading as “Indians,” and they invariably exhibit at least one of a suite of stereotypical Indigenous character traits that seem to be irresistable to people of bourgeois avant-garde inclination.
The composite is the ideal “Indian,” a personality motif of the Euro-American imagination. It’s persisted from Indian through Aboriginal and First Nations to Indigenous, and from Edwardian romanticism to New Age ditziness. The names and nomenclature change but they’re always the noble and long-suffering victims of The White Man. Seekers of justice. Truthtellers. Marginalized and colonized and “at one with nature,” possessed of secret wisdom and ancient ways of knowing. Neolithic hippies, in other words. Infantilized, in other words.
Or they’re proselytizers of the stereotype of the Indigenous as enchantingly tragic children of the forest. An especially malignant iteration of this trope was the best-selling memoir (or so it was described) titled The Education of Little Tree: A True Story by Forrest Carter, first published only three years after Littlefeather’s consciousness-raising Oscars night effort. The purported memoir of a Cherokee, the memoir pushed all the right Noble Red Man buttons: an idyllic Indigenous childhood, ruined by being sent off to residental school. The book spent months on the New York Times bestsellers list.
It turned out that the author, Forrest Carter, was really Asa Earl Carter, a notorious white supremacist, speechwriter for the execrable Alabama governor George Wallace and the founder of an especially violent wing of the Ku Klux Klan. A republished edition of the book in the 1980s earned buckets of money for the University of New Mexico Press - an academic publishing house, no less.
Carter’s made-up story was turned into a successful Hollywood film by Paramount Pictures in 1997, six years after the book was exposed as a hoax. Among the film’s stars were the celebrated Indigenous Canadian actors Tantoo Cardinal and Graham Greene. The movie was greeted warmly by what you could call the Littlefeather community, although the Los Angeles Times considered the film just a tad too preachy and predictable. With one or two exceptions “every white person in the picture is a buffoon or a racist or both.”
But there’s always an appetite among the movie-going and book-buying public for that sort of thing, and it’s understood to be a vast improvement over the days of John Wayne shoot-em-ups and Indians falling off their horses. I’ll let my subscribers be the judge of that.
An instance every bit as malignant, this time from the “left,’ was the mess made by Ward Churchill, a loudmouth from the ethnic studies department of the University of Colorado who enjoyed the same limelight as the counterculture gurus Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore until around 2005. That’s when the Rocky Mountain News started looking into who he really was.
It turned out there was absolutely nothing to Churchill’s insistent claims to be Muskogee, Creek and Keetowah Cherokee. A survey of more than 140 of Churchill’s forebears failed to come up with a single Native American. The History News Network maintains a handy archive of the scandals associated with Churchill here.
Churchill’s crackpottery persists on Beijing’s propaganda platforms, notably his academic disinformation about smallpox. Churchill invented a genocide involving the U.S. Army deliberately spreading smallpox by distributing contaminated blankets among the Mandan people in the 1830s.
From the same quarter, oh dear: The leader of New York City’s most prominent and vocal Indigenous group fabricated their tribal affiliation after taking a DNA test, an investigation by Indianz.Com has found. That’s from this past February. It turns out that the “Mississippi Choctaw” Regan Brook Loggans, a German-born U.S. citizen, has been doing quite well for herself.
Here’s a comparatively benign iteration, from just last week: A scholar who has made a name for herself in Native food sovereignty circles has vowed to stop claiming to be of “Mohawk/Mi’kmaq descent” after looking into her background.
There’s almost always the excuse, when they’re outed, that their fakery was all in a good cause. Here again is Variety, that standard-bearer of Hollywood’s elevated values: So what about Littlefeather? First off, I don’t presume to know about her tribal connections. What I do know is that she has been a strong voice in the Native community and that she has created space for other Natives to feel empowered in their Indigeneity.
If you say so.
Back in the 1990s, the great David Attenborough cast Pierce Brosnan as Archie Belaney in a sympathetic biographical feature film, and Belaney is still celebrated by Ontario’s Minstry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, which invites outdoorsy types to retrace Belaney’s travels through Temagami country: “Grey Owl was an advocate for nature, speaking about the beaver and its impending extinction, and was one of Canada’s earliest conservationists.”
Actually the beaver wasn’t facing impending extinction, and that wasn’t the only thing Belaney was wrong about. Those hippie “hunter-gatherers” weren’t as ecologically benign as we’ve been led to believe. I’ll come to that on the other side of the paywall too.
As a conservationist, Belaney’s mawkish writing appeals mainly to certain kinds of English people who throw themselves in front of horsemen at fox hunts. His "aboriginal rights" message was mainly sentimental mumbo jumbo and not the hard reality of aboriginal title and common law and constitutional jurisprudence. His depiction of Indigenous people as cheerful, tawny-skinned canoeists, "carefree and debonair, wild, reckless and fancy-free, gay caballeros riding the hurricane deck" was, well, it was what it was.
It was every bit as bad as a bad John Wayne movie, only it was presentable to the respectable classes. It’s the sort of imagery that ended up embedded in the Euro-American imagination. It’s stuck there to this day, and it’s messed with our heads badly.
One last thing before we get to the serious stuff on the other side of the paywall about Canadian journalistic malpractice, mystery horses & swamp devils and the fallout from the CBC’s blockbuster about the serially-decorated jurist & activist Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.
It involves those darned white people again, I’m afraid. This time, they were really trying to be nice, as they often are, and a lot of Indigenous people have gone along with it, some perhaps unwittingly, others contentedly, to be good sports.
It may surprise you to learn, even if you’re a fairly well-informed British Columbian, that the Coast Salish people and the Salish Sea and so on are terms that come from a word that occurs in no Indigenous language and was never a marker of Indigenous identity or territory, but is rather a mispronunciation of the word for “person” used by a tribe of buffalo hunters in what is now Montana.
How the hell it happened that this mispronunciation from a time and place hundreds of kilometres from the seacoast ended up delineating the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca is quite the deal.
That mispronunciation ended up the term assigned to a broadly-defined linguistic family to which the language of those buffalo hunters (who went on to be called the “Flathead tribe” by Europeans) belonged. Linguists later subdivided this language family, as amazingly diverse as Indo-European, into Interior Salish and Coast Salish. Among the peoples who speak what linguists will call one of the several “Coast Salish” languages are the aboriginal peoples of the newly-described “Salish Sea”, along with the people who speak the isolated Nuxalk language in the north, in the Bella Coola Valley, and the Quinault language of the southern Washington coast.
This is not just a “language” problem we have here. The anthropologist Wayne Suttles spoke of the problem of the “anthropological myth” of the Coast Salish as having severely stunted our view of who these peoples were and are, exactly, and where they came from. It is still common in academic circles to rely on foundational texts that presume a late arrival of the Coast Salish peoples from the interior, and a Coast Salish cultural complex that is largely derivative of the Wakashan cultures (the Nuu-chah-nulth and the Kwagewlth peoples).
“As with other such myths, we can ask why people believe in them,” Suttles wrote. “I suspect that it is because sometimes they allow us to limit our horizons and exercise our prejudices.”
I wrote about all this, in passing, in a chapter of this book. And I don’t make the case against the recent inauguration of the “Salish Sea” in the popular lexicon, to the extent that it is an attempt at paying tribute to the aboriginal peoples of the region. It’s just that it’s a white thing, is all.
And I don’t mean to be uncharitable to Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, either, but the truth is she may now be fairly described as a white lady from Niagara Falls, Ontario, and not the decorated Treaty Cree person from Norway House, Manitoba, who was recently a candidate to become the first Indigenous justice on the Supreme Court of Canada.
So, now for the rough stuff.