“Did a struggling white writer of gay erotica become one of multicultural literature’s most celebrated memoirists—by passing himself off as Native American?” So asks L.A. Weekly in its current issue, which features a story by Matthew Fleischer on an author who calls himself Nasdijj and claims to be a Navajo.
Fake memoirs have made news lately, with the revelations surrounding James Frey, the author of the best-selling book A Million Little Pieces. Nasdijj, for his part, may simply be the latest in a long line of Indian hoaxers, whose ranks also include the radical professor Ward Churchill and Forrest Carter, the author of The Education of Little Tree.
Between 1960 and 2000, the number of Americans claiming Indian ancestry on their census forms jumped by a factor of six. Neither birthrates nor counting methodologies can account for this explosive growth. Instead, the phenomenon arises in large part from the increasingly idealistic place Indians occupy in the popular imagination. Much of it is based on harmless sentiment mixed into a hash of unverifiable family legends and wishful thinking among folks who hang dreamcatchers from their rearview mirrors. But for a distinct subset, it’s all about personal profit. They’re professional imposters who have built entire careers by putting the sham into shaman.
The most famous of these pretenders is probably Iron Eyes Cody, the actor who starred in those Keep America Beautiful television ads during the 1970s. It turns out that the tear—actually glycerin—trickling down his sad face wasn’t his only deception. Iron Eyes Cody was born Espera DeCorti, the son of Italian immigrants. His black hair and bronze skin apparently came from his mother’s Sicilian side. Although many Indians who met him harbored doubts about his true identity, Iron Eyes turned his trickery into a successful career in Hollywood. He performed as an Indian in more than a hundred films, all the while insisting that his father was Cherokee and his mother Cree. His published autobiography is a pack of lies. The full truth came out only after his death in 1999.
The latest phony Indian to be unmasked is Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado professor who recently ruffled feathers for calling the victims of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center “little Eichmanns” whose massacre was a “penalty befitting their participation in” global capitalism. Churchill is an all-too-predictable product of the modern academy. He is a tenured “ethnic studies” specialist, but he does not hold a doctorate in anything, and his scholarship, if it can be called that, is riddled with errors and left-wing posturing. The man is a buffoon.
One of the most common forms of exploitation involves white writers who don’t pretend to be Indians themselves but who claim special insights into Indian spirituality. In 1968, Carlos Castaneda, a UCLA graduate student in anthropology, published The Teachings of Don Juan, which was allegedly based on his clandestine visits with a reclusive Yaqui sorcerer in the Sonoran desert. The book purports to describe the mystical secrets of an ancient Indian faith, which happened to involve using a lot of hallucinogenic drugs. Castaneda’s ramblings were in tune with the turn-on, drop-out times. His book became an international bestseller. Castaneda spent the next three decades refusing interviews and issuing sequels based on his supposed encounters with a man nobody else ever met. He died in 1998.