Maria Polletta, USA Today, December 1, 2017
[Sen. Elizabeth Warren] — a Massachusetts Democrat who claimed Cherokee and Delaware tribal heritage based on family lore — isn’t the first person to make questionable claims of Native American ancestry.
The term “Pretendians” was coined to mock those who engage in the practice, from Johnny Cash and Miley Cyrus to Bill Clinton and Johnny Depp.
In 2015, a full 68% of people who identified as multiracial in a national Pew Research Center study said they were part American Indian.
“There’s this sort of fantasy or ideal type of Native people want to be, based on what they see in Hollywood,” said Blackhorse, a Navajo Nation member who lives in Phoenix. “When it comes to our land issues, to our water rights, to the constant battle we have to face every single day, where are these people that claim to be Native?”
A persistent pattern
Tiya Miles, a University of Michigan professor specializing in Native American, Afro-American and African studies, said the U.S. “has a long tradition of non-Native people performing as ‘Indians’ and/or publicly laying claim to American Indian identities, especially in the aftermath of dispossessing actual indigenous people of their lands.”
False claims of Native American ancestry date back at least 120 years, when a federal commission required Native Americans to register on the Dawes Rolls as part of a land-allotment plan.
“Mainly white men with an appetite for land” saw the Dawes Rolls as an opportunity, according to a report by Indian Country Today. They paid $5 each for fake documents declaring them Native American on the rolls “to reap the benefits that came with having Indian blood.”
In 1971, an iconic “Keep America Beautiful” ad featured Iron Eyes Cody as a Native American lamenting the destruction of his land. The actor claimed Native American heritage and took on Native American roles in hundreds of films before being exposed as Espera Oscar de Corti, a Sicilian-American with zero Native ancestry.
In 1976, the novel “The Education of Little Tree” debuted as a memoir based on Cherokee author Forrest Carter’s childhood in the mountains. Forrest Carter was later revealed as Asa Earl Carter, a former Ku Klux Klan leader with no Cherokee background.
Dubious declarations of Cherokee heritage persist today, particularly in the southeastern part of the country. At one point, the Cherokee Nation created a task force to address rampant false ancestry claims.
Though Cherokee people did interact with and marry white settlers more often than members of other nations — in addition to holding black slaves, who were granted Cherokee Nation citizenship after the Civil War — experts say the number of supposed Cherokee descendants seems unlikely.
Why fake it?
Native American-ancestry claims might arise from a genuine desire to learn about one’s heritage, or stem from an oversimplified view of what it means to be Native American.
Another explanation involves not wanting to “be on the side of the oppressor,” according to writer Anna Pulley, who is half white and half Tewa.
Given the atrocities committed against Native Americans by Europeans and later the U.S. government, “ethnically aligning oneself with a historically oppressed people makes one feel less guilty,” Pulley wrote last year.
In 2012, Warren’s Republican opponent, Scott Brown, accused Warren of using her background to get hired at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania.
Benefits without costs
Brown’s allegations haven’t been verified, and Warren’s heritage claims haven’t been disproved. But there’s truth behind the idea that white people who falsely claim Native American origins might obtain aid they have no right to.
Beyond scholarship and job opportunities, enrolled tribal members are eligible for health care, housing and casino profits. Descendants of the white settlers who paid for fraudulent inclusion on the Dawes Rolls could access those benefits.
“Someone that doesn’t actually have Native ancestry hasn’t lived the life of turmoil and struggle that we have,” said Chandler resident Jared Yazzie, a Navajo fashion designer.
“If you came up in the Native community or with that skin color, you definitely experienced things in a different way. We need to be able to speak for ourselves.”