The Problem with Pretendians

If you’re a Native American writer, or if you’re Native, or frankly, if you’re alive in the United States, you have talked to someone who claims to be part Cherokee. And you have probably thought: dude, this person does not seem like they have anything to do with Cherokees or any other Indians. And this is not to give carte blanche to folks who want to tell us how we look. America, you have no idea what we look like, mixed or not. And I want to be clear: I am not picking on the (three) federally recognized Cherokee Nations, or anyone who is a citizen of one of them. In fact, I generally feel bad for these folks, because they are so often the butt of jokes in Indian Country. Who I’m talking about are people who have absolutely no idea what it is to live as a Native person on a day to day level, but who love the pan-Indian, romanticized, generalized nature-loving/spiritual idea of Native people and because they don’t know Native people, this seems like an identity up for grabs.

The United States is a nation that has experienced genocide, and Native people are still experiencing the effects of that genocide on reservations, in cities – and in small towns. I don’t think it’s capitulation to what a lot of Native writers are calling poverty porn to say that in terms of education, economics and frankly – survival, as our suicide rates are miserably high – that we have a lot to contend with. So when people want to claim that they’re part of something that they don’t have to live with, in terms of the very real consequences of genocide on a day to day level, you can’t blame us for getting huffy, for calling people like this Pretendians when they do.

But what’s the actual, concrete harm that these folks are doing, you might ask. Well, as evidenced by the deeply flawed “survey” done by The Washington Post, plenty. This survey, of random Americans on the east coast, made Americans think that most Native Americans are totally cool with Indian mascots. But, if you ask the people you’re surveying this question how they feel about the mascot issue, and then ask them what race they identify with the most – the “Native Americans” who are totally down with Indian mascots – will answer white. Not Native American. And, as the article I linked to above that speaks to the original survey and then some shows, this kind of thing does deep damage, damage that arguably exacerbates those very real consequences of genocide.

It doesn’t stop there. Because as silly as this kind of self-identification is, it usually doesn’t extend to these people’s careers, even if it’s having an overall effect on Indian Country that isn’t good. You won’t generally find a Pretendian who has built their careers as an accountant around the idea that they are Native American.

However, when you’re talking about writers, that’s not true. There are a (thankfully) short list of truly visible folks who have. And this is where the current kerfuffle – and all such kerfuffles in Indian Letters – began. 

Honestly, there are only two “native” writers that I can think of (who anyone outside of the native writing world would know of) who haven’t been called out whose work and claims to Native identity are particularly egregious. One of them changes her nation every year, stirs shit up whenever she can, makes sure that she is buddies with everybody who looks full-blooded so as to push any questions off of herself and does things for people so that she can ask immediately for things back. But here’s the thing: no one in Indian Country publicly goes after her because she publishes everybody in Indian Country. The other one has a made up Indian-sounding last name because she doesn’t understand that our last names, if they are traditional, are passed down generation to generation and that we don’t just make them up in some sort of weird “ceremony” that probably involves a self-made drum bought from materials garnered from Hobby Lobby. 

Honestly, they’re a little bit funny. But why people in Indian Country are so mad at them – and at the Native writers that folks have deemed not-so-Native, is that because their work capitulates to what the wider world thinks of as Native American, and these are exactly the kind of folks who often win awards. Or recognition. Or jobs.

And I get it, that’s incredibly frustrating.

What people have proposed is that we should use the Indian arts and crafts law and apply it to literature. What a great idea! It would ensure that anyone who even claims that they are Native American who isn’t enrolled in a federally recognized nation would get in a lot of trouble. And certainly the two that I mentioned in the last paragraph would fall away. But unlike literature, crafts make money. That’s why that law was created, not to decide who was Indian in this country, but to prevent countries like China mass-marketing pseudo-Indian items and frankly, from taking away the revenue of people who need it. But applying it would eliminate the Pretendians and their kind. But it would also eliminate the people whose parents are enrolled but they can’t be enrolled. Why? Because they might (possibly even) be full blooded but the blood quantum requirements are not something that they can make for any nation. Most nations have a blood quantum requirement, an issue so hotly debated in Indian Country that getting into it would take an entirely separate article. It would also eliminate the people whose families left when their nations were removed, forcibly to Oklahoma – whose nations then promptly lost federal recognition. People whose families didn’t know that federal recognition would be applied for again, not too many years later. People who can’t enroll because their ancestors were not there at the right time – but who are quite often culturally, and ethnically Native American. Because yes, nations keep great records – but you had to be there, and some people split, not because they were jerks, but because they had families to feed.

Recently, a writer friend told me that she’d lost her tribal ID and that calls to her nation weren’t helping (if you know anything about how paperwork works in Indian Country, this will come as no surprise). Is she out? Are people who were forcibly adopted out by the government as a covert attempt at relocation/assimilation and have no way to know what nation they’re from out? How about people whose mothers were really into Indian dudes – but also who don’t know which one their father is, but who live with being recognizably Indian every day? How about Latinos who have zero enrollment system, but who are ethnically and culturally Indian? GONE, you Pretendians.

But you know who would stay? That Smelcer guy that everybody went after who is so obviously full of shit. If you don’t know anything about him, he was one of the Pretendians who has been called out – again and again, only to pop up again and again, with bigger and bigger publications and even more outlandish tales about his unique and authentic Indian-ness and wonderful writer creds (often in the form of blurbs by writers who aren’t alive anymore). But he could remain on the real Indians TM  bookshelf for sure. Because like it or not folks – that dude is enrolled. I’ve seen the paperwork. You know who else could stay? Every fucking body who is 1/2000 but enrolled because of some inconceivably tiny blood quantum requirement for their nation. I know – I know – colonialism, and race is a construction, and it should be about language and culture and land and everything – and I mainly agree with that, but sometimes come the fuck on.

And let’s not stop there. Because I know Indians who think that you’re a Pretendian even if you’re enrolled, if you don’t live on a reservation, or if you’re mixed, or if you grew up on the edge of a Rez, or if you can pass for white (which that seems to depend on where you live).

Don’t get me wrong. Pretendians annoy the hell out of me – and they do capitulate to all of the stupid shit in their work that makes our lives worse. But I have to say, there are plenty of very enrolled Indians who absolutely capitulate to the same: the narrative of Native Americans that white people love, which is the weird, generic, pan Indian thing that the assholes above capitulate to – or the one which it makes it look like every one of us are from reservations and if we are not, we are not real Indians TM, all while the great majority of those folks have white spouses and don’t live on reservations. Not that I care about that shit because I don’t, I have a couch from Anthropologie for fuck’s sake. But see, I don’t care – but the government does – or your tribal nation. And so those kids or their kids…will be Pretendians. The other thing perfectly enrolled Indians do, is to sometimes cheat on their wives, while others are full on predators – but as long as they blurb our books and are famous and might help us just might might, we will turn our heads from their behavior. Because Pretendians! that’s what’s important. A year or so ago I posted a letter that a lot of men from the black writing community had signed – about how they weren’t going to tolerate this behavior anymore. The Native writing world was mainly silent, except for one woman who said she’d “check on it.” Needless to say, she never got back to me, because there was nothing to check on.

Not to mention the massive quantities of white people instructing the next generation of Native writers at indigenous institutions, which no one seems to much care much about, ironically. These are the folks who occasionally dole out the treats that lead to publication, so I guess they get a pass. We are so used to looking up to white people and frankly, they can get us things when they feel that we are real Indians TM.

This is why writers that I talk to who actually, often are enrolled are staying the fuck away from the whole thing and never telling their incredibly important stories that don’t happen to belong to any of these narratives – because they want nothing to do with this. And this is a real loss in Native Letters. Their stories are holes in the fabric of who we are, and they need to be there so that we – us – can get the full story. There is so much to us, our lives, that isn’t getting told or published, because it wouldn’t make white people feel sorry for us. Or because it makes them feel guilty. Or because it doesn’t include them at all.

I don’t know what to do about the fact that there are only certain folks getting jobs, contracts, attention. And if you do know anything about this whole thing, you know about the Joseph Boyden controversy, a sort-of-Native dude who won all of the awards, and who Natives got really really mad at. But what did Boyden really do? Honestly, he made a lot of money that a lot of Natives that come from clearly native backgrounds didn’t. And that is because of this bullshit industry. And it’s also because, and I think this of the morons I mentioned above, people know that they are essentially white and we have learned to take Indian stories from the “real” authorities – white people. As far as I understand it though, he never made any false claims. He always said that his ancestry, as a Native person, was pretty distant. Jesus, this isn’t a black-and-white narrative, it would be so much easier if it was. No one would be arguing if it was. But it isn’t because of genocide and colonialism and institutionalized racism. But what folks like Boyden get from his predominately white background, is the authority to tell other’s stories. And he’s good at it folks – we have to admit that that is some of why he won those awards. And that’s the other issue attached to this thing that I am personally very uncomfortable with, because I know how territorial Indians are. I just don’t write about anything that is too far away from my experience (as Boyden did), even if I’m loathe to write autobiographically. Because there comes a point where you have to say these people can speak for themselves. Which is why all the anger. So perhaps that’s the answer, not writing about shit that really isn’t yours to write about. And if somebody wants to write about the fact that they love trees and their great great grandmother escaped (somehow, at gunpoint) from the trail of tears, that’s their stupid fucking experience, let them write about it.

And all this current identity kerfuffle, this recent shit stirring because someone is upset at the portrayal of herself in her exes’ memoir. The ex, I guess, was initially encouraged to think of herself – a person whose background was pretty close to Boyden’s – as Native, so as to procure a job at an Native institution. But when the ex became an ex – she wrote all about her relationship.  I would not like this either. This is why I do not date nonfiction writers. But the issue with this person online revolved entirely around her (now?) Pretendian-ness. And the online shit-stirring began. But this is the worst thing in the world to do when it comes to Indians because, honestly? We cray about this issue. And for a reason. There are more books written about us by far in our own country than written by us – enrolled or not – and it is maddening, especially during the Trumpacolypse. The thing that folks keep saying about this situation is, but the ex researched it, and it turned out she was white. You can research all you want, but if your family was not at a certain place at a certain time, you could be so full-blooded you shit headdresses, but dude, you’re not going to be enrolled. And everyone in Indian Country knows this. And what if this person had been able to enroll as 1/2000 whatever. How the hell would that have changed her life, everything that had come before? Would she magically be Indian? And then what would we have had to lambast about her online about, all because somehow we got enlisted in some famous writer’s breakup? No offense dude, but I did not want to know about that.

I wish this were simple, this whole thing. But it’s not. And my thought is, beware the writer who wants you to think that it is.

Recently, on the forum where this whole thing took place, two writers, both who I like, kept the ol’ fires burning on this thing that won’t die. One of them said, isn’t this an issue of sovereignty? Would this even matter if we were looking at it through this lens? And the other writer, who is sick of your shit – and yours – and frankly, sick of the shit that the first writer has given her about earlier issues joked about banishing him from the whole discussion. Then there was the writer who I also really like, who had responded by saying that any Native writer that he deemed questionable was on a separate shelf from the real Native American TM  writers, and that these books were scheduled for termination.

I don’t know man.

Look, let me tell you something my dude says. It’s a thing that makes sense. He has four things that for him, that you have to at least one of them going on for him to feel like you’ve got a tangible connection to being Native.

  • Enrollment in federally recognized nation.
  • Enrollment in a State recognized nation.
  • A family member who is enrolled in a federally or state recognized nation.
  • You or your family has/have a personal connection to a Native community

(not necessarily connected to a reservation) where the community recognizes you or them as Native.

It kind of reminds me of what one of my friends – who is Choctaw – said to me once. She said that if your if relationship to being Native ends at you, well – you’re probably not Native American.

What it comes down to, is that it’s worth the price of a few Pretendians, and the ire of half of the Native writing world in pointing this out, in order to not live in a literary community that policies, that silences, that enables predatory sexual behavior in exchange for a blurb, that loves white writers who don’t really love them back, that wants to chop away at anything that doesn’t fit easily.

I want to end, finally, on something my Cherokee writer friend Blake Hausman said. Don’t worry internets, he’s so fucking enrolled. But see, he’s a science-fiction writer, so the internets Indians don’t pay him attention, and I get the feeling that he’s a lot better off for it. He said that when he was writing his first novel, Riding the Trail of Tears, a novel about a not-too-distant future where the Cherokee Nation gives virtual reality tours of the Trail of Tears, that when he was writing, the big thing that all of his Native writing elders were doing, was asking permission of their elders, as to the appropriateness of what they were writing. He said that he thought about that a lot. But that in the end, the idea that he would be writing state-sanctioned literature did not sit right with him, no matter how oppressed that state had been.

For what it’s worth, I’m with Blake.

Erika T. Wurth’s published works include a novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend and two collections of poetry, Indian Trains and A Thousand Horses Out to Sea. Her collection of short stories, Buckskin Cocaine is forthcoming. She teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and has been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals, such as Boulevard, Drunken Boat, South Dakota Review, and The Writer’s Chronicle. She is represented by Peter Steinberg. She is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside of Denver.



2 Replies to “The Problem with Pretendians”

  1. Erica Wurth is certainly one of the most bad-assed writers out there today, and I have always admired that. Anyone who cares about literature should read her work, share it with friends, urge teachers to share it with their students… So to read a piece that hangs such a large part of the hat of identity on enrollment, federal or state, which is the very core of colonialism, a fiction thrusted onto peoples who never had such a concept before Europeans forced it upon them, leaves one speechless. And this is not to say there aren’t plenty of stupid, selfish, and pathetic people out there who claim things that they aren’t. That they have no business claiming. The problem is who is anyone else to judge another’s sense of self, with no means of access to their stories, their history, their personal journey through this world that can be so cruel and beautiful at the same time? To make them an abstraction and then silence and thus threaten to erase their stories? Isn’t that what the Europeans and their descendants have been doing for over 500 years? For every so-called faker that is shamed, outed, publically attacked, made the brunt of jokes and harassment, how many people are driven to silence out of fear that their histories, through no fault of their own, fall outside the criteria of confirmation–and yes, confirmation based largely on colonial documents? When we make fun or call into question someone’s grandparents, are we not also lashing out in fear against the possibility that we might someday be that dead relative whose memory and stories are silenced and erased because we can’t control who our children, and their children, and their children have relationships with in love and without love and have their own children? I wonder how Americans of African descent, especially those whose descendants were slaves would think about such criteria, the idea of invalidating one’s identity because of the very effect of the operation of colonialism and genocide? How to recover a past that in many situations due to the circumstances people were subjected to under policies of war, extermination, slavery, that was made unrecoverable? Thomas King though said it better than I in The Truth About Stories “for the reality of identity legislation has not simply been to erase Indians from the political map of North America, it has also had the unforgivable consequence of setting Native against Native, destroying our ability and desire to associate with each other. This has been the true tragedy, the creation of legal categories that have made us our own enemy.”

  2. A lot of black slaves owned by the Cherokee were probably raped, so I think that there may be some credence to the claim of Indian heritage by blacks probably has a lot of truth to it.

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