Who is an Indian?

On March 9, 2003, Chief Arvol Looking Horse, 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe, issued a statement after a meeting in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, with spiritual leaders and bundle keepers of the Lakota, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and other Northern Plains nations. That statement, entitled Protection of Ceremonies O-mini-c’i-ya-pi, cited “indecent mockery, mixing of new age beliefs, charging for ceremonies, and death, which was never heard of before in our ancient ceremonial history,” and set forth Looking Horse’s decision that, from that date onward, no non-Indians would be permitted to participate in any of the Lakota Seven Sacred Rites, including the sundance, sweat lodge, and vision quest.

This declaration wound up pitting Arvol Looking Horse against Leonard Crow Dog, whose Rosebud sundances were routinely attended by non-Indians. In Indian Country Today,Tom Kanatakeniate Cook challenged what he considered to be Looking Horse's racist approach, and pointed out the problems of enforcing the decision in cases of adoption and marriage with non-natives. "Based on the teachings we are following from our elders," he wrote, "we have difficulty thus endorsing the potential inhumanity and the heartbreak of exclusivity inherent in the idea behind the proclamation.”

Some have gone even farther than Looking Horse, and have maintained that some cultural practices belong only to some Indians. For example, Bernard Red Cherries, sundance leader for the Northern Cheyenne of Montana, has claimed that the sundance belongs only to Plains Indians. He protested a sundance, combined with a peyote ceremony, performed near Williams, Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest, asserting that the sundance was given by the Creator only to the seven Plains tribes, “involving specific songs and an ancient language not known by ... members of other tribes.” And he added, “We are the only sundance nations.” Russell Means has similarly claimed that the powwow belongs only to Plains Indians, and that that “powwow Indians are Plains Indian wannabes, no different from New Agers who appropriate what is comfortable for them but won’t live the lifestyle that created the trappings.”

Of course, much of this debate assumes that there is a clear distinction between Indians and non-Indians.

Anishinaabe novelist and scholar Gerald Vizenor speaks of eight native theaters as “the most common sources of native distinctions, identities, and tries of the self.” Thus, he says, one can be native by concession, creation, countenance, genealogies, documentation, situations, trickster stories, or victimry. Sociologist Joane Nagel similarly notes that a “source of controversy concerns how an individual acquires authentic Indian ethnicity — through self-definition or by the acknowledgment of others.” Indian ethnicity — like any ethnicity — is socially and politically constructed, and thus is arbitrary, variable, and constantly negotiated.

And Indian identity is often highly contested. Ethnopsychologist Theresa O’Nell discusses at length the complex and damaging constructions of Indian identity on the Montana Flathead Reservation, where “stinging accusations of the self-serving nature of some people’s claims to being Indian sometimes surface out of the underground currents of social relations.” Anthropologist Joan Nagel agrees. “As one reads through the Indian affairs literature and speaks with native people,” she writes, “the question of who is ‘really’ an Indian comes up again and again. The query is often made in an atmosphere of skepticism and, sometimes, bitter contention.”

The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 was intended to prevent the fraudulent sale of arts and crafts as native-made when they were not. What the act succeeded in doing, however, was to define Indians solely according to their political status — as members of recognized tribe — and to define out of existence native artists and craftspeople who, for political reasons, refuse to be registered, or who are socioculturally Indian but lack sufficient “blood quantum” to be registered. The Act raises in pointed form the question of who counts as a Native American and who does not.

Vizenor recounts the story of Jamake Highwater, who wrote, in his critically praised 1981 book The Primal Mind, that his Blackfoot mother “managed to keep alive her inmost identity as an Indian,” that she “somehow retained much of the special inclusivity which I identify with the very heart of the primal world,” and that his father, although not traditional, and knowing very little about his Eastern Cherokee heritage, still had “intense pride in being Indian.” In 1984, syndicated columnist Jack Anderson revealed that Highwater had in fact “fabricated much of the background that made him famous” and had “lied about many of the details of his life.” Highwater told Anderson that he had concocted a spurious background because “he felt that doors would not have opened for him if he had relied on his talent alone.” Indigenists now denounce Highwater as “transparently bogus.” Ward Churchill has called him a “charlatan.”

Highwater and Vizenor are more nuanced. “We must not feel guilty if we are among those who have managed to survive,” writes Highwater. “I begin to think that our borrowed lives are necessities in a world filled with hostility and pain, a confusing world largely devoid of credible social truths.” And Vizenor comments: “Mostly, his imposture and simulations were ironic; at times comic, even faux tragic, as some natives were truly heartened by his promise. However tricky,... his varionative manners are more artistic, inclusive, and remissable than eugenic blood counts and other fascist certitudes of identity.” Vizenor becomes even more pointed in his 1988 book The Trickster of Liberty. There the character Homer Yellow Snow — clearly modeled on Jamake Highwater — says to his native audience: “If you knew who you were, why did you find it so easy to believe in me? ... because you want to be white, and no matter what you say in public, you trust whites more than you trust Indians, which is to say, you trust pretend Indians more than real ones.”

Here are three stories.

In 1984, the American Indian Movement declared that author and lecturer Brooke Medicine Eagle — born Brooke Edwards — was a “non-Indian wom[a]n.” Ward Churchill called her “a bogus Cherokee.” The Center for the SPIRIT — Support and Protection of Indian Religions and Indigenous Traditions — posted an “alert” stating that she was neither an enrolled member of the Crow tribe nor a traditional medicine woman. The alert quotes John Pretty on Top, described as the “traditional Crow sundance chief and the officially designated Cultural Director and Speaker for the Crow Tribe,” as denouncing the “prosperous charlatanism of [such] imposters” and urging non-Indians not to support her financially or otherwise. In response, Medicine Eagle posted her Crow tribal enrollment card on her website.

Lewis Mehl-Madrona, a medical doctor, uses the sacred pipe in his healing ceremonies to pray to such spirits as the Lakota sacred being White Buffalo Calf Woman. Mehl-Madrona claims to be a Native American. He lists his "ethnicity” on his curriculum vita as “Cherokee-Lakota,” and a promotional brochure for one of his workshops speaks of his “Cherokee Native American roots." In his book Coyote Medicine, he says his great-grandmother was a “traditional healer,” and his grandmother was Cherokee. He was not raised in any specific Native American tradition. His grandparents were Christians, “with only occasional contact with the traditions of the reservation Cherokee." It is not clear on what basis he claims any identity as a Lakota. His story utilizes several legitimation strategies: his Indian identity is constructed partly on genetics, partly on tradition, and partly on training and experience.

Ward Churchill, who called Medicine Eagle bogus and Highwater a charlatan, has now himself been assailed as a non-Indian poseur. The Grand Governing Council of the American Indian Movement has stated that “Ward Churchill has fraudulently represented himself as an Indian” and “has been masquerading as an Indian for years behind his dark glasses and beaded headband.” Suzan Shown Harjo, in an article published in Indian Country Today, wrote, “As Churchill has lurched through Indian identities, he has not found a single Native relative or ancestor.” The editors of the same newspaper stated that Churchill "should come clean about his appropriated American Indian identity.”

Chruchill denies that any of this is relevant. In an interview conducted by the same newspaper, Churchill stated that he rejects the notion of tribal enrollment. ‘‘It’s putting the feds in charge of determining who is or is not Indian, in a way, and I reject that," he says. "I am who I am as I was before.”

As are we all.


  1. I like how you got out of that thicket. Few people are willing to discuss identity and indigenous in the same paragraph. I've worked on the genetics side of it somewhat (see my site Bauu Institute and Press). There is still a ton of work that needs to be done concerning working out the genetic (biology) and cultural relations.

    There is a quote similar to the one you referenced in the last sentence by Peter Tosh that states a lot, "I am, that I am, I am."

  2. I've recently tried Peyote. I'm not Native American, but Indian-from Asia. Well, actually Chicago, but genetically from the subcontinent. My experience was astounding and terrifying and beautiful. After it was over, I felt a degree of peace and power that I had never felt before. It strikes me as strange that Native Americans would want to keep this amazing cactus away from others. I think I would want my historical oppressors, who continue to wage war around the globe and destroy the planet, to experience that peace and humility that accompanied this experience. It might result in a better world.

  3. I have a question about Oklevueha NAC. Is the founder, James Mooney, actually Native American? I realize that this question further fuels the reaction and responses in the aritcle above. Yet I do think the question is still important and relevant. As an Asian Indian, I occasionally do find myself annoyed when I'm corrected on the pronunciation of "namaste" by a yoga instructor, or more to the point, when I come across a distorted/diluted/appropriated version of buddhist/hindu teachings. To quote Daniel Pinchbeck "its easier to tattoo buddhist symbols on you ass than it is to follow the eightfold path". While I'm glad that people are finding things of value in my spiritual heritage that furthers them along their path in life, I'm rankled by the misappropriation of it. If there is truth in it though, I believe it should be shared with all regardless of race/gender/whatever. I just hope that another's culture isn't being appropriated and misrepresented for personal gain. There are a billion Asian Indians on the planet, Native Americans have not fared so well. Therefore, I can understand and appreciate their strong motive to preserve their spiritual heritage against dilution and bastardization. I apologize for rambling. I just want to know if James Mooney is preserving or diluting an embattled culture.

  4. I do not know much about James Mooney. He apparently claims to be a member of the Oklevueha Band of Yamassee Seminole Indians; federal authorities claim that his membership card was fraudulently obtained, and that the Band requested he return it. As far as I know, the Oklevueha Band is not a federally recognized tribe — that is, one of the 562 entities officially recognized by and eligible to receive services from the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs.

    In 2004, the Supreme Court of Utah, where Mooney is domiciled, unanimously held that, under Utah law, the religious exemption for the use of peyote by bona fide members of the Native American church extended to church members who were not members of a federally recognized tribe.

    Federal authorities say that is not the case under federal law. In 2006, the Utah legislature passed a bill that limits the religious exemption for peyote use to members of federally recognized tribes. In the same year, Mooney agreed to stop using peyote in his ceremonies in return for the dropping of the federal indictments then pending against him and his wife.

    I do not know whether James Mooney is preserving or diluting an embattled culture. I have never spoken with him or attended one of his ceremonies. I have no idea what is in his heart. I would suggest that you write him and ask him.

    I think there is a deeper issue here, in exactly the same way there are deeper ethical and constitutional issues underlying the question of eagle feathers. There are good reasons to try to curtail the appropriation of indigenous ceremonies by outsiders to the tradition. And, under both the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, there is every reason to accommodate Native American religious use of peyote. At the same time, there are legitimate questions raised by restricting that accommodation to a group defined first in racial terms and then by a quintessentially political act of regulatory legitimation.