Why do writers pretend to be Indians?
In 1930, shortly after the studio release of his movie The Silent Enemy, Buffalo Child Long Lance's Indian identity began to crumble. He was a celebrity by that time, having boxed Dempsey and dated movie stars, but he was not, it turned out, a full-blooded Blackfeet Indian who had been raised on the plains, as he had claimed. He had not hunted buffalo from horseback as the prairie winds blew through his hair. And his name was not actually Buffalo Child Long Lance. His real name was Sylvester Long. He was from Winston-Salem, N.C. He was African-American. And his father was not a chief but, rather, a janitor.
Margaret B. Jones, the author of Love and Consequences, is hardly the first person to have invented an Indian self and a past. Her memoir tells of her upbringing as a half-white, half-Indian foster child by a black family in South Central L.A. In fact, Jones' real name is Margaret Seltzer, she did not grow up in South Central, she's never been a foster child, and she's no more a Native American than Sylvester Long was.
By inventing a Native American heritage, Seltzer joins a long and distinguished list of fake Indians. In addition to Buffalo Child Long Lance, her tribe consists of Nasdijj (who fabricated a Native identity and passed it off in not one but three books: Geronimo's Bones, The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping, and The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams), Forrest Carter (whose fake Cherokee boyhood is described in The Education of Little Tree), and Grey Owl (the persona of the Englishman Archibald Belaney, who wrote and toured on the strength of his Indian-inspired conservationism between the World Wars).
It's easy enough to imagine what motivates literary fakers—their inventions are a way to win attention and acclaim for work that would otherwise be dismissed as pedestrian. But why pretend to be an Indian? What is so appealing about stripping off one's own identity and donning a reddish one?
It's easy to get away with it, is one reason. Indians can, and do, look like anyone. And anyone can look like an Indian. After 500 years of intermarriage, Native American racial identities (as opposed to cultural identities) comprise a wide range. Among my three siblings, one of us looks like Opie Taylor, one like Tonto, and one is a dead ringer for the Karate Kid. (I'm Opie. Opie is my spirit guide.) Then there's my sister, who looks like herself. It's pretty hard to claim you're African-American or Chinese if you don't look black or Asian.
But looks are only part of it. Native Americans make up one half of 1 percent of the U.S. population. Most Americans will go their whole lives without meeting one of us. The result: What non-Indians know about Indians does not come from the kinds of daily interactions that typically shape their understandings of people different from them. We Native Americans are dwarfed by the ideas that abound about us, and this imbalance lends itself to invention. After all, who are you to say someone is or is not a thing they say they are if you've never had any experience of that thing?
David Treuer is Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota (and can prove it). His most recent book, The Translation of Dr Apelles (a totally untrue novel), was released this month by Vintage Books.
Photograph of cigar-store Indian by Dante Alighieri.