Playing Indian: Group presents Native culture with fake fires and tipis, phony tribal ID

Published in Indian Country Today in July 2010.

The business-card-sized ID headed “Absentee Shawnee of Ohio Tribal Member” proclaims the bearer “is an enrolled member of this tribe.” At the bottom, the name “Robert Taft ” is stamped above the words “Robert Taft, Governor.” The “o” of “Robert” includes an umlaut, though the diacritical mark is set under the vowel, rather than over it, as is usual.

            The cardholder, who lives in Davenport, Iowa, confirmed that several years ago the clan mother of the tribe’s Bear Clan in Cleveland passed out five or six of these IDs, which purport to be issued by the state of Ohio, where Robert Taft was governor from 1999 to 2007. However, there are no state-recognized tribes in Ohio, according to its attorney general, whose representative said, “We are not aware of recognition of this group — even temporarily.”

Indeed, the “Absentee Shawnee of Ohio” appear not to exist there or elsewhere, except perhaps in the mind of the clan mother and her acolytes, though the name closely tracks that of a federally recognized tribe in Oklahoma.

            The card was duplicated onto copies of a letter passed out during a 2009 board meeting of an Iowa American Indian community organization, Native American Coalition of the Quad Cities (NACQC). The letter included the cardholder’s request to demonstrate “the Native way of the Sweat Loge [sic]” to the group and described her credentials: life on the “Tuba City Navaho Reservation [sic],” where her Apache adoptive father taught her “the ways of the pipe and the sweat loge [sic].” Eventually, she became a “gifted pipe carrier” of the Navajo, her adoptive mother’s people, and the Shawnee.

            Now, the cardholder and her associates in the Quad Cities — Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, and Rock Island and Moline, Illinois — have formed an organization that’s applying for nonprofit status. The group will “respect and honor” Native culture in settings such as a recent event for hundreds of children and their parents, according to another group member. This September, it will run a major powwow on Council Island in Davenport, sponsored by the city and attracting potentially thousands of people.

            Regina Tsosie, Navajo, NACQC board president, said she was shocked by these claims and activities. “We Navajos don’t have pipe carriers. It’s not our way. The ancestors of Native people died so we can be here today, so our children can be proud of who they are. We must stand up and protect that identity.”

When queried, neither interviewee from the hobbyist organization could name a member who’s tribally enrolled. However, one interviewee said the group is not a “segregated” one that accepts only “truebloods,” though it has “special members” who do not attend meetings.

Indian Country Today contacted Iowa Native leader Vicky Apala-Cuevas, Oglala Lakota, for a comment on the boundaries between fact and fancy challenged here. Apala-Cuevas is an NACQC board member and a member of the Iowa Commission on Native Affairs, which is appointed by the governor.

Indian Country Today: Tell us about the phenomenon that the letter and the ID represent.
Apala-Cuevas: There have been many offenses to our peoples and cultures, and these are yet more. The desire to show us how to run a sweat lodge is an example of nonNatives feeling they can present Indian life better than the Indians. These people promulgate a mishmash of misinformation gleaned from Hollywood movies and similar sources. Believe me, being an Indian is the hardest thing anyone can do, and they are not up to it.

ICT: What about the letter’s culturally related errors?
Apala-Cuevas: A Pueblo professor from the University of Illinois wrote to NACQC after watching one of the hobbyist group’s members describing to a thrilled audience his school, church, and boy-scout demonstrations, which included an electric fire and tipi. She told us she shuddered at the thought of the fake fire and tipi and the stereotypical Indian imagery he affirmed.

ICT: The imitation Indians claim to be well meaning.
Apala-Cuevas: As the professor wrote in her letter, we’ve suffered under centuries of good intentions. People who play Indian are a problem countrywide. I see it as mental illness — a mass hysteria. An elder told me they have genetic memory of the genocide, so they carry fear within them and claim these relationships and this knowledge to alleviate the stress. Wilma Mankiller once sat next to Bill Clinton at a lunch, and the first thing he said to her was that he was part Cherokee. So you see, it’s from the president on down.

ICT: Do “pretendian” activities affect the wider public?
Apala-Cuevas: Absolutely. We heard, for example, about a pond liner purchased to construct a sweat lodge. This is very dangerous, as plastic coverings — as opposed to natural traditional coverings — produce extreme temperatures and toxic fumes and may well have contributed to the recent deaths and hospitalizations at the non-Native pseudo-sweat lodge in Arizona. We contacted Iowa’s health department, and they were concerned. We’re also exploring consumer-protection laws, as some may receive funding under false pretences.

ICT: Are any Quad-City hobbyists Native, as far as you know?
Apala-Cuevas: I’ve heard some claim descent from tribes or historic leaders, though the claims change — it’s Tecumseh, it’s his brother; one visited a Lakota reservation and, wouldn’t you know, he’s Lakota now. This is an insult and, simply put, fraud. Race is not the issue, though. There are those with good hearts who work for the People in a humble, respectful way, whether or not they have Native ancestry, whether or not they are enrolled in a federally recognized tribe. Indeed, our relationship to the federal government is not based on race, but rather on the law, including treaties, legislation, and so on.

ICT: Final thoughts?
Apala-Cuevas: As Native people, we’re confident and secure in our beliefs and ceremonies, which are part of a pure spiritual relationship. And we have a great sense of humor, which is good, because it’s a never-ending battle.

c. Stephanie Woodard.