The Sacheen Littlefeather controversy highlights the debate over what it means to be Native American


On its face, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ apology to Sacheen Littlefeather earlier this year appeared to be a righting of long-standing wrongs.

The actor and activist rejected the Best Actor Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando at the 1973 Academy Awards. In his 60-second speech, he introduced himself as an Apache and railed against Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans. Over the years, he became an icon, claiming in interviews to be White Mountain Apache and Yaqui, participating in the occupation of Alcatraz, and being blacklisted by the film industry.

Two weeks after appearing at a formal apology ceremony at the Academy Museum, Littlefeather died. And soon after, writer Jacqueline Keeler called his entire legacy into question.

Citing a review of Littlefeather’s family tree, interviews with her two sisters and consultations with tribal leaders, Keeler alleged in an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle that Littlefeather was not who she said she was. Keeler concluded that while Littlefeather may have had Native American ancestry, he was not related to the White Mountain Apache or Easter Yaqui tribes. (CNN has reached out to both tribes for comment and has been unable to independently verify whether any of Littlefeather’s ancestors were enrolled in a tribe.)

In other words, Keeler wrote, Littlefeather was a fraud, a “Pretender” who built a career and livelihood around a false identity.

Keeler’s opinion sparked a heated debate among Native Americans. Some said the report confirmed what they and many others in Indian Country had suspected all along. Others questioned Keeler’s methods and accused him of gatekeeping: deciding who was local and who was not? And why did Littlefeather’s sisters appear now after his death?

But at the heart of the Littlefeather controversy is a fundamental question, Native American scholars say, of what it means to be Native American.

You’ve probably heard someone say they’re “part Cherokee.”

People often say they have “Native blood” in casual conversation or check the “American Indian/Alaska Native” box on application forms. without being able to point to a direct original ancestor in their family tree. While some of these people may be exaggerating or lying for financial or professional opportunities, many truly believe they are Native Americans, said Kim TallBear, a professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta.

That stems in part from a deep misunderstanding of what it means to be Native, TallBear said. Many people rely on family information or direct consumer genetic ancestry test results. But having a long-lost ancestor or “Native American DNA” is not enough to claim affiliation with a particular tribe, he added.

“It’s based on family, which doesn’t mean five to 20 generations of ancestors or presumed ancestors,” said TallBear, a citizen of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. “This means that the people you actually know, or might know, aren’t just bones from long ago.”

Being Native American in the US is often overlooked race or ethnicity. The number of people who identified as American Indian and Alaska Native in the 2020 Census was 9.7 million, up from 5.2 million in 2010 – theorizes Circe Sturm, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas, Austin. that at least part of that jump can be explained by people claiming a distant ancestor or the results of a genetic ancestry test.

TallBear and others say this approach misunderstands how tribal governments and communities work. Tribal nations are political entities that set membership requirements, generally emphasizing kinship and commitment to community. He objects to the idea that a person can simply be identified as part of a tribe, as the Academy Museum suggested in response to allegations about Littlefeather.

“Native American and Indigenous identity is complex and layered, especially in the United States, and these communities have long struggled against erasure and misrepresentation,” the Academy Museum said in a statement to CNN. “With the support of its Indigenous Alliance, the Academy’s membership group, the Academy supports self-identification.”

TallBear avoids the term “identity” when discussing tribal affiliation and citizenship. It is too individualistic, he said, and not a reflection of indigenous people.

“We’re seeing a huge tension in worldview between collective indigenous ideas of what it means to be part of the people and settler ideas of identity rights and claims,” ​​he said.

Littlefeather’s sister Rosalind Cruz, who was estranged from the late actress, told CNN that her family didn’t consider herself Native when she was growing up. Cruz later assumed he was eligible for White Mountain Apache Tribe citizenship based on his sister’s public statements, but said tribal officials told him there was no record of anyone in his family being enrolled with the tribe.

Even before Keeler’s op-ed, a statement on Littlefeather’s website dismissed doubts about her heritage as misinformation, stating that her father was “of the White Mountain Apache and Yaqui tribes of Arizona.”

Tribal citizenship and membership, however, are complicated. There are some who find Keeler’s report on Littlefeather and other alleged “Impersonation” investigations disheartening for people trying to reconnect with severed tribal communities.

Chris La Tray, writer and storyteller from Metia, was there. Growing up in Missoula, Montana, her father and grandfather always denied any Native heritage, though she would say her grandmothers were Chippewa. La Tray claimed this identity for herself, even though she was not raised in a tribal community. In researching his family tree, he discovered that he was connected to the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Montana, a tribe that was historically off-reservation and only received federal recognition in 2019.

La Tray is now a member of the Little Shell tribe, but said she’s more interested in welcoming others like her back into their communities, rather than disputing people’s claims to native identity.

“You have people who think that the only way you can be considered an indigenous person is to grow up culturally in your tribe,” she said. “That is impossible for many of us.”

There are a variety of reasons why someone with a legitimate connection to a tribe may not be enrolled, many of which can be traced back to US policies that sought to eliminate Native Americans. Their families may have been forced to assimilate through federal boarding schools or the city’s relocation campaign, or they may have been adopted into white families. Others may not meet the controversial blood quantum standards, which require a certain amount of “Indian blood” and are a product of US colonialism.

As TallBear said, there is a clear distinction between people like La Tray and those who claim a tribal affiliation with little basis. On the one hand, they can connect with specific relatives or members of the tribal community.

Keeler said he and tribal officials have been unable to determine Littlefeather’s specific White Mountain Apache or Yaqui ancestry based on enrollment records and genealogical research. The The Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona told The New York Times that neither Littlefeather nor his parents were enrolled with the tribe, but “that doesn’t mean we can independently confirm that he’s generally not of Yaqui ancestry, or from Mexico or the southern United States.” western.”

Of the efforts to identify “lookouts,” Keeler told CNN, “This is not about people who are really trying to connect with their Native relatives. This is about people who have built their careers on claims of Native identity and have none.”

The issue is particularly prevalent in academia: Just this week, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said he was descended from the Mohawk and Mi’kmaq Nations.

Keeler said he is committed to exposing people who falsely claim to be indigenous because they are harming tribal communities. They take jobs and opportunities from real Native Americans, and speak for them when they have no part in the policies and legal battles that affect Native Americans. However, others do not always realize the extent of the damage.

In fact, Cruz said his family had not previously raised concerns about Littlefeather’s claims because they assumed he “wasn’t hurting anyone.”

In La Tray’s view, the assessment of whether Littlefeather or anyone else has a legitimate claim to Native status should rest with the tribes. After all, before Europeans arrived on the continent, many tribes were more inclusive in their membership, granting citizenship to people who married into or adopted the tribe, to outsiders who lived in tribal communities and adopted their cultural norms and practices. Some tribes still adhere to more open criteria.

For all their complications, citizenship rules are constantly evolving. Tribal nations are still struggling with the effects of colonialism and are constantly adjusting enrollment criteria to reflect demographic and other changes, TallBear said.

But Littlefeather’s case is not about blood quantum or other factors that keep some locals from being part of their communities, he added. It is about what gives someone a claim to membership in the tribe. So far, he has not seen any convincing evidence.