May 14th, 2021 Last Updated on: May 19th, 2021
How can you tell if someone is Native American?
Unless a person shares their background and history, appearance isn’t going to give anything away. Sometimes people exploit this by claiming Native ancestry. Sometimes family stories with no truth behind them run amuck. Recently, there’s been a lot of publicity surrounding high-profile cases of individuals falsely claiming Indigenous American ancestry while working in entertainment and other industries.
In an apparent response to these incidents, Navajo and Yankton Dakota writer Jacqueline Keeler recently created an “alleged pretendian” list—a spreadsheet of people she thinks are pretending to be Indian.
The Google doc can be viewed by requesting access with an email address. Among famous names like Johnny Depp and Elizabeth Warren are seemingly random people. Keeler included places of employment, LinkedIn profiles and, in some cases, the names of their actual Native relatives or in-laws.
Reactions to the list among Natives online range from the passive agreement that Indian Country needs a “vetting” process to outright protest over the ethics of adding names to a public list without verification. This has resulted in Keeler later admitting to adding four authentic Natives to her list by mistake. No public retraction or apology was made for this huge oversight.
There’s not a clear process on how this research is being conducted or how individuals are singled out for suspicion. Keeler references “we” in many of her posts regarding this list without publicly disclosing exactly who else is involved. She attached links to Ancestry.com with some names, which indicates at least some of this research is being conducted via Ancestry.com searches. Under one name is a note attached, “Unable to ascertain truth of claim due to adoption.” Yet, the individual remains on the list as an “alleged pretendian.”
Keeler also added former Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell to the list, despite his enrollment in the Northern Cheyenne nation with a note attached, “No Cheyenne ancestry. Unclear how he got enrolled.” Keeler doesn’t mention if she reached out to Northern Cheyenne tribal officials. Despite being enrolled in a federally recognized tribe (a term Keeler emphasizes a lot), Campbell remains on the alleged pretendian list. Individual tribes and nations determine who their citizens are.
Accusations of anti-Black bias in the creation of the list have also been brought up. A screenshot from 2014 purporting to show Jacqueline Keeler advocating for dressing up in blackface began circulating on Twitter. The conversation apparently took place during organizing action against Native mascots in sports. It was a suggested tactic to draw attention from Kevin Durant, a Black NBA player. Despite wide circulation on social media, Keeler has yet to address the screenshot. There’s never a situation where blackface is acceptable, especially not in Native organizing. Black Natives should never see this type of behavior from someone with such a large platform, whom they’d entrusted to advocate on their behalf.
"Well where's the proof–" Here. Its nearly 50 pages of Keeler's history of harassing others. From 2012 to this year. What more do you need? It goes into detail with each entry and us cotinually being updated. Screenshots and links. Read it. https://t.co/pW3Uwb8xdc
— Kayla-Wayla (@KaylaWayla20) May 2, 2021
There’s also a lot of personal data being collected for this list and made public. Keeler’s rationale is that these are public-facing people. This is a contentious document that questions people’s identity by insinuating “ethnic fraud” is being carried out. Making their data available opens them up to possible harassment or worse. This can also negatively impact the actual Native folks listed as relatives and in-laws.
While faking Indigenous American identity for positions of prestige is a problem, sovereign tribes and nations should be leading investigations into citizenship claims. Any findings should only be released publicly after they have been determined. Creating an alleged pretendian list of possible offenders with incomplete research, possible bias and implication of actual Natives alongside “alleged pretensions” isn’t safe for Indian Country nor should it be the standard.
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