Aboriginal imposters can and do cause harm

Akwesasne Mohawk

Over the years there have been many non-Natives, enamored by aboriginal culture, who have posed as Natives. Some have done so with sincerity and others for personal gain. While many of these imposters have been exposed with little residual harm there are instances when they have caused serious problems.

 In our own Mohawk society there is a procedure to become “naturalized” regardless of the circumstances of one’s birth. To become a citizen of the Mohawk Nation required formal sponsorship by a family, a commitment to learning the culture, a command of the language, a probationary period and a formal public ceremony in which the new citizen verbally committed to abandoning their formal status and accepted the duties and freedoms as a Mohawk.

If this seems familiar to those who have immigrated to this country it is because the Iroquois-Mohawk nations were among the first in the world to create an open naturalization process which was adopted by both the Canada and the United States. Previous to this a person was bound throughout their lives to the place in which they were born-Germans remained Germans, Russians were not allowed to become French or English.

The arrival of the immigrants into the New World meant not only a permanent break with their families and communities but was it provided an opportunity to chance the entire dynamic of one’s life, to break the bonds of class and place, to take advantage of the new circumstances and become a new person with the possibility of rising beyond past restrictions.

Becoming Native was also tempting once an individual saw beyond the myths and lies. In New France to enter into the Native world was not only appealing but necessary if the colony was to survive.  The fur trade was essential to the economy of the colony so understanding the culture and speaking the language of aboriginal nations was vital to the colonists. The famed voyageurs married Native women and adopted Native customs from clothing styles to trapping and hunting techniques.

This fascination with all things Native has carried across the centuries with more than a touch of adventure and romanticism.

In the 20th century the “call of the wild” took hold of Europeans and North Americans. The German writer Karl May became the most influential writer in that nation’s history with his books about the ‘wild west”. In Canada the writer  Archibald Belaney cast off his English heritage and became the “Apache” trapper known as Grey Owl. He became famous for his books about the natural world which were distributed world wide. Not until decades had passed was he revealed as a man from Sussex, England.

After the WWI there was a rise in Native nationalism with some riding the revivalist movement to its crest.

Sylvester Long was of black and native ancestry from Winston, North Carolina. He was a graduate of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania then enlisted in the Canadian army during WWI. He went west after the war and became involved in Native issues, first as a reporter then as an advocate. He was given the name “Buffalo Child” by the Kainai for his work on their behalf and thereafter called himself Buffalo Child Long Lance, saying he was of the Blackfoot Nation. He was entertained as a Blackfoot across the nation and in New York City, became an actor and an author before being revealed as an imposter.

Others have followed in the footsteps of Grey Owl and Buffalo Child.

Espera Corti was an Italian American looking for work as an extra in Hollywood during the 1930’s. He found it easier to get a job as a Native man adopting the name “Iron Eyes Cody” and starred in dozens of westerns. He was most famous for a 1970’s commercial in which he is paddling a bark canoe through polluted waters then seen standing above an open landfill, a tear trickling down his face.

So many others have tried the same thing: acting as Natives and eclipsing the real people. Whether it is Johnny Depp as Tonto or Audrey Hepburn as a Kiowa woman in “The Unforgiven” the overall impact is that Natives either lack the talent or the intelligence to represent their respective nations.

This can result in real harm. In the 1970’s the American Indian Movement was highly effective as a symbol of Native resistance to the dictates of federal agencies in Washington and Ottawa. Disturbed by the militancy of AIM the Federal Bureau of Investigation inserted an agent into the Native group. Douglass Durham rose to become the head of security for AIM and played a major role in destroying the organization by exploiting existing internal divisions and creating an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion.

In 1990 a young man from Tennessee named Charles Adams showed up on my home territory of Akwesasne. He got involved in various criminal activities such as gun running and tobacco smuggling. When he left Akwesasne he adopted the name Charlie Smoke and claimed he was Mohawk. He settled among the Lakota in South Dakota then went into Saskatchewan securing a job as a teacher before he was arrested and deported. He tried to return under the guise of his “Mohawk” ancestry but was found to have a criminal record in the US. Using his fingerprints his true identity  was uncovered.

Now there is the group calling itself Mikinaks and based in Beauharnois between Akwesasne and Kahnawake. They are selling memberships to anyone who claims native DNA. They are led by a person named Guillaume Carle who represents a group called the Confederation of Aboriginal People of Canada and have become a real problem for the Mohawk people. They are claiming to have the same rights as First Nations which include hunting, fishing, border crossing and tax exemption from commerce on Native lands.

This group has been rejected as legitimate by the Mohawk people in whose ancestral territory they reside. In a remarkable act demonstrating a lack of understanding of Native protocol they have refused to contact the Mohawk Nation.  Their unilateral declarations are pronounced without consideration as to its effect on Native people. They engage in disruptive tactics aimed at compelling the federal government into granting them concessions without the support of any legitimate Native entity.

From an historical perspective the Mikinaks are neither new or remarkable. They are, however, of real concern to the Mohawks who have endured great hardships and engaged in decades of political struggle to retain our heritage, our treaties, our standing as a distinct people.

It is not for any individual or group to now exploit the sacrifices of our people for their own economic or political gain. We don’t know these people because they have refused to introduce themselves in accordance with our ancient customs so we have no choice but to challenge who they are as strangers.

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