Indigenous “Race Shifting” Red Flags
A Quick Primer for Reporters and Others
Terminology note: Terms are always politically, geographically, and temporally contextual. You will notice me move between terms, especially when I refer to situations in the US vs. Canada. Between these two settler states, some terminology overlaps and some is quite different. My apologies if any terms used (e.g. “tribe” or “Native”) hurt your ears. Terms that make people cringe in some places, are widely accepted in others. In fact, even the most up-to-date “politically correct” term, “Indigenous,” is disliked for a variety of legitimate reasons by some. Language is a minefield; best to learn the map.
I do media interviews more than I would like (which would be never) about potential “race shifting” or “pretendian” cases in the US and Canada. Recently, a reporter asked me what are some of the “red flags” to watch out for when investigating a race shifter or “pretendian” case. I thought that was a good question, and so I made a list of not only things to watch out for, but also key questions to ask yourself before embarking on an investigation. The notes for that reporter seeded this essay. I hope it can be helpful for others who find themselves needing to learn more about the unfortunate phenomenon that is “race shifting” or “pretendianism.”
I’ve also written several essays in the last four months on this platform that will give you additional background on the topic if you’re that interested: 1) The May 9 essay, Playing Indian Constitutes a Form of Colonial Theft, and It Must be Tackled; 2) The June 14 essay, We are not your dead ancestors; and 3) the July 24 essay, What the Hell’s Wrong with You? Three Stories of White Bullies.
While I do more of these interviews than I want to, I do them for two reasons: First, this is a critical topic because it’s a growing and serious problem that risks further theft of cultural and material resources from actual Indigenous Peoples. Second, many scholars and Indigenous community members are unwilling to speak to reporters about this phenomenon, especially about specific cases where they may know and have to associate (say at work or university) with the people involved. It’s risky to speak publicly about this issue. At the very least, it can attract attacks on social media, ad hominem, by non-Natives, those with dubious claims to Indigeneity, and by actual Native people. At its worst, one can lose friends when speaking publicly about this issue, and professional and community opportunities. I’ve received personal messages from those who feel they cannot speak publicly and/or who feel better suited to work quietly behind the scenes on this problem. I recognize that I am better positioned than most to speak on this topic, both because of my extensive research work and lived experience among diverse Indigenous communities across the US and increasingly in Canada. I am also professionally as secure as one can be in this settler society in crisis.
Before I get to detailing the red flags, let me explain the terminology of “race shifting.” It’s obvious what the snarky term “pretendian” means. I use both terms, but that doesn’t mean they’re synonymous. “Race shifting” and “pretendianism” together, in the high-profile cases I’m called to comment on, involve usually, not always, white people who claim to be various kinds of Indigenous to lands currently called the USA or Canada. Alleged race shifters, a term that I first saw Circe Sturm use in her book, Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the Twenty-first Century, might also claim to be vaguely “Native American” or “Indigenous.” Darryl Leroux also discusses race shifters in his book, Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity. He defines the “white desire to be Indigenous” as “race shifting” or as “settler self-Indigenization” (15). Unlike Sturm, who writes about white race shifters to a Cherokee identity in a US context, Leroux writes mostly about white race shifters to a Métis identity in a Canadian context. He and many others in Canada regularly use the term “settler” for non-Indigenous people. But this term almost always explicitly excludes descendants of the enslaved and refugees. It is a mistake, however, to conflate “settler” with white people alone. Some non-whites too have emigrated and settled by choice on stolen Indigenous lands, and to great benefit. Two of the more common race shifter claims, as evidenced by Sturm’s and Leroux’s books, are Cherokee and Métis claims. In a US context, it is also not uncommon to hear questionable assertions to being of Choctaw, Apache, or Blackfoot/Blackfeet descent. One also hears a variety of other “tribal” or “First Nations” labels claimed, but the aforementioned are among the more common claimed. And claims occur for a variety of reasons documented by scholars and reporters who’ve taken these stories on. Those reasons can include relief from the ennui of whiteness and guilt for complicity in colonialism, the desire for cultural meaning and moral authority, and often it seems for access to material resources such as land and scholarship money, educational and professional opportunities.
Three questions reporters or other investigators should ask themselves
1. Are you sure you are the one who should write this story? Where does your interest in this story stem from? How are you situated in relationship to it? Do you have, for example, expert knowledge of the institution in which the alleged race shifting is occurring? Do you understand and can your story perhaps influence its decision-making structures in order to combat this problem? There are many reasons you might be well-situated to do the story, but make sure to examine those reasons. One need not be Indigenous themselves to write or report on this topic, but those who have a passable sense of Indigenous community politics and especially the politics of affiliation and citizenship are also better situated to investigate it. Beware; getting a handle on that if you are a newbie to the topic will be very time-consuming. This story will be more doable if you already have Native country networks and have done other Indigenous-related stories. If you don’t, you have no idea what you’re getting into. You are going to be very confused. Helicopter research is unadvisable for academics working with/in Indigenous communities. I also assume that this particular story, maybe all Indigenous stories, are better served by reporters who build ongoing relations with Indigenous communities. But I’ll stop there with that particular advice giving since I am not an Indigenous journalist myself.
2. Are the Indigenous “informants” you interview for the story also reliably Indigenous? It’s a laugh-cry situation, but I’ve seen “Indigenous” people quoted in race shifting stories whose claims to Indigeneity are also widely known in Native circles to be doubted. I realize this is kind of a chicken and egg problem. If a person informing your story on a potential race shifter case is themselves identifying as Indigenous/Cherokee/Métis, etc., are you sure they are? If you’re not absolutely sure, you better check. How do you check? Well that’s potentially complicated. If they claim band membership, Indian Status, or tribal membership it’s relatively easy to check on that. You can ask for ID, but people have faked tribal IDs; do you know how to read them? Are you familiar enough to spot a knock-off? You should ultimately check with the governmental authority in charge of issuing the ID and make sure it’s legit itself. I was quoted in a large mainstream news publication this year that ran a major race shifting story. They called my tribal government office to verify that I am indeed a tribal citizen. If the persons you are interviewing do not claim “enrollment,” “membership,” or “citizenship,” but rather claim community affiliation, checking will be harder. All of us who have some form of official Indigenous status also have relatives without status. They legitimately belong to us. They legitimately assert their tribal or Indigenous “identity” and family connections, but they are sometimes not tribal citizens due to convoluted and restrictive citizenship and status rules. I’ve written more about that in my 2011 Aboriginal Policy Studies article, “The Political Economy of Tribal Citizenship in the US: Lessons for Canadian First Nations?
3. Third, is the race shifter claim simply a matter of an individual claim, or does it also involve a problematic collective claim? You must answer the collective question before you can answer the individual question. That is, is the “tribe” being claimed potentially fabricated? Some people, like Elizabeth Warren, claim to be affiliated via long-ago ancestry (often unnamed ancestors) with tribes whose veracity is not challenged, in Warren’s case, it’s the Cherokee Nation. The tribe or People is recognized as real; it’s the individual claim that is challenged.
But sometimes people claim ancestral links to tribes or Peoples whose collective legitimacy or modern-day presence is doubted or not recognized by others. They may be fabricated tribes such as detailed in Sturm’s Becoming Indian. Or maybe a group of people is using the name of an actual historical Indigenous People, but it is agreed by those in the know (living Indigenous communities, other governmental entities, and researchers) that the People whose name is being used is no longer in existence. Not all Indigenous Peoples (or “tribes”) that existed 300 years ago, exist today. Both because they were decimated by colonization and/or their surviving people merged with other Indigenous Peoples or nations. Genocide happened; some historical Indigenous Peoples no longer exist as Peoples while they may have genetic descendants who belong to other living Indigenous peoples, or who are no longer considered Indigenous. They might belong to family trees that have for generations grown as non-Indigenous. That said, there is also pushback to certain extinction narratives. You are in choppy waters on this topic.
In a few other cases, legitimate Indigenous Peoples have come into being post-contact in part because of responses to colonial dynamics, for example the Métis Nation. And just to throw one more complication into the puzzle, while the Métis Nation, whose ethnogenesis is in the 18th and 19th centuries in what became Manitoba, is widely recognized as legitimate, Leroux’s book is all about challenging the veracity of claims by eastern Canadian people with overwhelmingly white ancestry who call themselves “Eastern Métis.” Are you confused yet?
Red Flags (not necessarily listed in order of priority)
The red flags I will describe are not generated from systematic academic research on this issue. Rather, they are what come to mind after years of exposure to the race shifting or “pretendian” phenomenon, both as an academic researcher and as a Native person who has lived my entire life around Indigenous communities, reservation and urban. I’ve also been exposed to race shifting in multiple universities I’ve been affiliated with. And I read voraciously the academic literature and reporting on this topic. I may add to this list of red flags as I encounter them in further work and reading. Consider this a living document.
In describing their Indigenous ancestry or Peoplehood, do suspected shifters rely on unsubstantiated, vague, or stereotypical claims? Common red flags include the following maneuvers and terms. I will also point out exceptions to the red flags:
1. When did the suspected race shifter start identifying in paperwork as Indigenous/Native/Cherokee/Métis, etc? If recently, or at an opportune academic/career/scholarship moment, this could be a red flag. There are, of course, the “scooped” or stolen generations who were forcibly removed from Native homes by Indian agents and residential school kidnappers, individuals who have had to work to figure out who their Indigenous bio-family and communities are, and who try to return to connect with their Peoples. They may start claiming later in life. But their stories will contain details related to their individual removal from a particular Indigenous family and community, adoption or other governmental records. Beware of the vague and shifting stories, especially those that feature classic noble Indian stereotypes, which I’ll detail below, and which are usually focused on ancestry many generations ago.
2. Has the suspected race shifter changed their story over time? Do they change their claims of affiliation? Changes in terminology are not uncommon, e.g. my tribal affiliation went from Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe to Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate with language revitalization, but both names belong to the same tribal government and People. Or some Native peoples switch their “tribal enrollment” from one to another since some of us are multi-tribal, but dual enrollment or dual citizenship is unfortunately rarely allowed among US tribes. What I mean is has the person shifted over time from claiming one Indigenous people to another, say from Cherokee to Ojibway, particularly as their claims get challenged? Or do they claim their Indigenous lineage first on one genealogical line, then later switch it when challenged to another genealogical line? Red flag.
3. Does the person name a specific “First Nation,” “band” or “tribe” that is part of a larger Indigenous People, or are their claims broader and more vague? If someone claims to be say Eastern Band Cherokee rather than just Cherokee, or if they say they are related to people from Rosebud rather than just saying they are of “Sioux heritage” (the old-timey word that non-Natives know and we no longer use very much), then I don’t have as much reason to think their ancestry claims are of the mythological type. When people mention specific places, those of us with lived relations too can start asking who people’s family are. It’s what we do; it helps us find shared connections out there in the relatively small Indigenous world. A related red flag is when the person claiming, for example, to be Cherokee, doesn’t want to or can’t answer any questions about relations or social life there. I remember being snapped at like I was asking an invasive question by one race shifter (years before I knew it) when I asked if they knew so-and-so, a friend of my Mom’s in Tahlequah, a person who was a pretty high-level Cherokee Nation employee.
4. The use of “shaman” could be a red flag. This is a word largely used by anthropologists. In my experience, Indigenous communities in the US and Canada rarely if ever use this word to describe our medicine people or spiritual leaders. When we hear people use this term, it can signal a lack of insiderness in Indigenous community (at least here in the north; I don’t speak for Central or South America). The use of “shaman” tends to make us suspicious, as if the person using the term is more influenced by old-school anthropological or New Age discourse than they are by Indigenous nation-social relations that are both People-specific and sometimes pan-tribal. Pan-tribal or pan-Indigenous is not, of course, the same as just borrowing uncritically from anthropology. We do have pan-Indigenous conversations and experiences because we have histories of circulating in each other’s communities and our common experiences with colonial institutions. These include residential schools, and the federal-tribal relationship that results in federal-Indian law that many tribal legal thinkers are familiar with and practice—that’s resulted in national Native policy organizations where we all meet and advocate together on behalf of our collective interests. We’ve had federal relocation programs that have brought tribal peoples from all over the country together into urban communities like Denver, Chicago, and Oakland. So between different legitimate Indigenous communities we sometimes use similar words in English for things, like “medicine man” or “holy person.” “Shaman,” however, is a word that is recognized as an anthropological term not widely taken up by actual Indigenous peoples in the north.
5. Beware of references to widely-known cultural events or ceremonies that seem inconsistent with other elements of the story. Does the person claim, for example, to have participated in important Indigenous community events at say times in their life when it would be unlikely given their story, or perhaps given the community rules surrounding that ceremony? Do they have not only cultural details, but political and economic details, specific geographic details to accompany their stories, details that are recognizable to people in community? Listen for nuance and texture in their story. Or are their stories of community experience vague enough to have been crafted with no more knowledge than they could get on the internet or in a Hollywood movie? Red flag.
6. Related to point 5, beware of individuals behaving in a way that belies the ceremonial knowledge they claim. Do they claim for example, to be “adopted into an Indian tribe,” or to be a sundancer, but they brag or make a huge to-do about the ceremonies they say they’ve been privy to? Do they speak with much authority and little humility or discretion on ceremonial matters? In general, making ceremony-talk into dinner-party conversation is not viewed as appropriate, especially in mixed Indigenous/non-Indigenous company. Such behavior is not a guarantee of race shifting; we have our own inappropriate braggarts too, but it could be a red flag.
7. “Full-blooded.” That means that 100% of both bio-parents’ ancestry is Indigenous, even potentially from ONE Indigenous people. Highly unlikely. Can I say that again? Highly unlikely. For any of us. This is why I laugh at genetic scientists who look for the “unadmixed” Native to sample. Get a grip on history, scientists. Beware the use of “full-blood” obviously if someone is relying heavily on claims through one parent’s genealogical line or are vague about their genealogies. Aside from the bad race science potentially involved in using “full-blood,” colonization happened and continues to happen and this includes forced relocations, the Indian Wars, the resulting political economy of the first half of the 20th century, the shifting political economy of post-World War II, incentivized urban relocations, residential schools, and the fact that Native peoples have among the highest rates of exogenous marriage; genocide makes it so there are few of us left relatively speaking. Estimates for Indigenous peoples in the US and Canada for 2020 depend on geography, but nationally numbers range from 3% in the US (I think this number, however, reflects race shifters) and 5% in Canada. The “unmixed” Native is probably non-existent. That said, you will hear the occasional chauvinistic Native (I have one in my family) who will call themselves a “full-blood” knowing damn well their great-grandfather had one parent from Europe and one Dakota parent. But they’re just being a chauvinist. They’re not ignorant of or denying their lineage. Those of us who grow up in tribal communities tend to know our lineages well; we have to avoid dating a cousin who lives across town with whom we share a great-great grandparent. But some of our family use that term to mean they are more traditional than you, haha. But be highly skeptical when a person without a lifelong connection to Indigenous community uses this term. They probably don’t mean what my chauvinist relative means. They might really believe in the potential fact of “full-bloodedness.” Red flag.
8. “Cherokee or Indian princess.” This is a big-time colonial stereotype. Now we do have many talented “pow-wow princesses,” young women who have won dance titles at pow-wows all over the continent. And if you go to a pow-wow, or wacipi as Dakota call it, you’ll hear them called “royalty.” But this is a pageant-like title that emerged in the 20th century. This isn’t what potential race shifters or pretendians are talking about when they refer to their great-great grandma or even themselves being an “Indian princess.” Come on now. This is such a common and hilarious claim that in the early 1990s at a pow-wow, I bought a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase: “No! my great-grandmother was NOT a Cherokee princess!” RED FLAG.
9. “Descendant.” Sometimes the more careful person who is making unfounded or exaggerated claims to Indigenous ancestry or affiliation will not say they are Cherokee or Apache, for example. They will say instead that they are a descendant. On the other hand, it can be legitimate to say this. I am descended from Cree and Métis peoples on the prairies of Canada through my great-grandmother. But I am very likely ineligible due to both Canadian state and Indigenous governmental regulations to any form of official belonging in any First Nation or Métis Nation community. I am also descended from the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma through my mom’s father, and I am eligible for citizenship in that tribe. But I am a citizen of another tribe (remember, no dual citizenship?) While it is factually correct for me to say I am descended from those multiple Indigenous Peoples, I was not socialized to any meaningful degree by any of them. I don’t name such descent much in my bios, for example. And I would not mark especially my great-grandmother’s lineages on say an equity, diversity, and inclusion form in my Canadian university. What would I be trying to claim? That common line, “I am honoring all of my lineages” strikes me as indicative of the problem that over-use of “descent” can actually indicate—the conflation of ancestry with being Indigenous, or belonging to an Indigenous community. That conflation is a key problem that helps facilitate race shifting and pretendianism. Ancestry alone is not a robust claim. “Descendant’ can be used in careful ways. For example, a couple of academics I know—who have actual Indigenous ancestry and kin—use it as part of describing their positionality in publications, how they came to be interested in those topics, or gained the ear of Indigenous community members. But they also are careful to explain that they were raised in non-Indigenous cultures and by non-Indigenous family. Circe Sturm states this exceptionally well in Becoming Indian (25). Darryl Leroux’s research demonstrates his and many other French-Canadian people’s descent from one or two very-long ago Indigenous women. However, unlike the eastern “Métis” he investigates, he refuses to fetishize a long-ago ancestor and make her into an identity claim. Another recent and moving essay, KTAQMKUK in the periodical Maisonneuve, is by a Canadian reporter, Justin Brake. In that essay, Brake discusses his Mi’kmaw ancestry and his decision not to make it into an identity or status claim. Not everyone is so careful. You could say “descendant” is a pink flag. There are legitimate reasons to use it, but in moderation, and also many misuses of the term.
10. Cheesy sounding “Native” names. However, a non-Native person probably won’t be able to tell the genuine but perhaps stereotypical-sounding Native names from the fake ones, but they do tip off Indigenous people inside community. In addition to simply recognizing a family name from one’s community, some authentic Native names reflect what I assume are frank historical observations of an ancestor’s physical qualities or personality. A lot of fake ones tend to sound overly noble or might focus on a romanticized animal or a lofty spiritual or elemental term. I won’t give you specific examples of authentic vs. fake-sounding names. I don’t know how to do that delicately. Also, there are family names that are characteristic of different tribes and nations, and they’re not all “Native” either. While my tribe, for example, has Native sounding names like my family, we also have French and German sounding names that are classic Dakota family surnames now. In fact, in South Dakota, almost all of the people I know with French surnames are Dakota or Lakota.
11. I feel bad even mentioning this final red flag because its deployment by certain people makes me feel really bad for them. Beware their adornments that look like they were purchased from Amazon.com from their fall lineup of Indian Chief or sexy Indian maiden costumes. This could include off-the-shoulder Disney-like “Pocahontas” dresses (I’ve seen these at some east coast pow-wows), or headbands where the beadwork is all loose and terrible, or the beads look huge and plastic. Many people who Play Indian are far more sophisticated than that, but not everyone is, and you can still see people adorned like this who are making false or exaggerated claims. It speaks to their lack of genuine community connection and affiliation. Red flag.
In summary, using stereotypical language, stories, and visuals to shore up Indigenous identity or belonging claims are common red flags that should prompt careful skepticism.
Postscript on “race shifter”
The “race shifting” terminology and analyses by both Sturm and Leroux are significant contributions to the academic literature on this problem. However, “race shifting” does not capture the total terrain of the phenomenon. “Race shifting” in the work of Sturm and Leroux applies only to white people. So while their work is very helpful, it doesn’t address non-white false claimants to Indigenous affiliation and/or ancestry. And they are clear about that.
I, on the other hand, do not restrict my analyses to white people’s false or exaggerated claims, so I tend to use the term “race shifting” less than do Sturm and Leroux. Not all false or exaggerated “Native American,” “Métis,” “Cherokee” and other Indigenous claims are made by white people. I’ve been asked by reporters to comment on some high-profile claims by Black and “Hispanic” or “Latino” people or groups to Indigenous “American” identities. When Black, “Hispanic” or “Latino” people attempt to shift into a Native identity, one must ask if it is possible or necessary for them to “race shift”? For example, can a Black person simply leave their racialization as Black behind because they start to identify also or instead as Native? That’s a rhetorical question, of course. Might a brown-skinned Latino person (who is almost always an actual biological descendant of long-ago Indigenous people) already fit well into a stereotypical “Native American” phenotype, especially by adding some beads or feathers? What about a Chinese American who wants to claim Indigenous North American identity? I’ve seen a case like that in my own personal life. Not all false or exaggerated claims to Indigeneity involve “race shifting.” Some people’s racializations remain present and salient to others in society despite any North American Native claims. They can’t really shift. For others, their racialization is malleable and does not require such a significant “shift.” They don’t need to shift much at all.
The fact that Indigeneity or better yet Dakota-ness, Cree-ness, or Cherokee-ness are not races, they are Peoplehoods that intersect with race, complicates the “race shifting” idea. We also have actual Native people who look all kinds of ways: my cousin before he cut his hair and especially when he danced at the pow-wow looked like a stereotype of a plains Native. There’s a picture of him on a postcard (featured in this essay) with his black braids and regalia. We also have actual Native people in our families who look racially white or Black. Not that they can’t also produce some beautiful regalia and cut some good fancy dance moves in the pow-wow arena. My white looking uncle was a champion dancer in his day. My niece who is Black and raised by multi-racial kin, also dances beautifully and is a typically chauvinistic TallBear. I have no trouble personally labeling such people as a white Dakota or Black Dakota, for example. Both their racializations and their Peoplehoods are important aspects of who they are and how they are able to move (or not) through the world. Of course, I pay attention to how people label themselves so as not to get into fights, but I think seeing Peoplehood as just that (as not a race), but as intersecting with race is the truest way to see things and I try to emphasize that in my language.
Finally, it must be said that the history of how “red” is racialized, contributes to the robustness of “race shifting” among white people. One can read Sturm and Leroux for an in-depth study of how Euro-American race concepts have worked historically to enable whiteness to absorb red, thus allowing whites to claim both and also allowing some “red” people to claim both. On the other hand, whiteness refuses Blackness and this means that race shifting between Black and white has been made more difficult than shifts between white and red. In fact, while marriage was heavily policed and outlawed between whites and Black people, it was often encouraged by the white supremacist state between white and red people. Although Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug sure tested the solidity of the Black/white racial line recently, it is interesting to note that they were very quickly called out publicly and widely condemned for their white race shifting to Black. However, high-profile cases of white people who race shift to “Native American” (Ward Churchill and Andrea Smith come to mind) tend to get defended for YEARS by both non-Natives and even many Natives ourselves in the face of compelling evidence of their false claims. My theory is that this has everything to do with the fact that redness is viewed as absorbable by whiteness while again, Black and white are defined as a binary condition. Some of the same institutions or individuals that were quick to condemn Dolezal or Krug were also either silent on or defending Andrea Smith all over social media. Churchill’s race shifter outing happened before the social media age. I could give you specific examples of those across the racial spectrum, including Native people, who demonstrated double standards related to these cases, but I’m not interested in being dogpiled on Twitter. You’ll have to be curious forever.
Why So Many False Indigenous Claims?
In closing, I don't think most of the people who make unsubstantiated or exaggerated claims to being Cherokee, Métis, “Native American,” or another Indigenous category are being deliberately deceitful. I think their claims to be us stem from at least two fundamental colonial problematic ideas:
1) First, false claimants to Indigenous identity are not always or even usually simply lying. I often think of them as suffering more from a national delusion rather than consciously lying, although I’m sure a minority of would-be race shifters are that cynical. But I have the impression that most of them base their claims to Indigeneity on a pervasive settler-state myth that many families in the US and Canada have taken up: the story of having a long-ago “Indian in the family tree.” This mythological narrative then gets combined with a misguided definition (because they have no actual lived Indigenous relations) of what it is to be Cherokee or Métis, “Native” or Indigenous. Their definition favours ancestry (actual or alleged) in contradistinction to Indigenous peoples’ much more complex definitions of ourselves. Tribes or Indigenous nations are two things: extended kinship networks or sets of relations both in contemporary and historical times, and we are self-governing entities. Most US Americans and Canadians have little understanding of this complexity. That leads to the common conflation of an ancestral claim no matter how distant, vague, or unsubstantiated with an Indigenous identity claim. I write about these differences in definitions at length in my 2013 Social Studies of Science article, “Genomic Articulations of Indigeneity.” I also address internal controversies in Indigenous nation citizenship in my 2011 Aboriginal Policy Studies article cited above, “The Political Economy of Tribal Citizenship in the US: Lessons for Canadian First Nations?”
2) Second, by observing the race shifting or pretendian phenomenon closely for years, and studying it in relation to DNA testing, it is clear to me that many false claimants of Indigenous identity suffer from a second nationalist colonial delusion. That is, they mostly believe as settler-state citizens that they have unquestionable moral and legal rights to occupy Indigenous representations and identities just as their nation states claim moral and legal right to occupy stolen Indigenous land. Again, I am not saying their feelings or thoughts are conscious. How many US and Canadian citizens actually question their nation-states’ legal rights to occupy these stolen lands? Their lack of questioning isn’t solely due to their lack of treaty history, although that might help. It’s also due to their indoctrination into US and Canadian settler state exceptionalism. Challenging nation state citizens’ claims to be us, to occupy our identities is as daunting as challenging their states’ claims that they have the right to occupy stolen land.
Most non-Native people, be they in universities, the corporate workplace, government, or the military are simply unqualified to determine who is and is not “Native American,” “Indigenous,” or Cherokee. In addition, we Indigenous people do not always spot a race shifter either. Off the top of my head, I can think of several people in my life—a friend, a fellow student, and a colleague who fooled me. I might have assumed they were a bit disconnected, but I used to be loath to assume someone was actually fabricating their Indigenous claims. It’s just so unbelievable, right? I’ve been burned, watch many others get burned, and I’ve learned to be more careful.
Most of us need to get more educated about how widespread this problem is and the damage it causes. False “identity” claims enable further claiming and appropriation of land and resource rights, cultural access, “minority” business set-asides, scholarships, university admissions, and jobs. In addition, there is what I have referred to in another essay as “structural trickle-down” when “non-Indigenous people with non-Indigenous community standpoints ris[e] through the ranks to represent us and theorize Indigenous peoplehood, sovereignty, and (anti-)colonialism. These people become ‘thought leaders,’ institutional decision-makers, and policy advisors to governmental leaders with regulatory and economic power over our peoples. They then shape academic and public discourse about who we allegedly are, what our lives allegedly look like, and what they think should be done about and to us.” The material damage done to Indigenous Peoples from race shifting is very real.