Indigenous peoples’ erasure in the dominant U.S. racial imaginary exists alongside our actual survival as peoples that refuse to be fully absorbed into the political and physical bodies of others. This compels a phenomenon that Harvard University historian Philip J. Deloria calls “playing Indian.” In his 1998 book by the same name, Deloria focused on mascots, boy scout rituals, and other forms of dressing up as Indian. He did not focus on the false claims to Indigenous ancestry or “identity” that I will focus on here. But his historical investigation also supports an analysis of the centuries-long, intractable practice in US American life of a more literal form of playing Indian: false claims to Indigenous ancestry and identity in which often multi-generational players can forget they are pretending.
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