Lecturer on American Indian Studies, California State University San Marcos
Dina Gilio Whitaker does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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When Sacheen Littlefeather died on Oct. 2, 2022, obituaries reflecting on the actress and activist’s life held her up as a Native American trailblazer.
But there is serious issue with this assessment: A suspicion among those who knew her – myself included – that her claims to American Indian heritage were not what they seemed has developed into outright claims of falsehood. A report in the San Francisco Chronicle on Oct. 22 claims that Littlefeather was a “fraud.”
Written by author Jacqueline Keeler, whose running “Alleged Pretendians” list documents cases of Native American ethnic fraud, the article cites two of Littlefeather’s sisters who say that their sibling lied about her heritage. Contrary to Littlefeather’s half-century long claims, she has no White Mountain Apache or Yaqui heritage, according to the report.
The article has unleashed bitter online arguments, counter-articles and intense criticism of Keeler. In part, the reaction stems from calling out Littlefeather’s alleged deception so soon after her death.
It also reflects the esteem many held Littlefeather in. Littlefeather skyrocketed to fame in 1973 when, based on her supposed Native American heritage, she rejected an Oscar for Marlon Brando in protest over the film industry’s deplorable treatment of Native people. It cemented her position as “persona non grata” in Hollywood but made her a heroine to a new generation of American Indian people.
As a scholar who writes and teaches about American Indian cultural appropriation, I believe that scrutinizing Littlefeather’s claim to Native identity is necessary. “Pretendianism” – the act of falsely claiming American Indian heritage – does real harm, and the case of Littlefeather may shed light on why people make such claims, and how they get away with it.
I reviewed Keeler’s documentation before it was published, and in my opinion it is solid research. Keeler’s work also revealed numerous other apparent falsehoods by Littlefeather over the years, including her claims that she was at the 1969 to 1971 Alcatraz Island Occupation.
The allegations of falsehood also resonate with my own experience of working with Littlefeather. In 2015, she asked me to ghostwrite a memoir with her on the back of the #OscarsSoWhite movement. I spent several days interviewing Littlefeather at her home in San Rafael, California, but was later informed that Littlefeather had decided to “go in a different direction.” During our conversations, Littlefeather offered no information about any family connections to the White Mountain Apache or Yaqui tribes.
I later warned the makers of a documentary film about my concerns about Littlefeather’s claims to American Indian heritage but otherwise kept my suspicions largely to myself. The truth is, it never seemed acceptable to question Sacheen Littlefeather’s identity – not now or not when she was alive. For generations, activists, writers and filmmakers who worked with her reflexively believed her assertions.
But here is the thing: The issue of Littlefeather’s heritage has never been about questioning whatever good work she has done as an activist. It wasn’t even about whether or not she had any Indigenous heritage at all. Given that her father’s family was from Mexico, there is a good chance that she had Indigenous ancestry from that country.
Rather, it raises questions about why she would invent a fictitious narrative, and why no one questioned it, at least publicly, during her lifetime.
Littlefeather became a cultural icon in large part because she made a life playing to the Indian Princess stereotype, and she certainly looked the part. This was especially true during the Oscars incident, in which she adorned herself in full Native dress, for example, because it sent an unmistakable message about the image she was trying to portray. It should be noted that the outfit was not of traditional Apache or Yaqui design, nor was her hairstyle.
The stereotype Littlefeather embodied depended on non-Native people not knowing what they were looking at, or knowing what constitutes legitimate American Indian identity. There is a pattern that “pretendians” follow: They exploit people’s lack of knowledge about who American Indian people are by perpetuating ambiguity in a number of ways. Self-identification, or even DNA tests, for instance, obscure the fact that American Indians have not only a cultural relationship to a specific tribe and the United States but a legal one. Pretendians rarely can name any people they are related to in a Native community or in their family tree.
They also just blatantly lie. Pretendianism is particularly prevalent in entertainment, publishing and academia.
Littlefeather lived with a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, as she publicly disclosed shortly before she passed and as she had spoken in depth with me about. We can’t say what role, if any, her condition may have played in her apparently false appropriation of Native heritage. But according to the Mayo Clinic, one of the hallmarks of the disorder is delusional thinking characterized by “false fixed beliefs despite evidence to the contrary.”
It’s one thing when people indulge their fantasies about their supposed Indian heritage to make them sound more interesting at cocktail parties or to convince actual Native people that they are one of them. But it’s quite another when there are lucrative movie deals, publishing contracts, high-paying teaching jobs, big grants and business deals at stake based on advancing an American Indian image.
After all, it is illegal to ask job candidates about their ethnicity in public realms like universities, which helps explain why American Indian ethnic fraud appears to be so pervasive in academic institutions in the hiring of tenure track faculty and postdocs in American Indian studies departments and related fields. There is no way to properly vet people’s claims legally.
Harm is caused when resources and even jobs go to fakes instead of the people they were intended for.
To my knowledge, Sacheen Littlefeather did not make a lot of money perpetuating an Indian identity. And it is only fair to note that Littlefeather is no longer around to offer a defense or provide documentation, should she have it, that would disprove the claims of ethnic fraud.
But if we are to accept the words of her sisters – and based on my own experience with her, including photocopies of five years of a handwritten journal she gave me in which there is no indication of familial ties to any Apache, Yaqui or other tribal community – I can only conclude that she benefited from this fraud by achieving something she desperately desired, fame, and that a lot of people were duped in the process.
Deception cripples peoples’ ability to discern truth. And what is that if not a form of harm?
We may never know the reasons for Sacheen Littlefeather’s fraud, if indeed it as that. What I do know is that I prefer the truth, even if it means I lose a hero.
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Lecturer on American Indian Studies, California State University San Marcos