Indian Country Magazine

I was pleasantly surprised to finally receive the debut issue of Indian Country magazine, published by Indian Country Today Media Network, recently. Indian Country Today Media Network has been promoting it for several months, so my anticipation had been mounting; especially when the articles had been linked to other articles from their regular news feed, but were only available in summary to non-subscribers. I had only signed up to receive the debut issue before I determined if I wanted to pay the full $35 subscription for the year (six bi-monthly issues).

I am a firm believer that the pretendian cannot avail themselves of too many information sources. This one is a good one, in a more general sense. It contains articles largely concerned with contemporary human interest stories, with sidebars for historic and cultural expansions. Perhaps it could best be characterized as a “People”magazine for Native America.

Perhaps the most valuable aspects of this issue’s contents are the personal observations offered by the writers and subjects of the articles. Even the way a Lakota creation story was related offered an insight into the viewpoint of the author (which extends, apparently, to the Lakota people in general).

The magazine includes plenty of fine photography, artistic features and tourist information. This issue included a fairly comprehensive powwow schedule, along with some other powwow-related information.

I have to surmise that Native America is not really the intended audience; the content seems more suited to drawing non-Natives into the Native world in an informative way. Nevertheless, if you can afford the subscription amount, there is plenty of insight that can be gleaned by the pretendian with regard to the Native perspective and the Natives who are making their mark in the world.

The Evolution of the Enthusiast

If you are not born into a Native culture, everyone has to start somewhere. Even if you have a Native ancestor, regardless of how close they may be in your family genealogy, but the culture is not practiced in your immediate family, you will still find yourself adrift from those roots. And, as the familial links to that Native ancestor die off, your chances of cultivating any meaningful connection to those Native roots die with them.

Thus, the seeker invariably finds themselves searching for any person or resource that can reestablish those links. Most seekers are operating from the knowledge that there is an individual in their family genealogy who is alleged to be a Native. Laughably, that individual has often been inflated in the family history into a chief or a princess. Yet most often, the actual tribal identity is not firmly established; hence the vast proliferation of Cherokee grandmothers and Blackfeet progenitors. And so the journey begins.

There is a maxim that prevails in the hobbyist scene that asserts: “If you have one drop of Native blood in you, you are Native”. Hardly anyone knows that that maxim is borrowed from the legacy of racial segregation in the United States, perhaps made most famous by the work of Thomas Plecker in Virginia. It was coined to be an instrument of exclusion, not inclusion.

Nevertheless, the starting point for most hobbyists is one of demanding admission to the Native community. We have the ancestry, so we ought to be able to celebrate our heritage alongside those who were factually born into that ethnicity and culture. Skin color and actual cultural identity are irrelevant.

Most times, lacking the knowledge or means to access individuals who actually live in the culture we wish to assimilate into, we join ourselves to any local group of hobbyists we can locate, to find an entry point into our Native identity.

Most hobbyist groups are intertribal, whether they choose to acknowledge that or not. They are often a cult of personality, being founded and dominated by a singular individual or a very small group of like-minded individuals. And they are usually a quagmire of unreliable information for the sincere seeker.

Nevertheless, they defy anyone to deny their right to self-identify as Native and they teach the members to do the same. Native identity is conferred on any who seek it, regardless of how tenuous their link to the Native culture and ethnicity. Everything goes smoothly until you are challenged by an actual Native person.

It is generally incumbent on the individual to establish their actual genealogical claim to their Native identity. And you may stand on that as long as you can. But, invariably, you will encounter someone who will discount your claim because it isn’t close enough to give you any substantial blood quantum.

And here’s the reality. If your ancestor was more than 3 generations up the family tree, you don’t really qualify for anything except to celebrate that you have a Native heritage. And you probably will not be able to prove the ethnicity of that ancestor from census data; you are almost certainly relying on oral family history.

So you stake your claim. But sooner or later, you will be challenged, unless you are content to sit quietly in a corner and console yourself that you have a Native heritage. But, isn’t the point to proudly wear your Native identity for the world to see? To learn and proudly share your knowledge of your ancestral culture? And here is where you will run into trouble.

There will be a moment when you will encounter someone who knows something about the culture you are assimilating yourself into. And chances are, they will challenge your knowledge and your origins. Then you will have a choice; you can admit that you don’t know much and may have been misinformed, or you can become adamantly stubborn. And the more comfortable you have become with your Native identity, the more likely you are to become stubborn.

And loud. You will reiterate and assert your right to claim a place in the Native community to any who will listen. It will become a mantra for you. You will exert whatever logic you can muster to bolster your claim. You will be adamant and unyielding, hoping to wear the opposition down with your tenacity.

Then, when the opposition becomes fierce enough, for those of us who tend to lead with our jaw, you will eventually resort to trying to “out-Indian the Indians”. You hit the books and learn as much as you can about your adopted culture. You may even try to learn the language (you may even succeed). If you can be a better Indian than your Native detractors, they will have to accept you, right?

Nevertheless, if you can learn to be honest with yourself, you will reach a day when you have to admit that you have no real claim to a Native identity. Your Cherokee ancestor is a nice conversation piece, but they could not bequeath their culture to you. You were not born into the culture and you will likely never truly assimilate it. You are, as the saying goes, neither wolf nor dog.

So, in the end, you must retire your claim to belong and return to the culture of your birth. Or admit that you are a hobbyist, an enthusiast, and try to fit in where you can; where you are permitted. Curiously, that can become the point at which doors may be opened for you to begin a further journey.

Sometimes I Still Surprise Myself

I didn’t formerly view myself as artistic. I was never impressed by what I created in art class in my formative years. Consequently, I have always undertaken new projects in making regalia or artifacts with no small amount of trepidation. And yet, over the years, I have surprised myself over and over with how well my artistic attempts turn out (not every time, however).

In a recent article in Indian Country Today, a Native pipe maker was quoted as saying that we should ask the stone what kind of pipe is inside of it. I had heard this from a Lakota acquaintance who is also a pipe maker. And now I can say that I have experienced this for myself.

Many years ago, my wife purchased two pipes from a friend of ours which he had crafted. One was made from a deer antler, which I still use as a personal pipe, and the other was made from clay, which she claimed for herself. Some years ago, her pipe was misplaced and, when it reappeared recently, the clay bowl had broken where the wooden stem joined it.

An attempt to repair the bowl was unsuccessful and I was inspired to carve a new bowl from pipestone (catlinite). Somewhere along the journey, I had acquired a box of catlinite chunks, so I selected one that would contain the broken bowl, with the intent of merely replicating the broken bowl. The stone had other ideas. It became clear to me, through means I will not attempt to articulate, that there was a turtle inside that catlinite chunk. The turtle has meaning to my wife and the project was intended to be a birthday surprise for her, so this seemed appropriate to me.

In a previous conversation with that Lakota pipe maker, he had explained to me that he makes pipes in a traditional manner, using only hand tools. I had made a few very simple pipes for myself previously, but had used power tools for most of the process. So I asked my acquaintance if it would be acceptable to rough out the design with a power tool and finish with hand tools. He said that I should use whatever was necessary to do the job.

I have never lost the trepidation. I have learned the value of “measure much, cut once”. My profession as a farrier has taught me that you can always remove more hoof, but you cannot glue it back on. I downloaded a picture of a painted turtle and sketched a design on the catlinite block. I carefully removed what pieces I could with a band saw (using a metal cutting blade). I carefully drilled the hole for the stem without encroaching on where I anticipated that the bowl would be. Then I began to remove material with a rotary tool.

When the design was roughed in enough to see the outline of the turtle, I switched to files to finish the project. One of my hoof rasps was appropriate to flatten the lip of the bowl; I used a small flat file and needle files for the remainder of the design. And somewhat to my surprise, a reasonable facsimile of a box turtle emerged from the stone.

To be honest, I credit Spirit with guiding my hands. I did quite a bit of praying while I worked. When I went to drill the final hole into the pipe bowl, it was placed exactly right; both the depth of the bowl and the center of the stem hole met perfectly.

My only regret is that I did not use an appropriately sized boring tool to make the bowl; I could not craft a perfectly round hole with the rotary tool, try as I may. I suppose that the traditionally appropriate tool would be a bow drill with a flint or chert “bit”, but flint knapping is not in my skill set at the moment!

If I had intentions of continuing to carve pipes, I would acquire a pair of D-type carbide cutting burrs in 1/2″ and 3/4″ to craft perfect bowls. I had used a 1/2″ ball burr on the previous pipe bowls but I could not locate it this time; and I needed a 3/4″ burr to replicate the dimensions of the original bowl anyhow.

You Cannot Be Who You Are Not

When we find out that we have a Native ancestor and determine that we want to [re]connect to the culture from whence they came, we often undertake a misguided adventure in attempting to assimilate a culture that is not our own. Or, perhaps, although we are not aware of any identifiable genealogical connection to any Native culture, we sincerely desire to assimilate a worldview that resonates with our spirit better than the worldview we were raised with. Or, perhaps, we just think the Native American culture is interesting and wish to experience it firsthand.

It is the experience of this author that it is not difficult to locate a Native enthusiast group that offers to assist us in our quest. It is also, unfortunately, the experience of this author that we seldom actually find what we were hoping for, finding instead a confusing amalgam of misinformation and pan-Indian practices.

So, here’s the reality: If you weren’t born into a Native tradition or have a predominantly Native genealogy (within 2 generations), you are not Native. You may be proud of your ancestor, you may embrace the Native worldview (as you understand it), you may learn volumes of information about the indigenous First Peoples of the Americas, but you cannot be who you are not.

Perhaps not by coincidence, two authors I have read recently actually said as much. In his book Honoring the Medicine, Kenneth Cohen asserts, in a section entitled “Earth People” (page 27): “You cannot become an Indian if you were not born one”. Likewise, in the book Secret Native American Pathways, in the first chapter, author Thomas Mails asserts: “Those who do not have Indian blood should not seek to become Indians, because they cannot”.

There are political, social and economic reasons that non-Native people are turned away at the gate when they seek admittance to Native circles. There are historically valid reasons that the motivations of non-Native people are questioned when they seek admittance to Native circles. And, it is far too prevalent that these non-Native people are, in truth, demanding admittance to those Native circles, as if they have some inalienable right to assimilate a culture that is not their own.

We are not helping ourselves or others when we behave in this manner. (Can you say “white privilege” and “colonizer”?) It is far better, indeed necessary, to acknowledge our true disposition and admit that we are, in fact, wannabes. It is likewise necessary that we tread carefully in the assimilation of any Native traditions lest we rightly deserve the label of “culture vulture”. There are adequate resources available to learn many Native traditions and practices but not many that guarantee that we have learned them correctly.

If we cannot make a straightforward claim to a Native identity, we are better off to call ourselves hobbyists, enthusiasts or re-enactors. We need to seek our place in the Native paradigm with respect and honesty about who we are. Assume we know very little and listen far more than we speak. Make no demands and accept whatever is offered with humility and gratitude.

The aforementioned author, Kenneth Cohen, acknowledges his non-Native origins. Yet he has been privileged to learn from some well-known Native healers and holy men and now refers to himself as a Native American healer (but not a medicine man). And he emphasizes the importance of listening and silence. If you have an interest in Native American healing, his book is a valuable resource, since he has already walked where you are hoping to journey. But even otherwise, there is value in reading his advice for approaching and learning from the elders.

I Am a Pretendian

[shuffles feet, clears throat] Umm…yeah…hi… I am called Suckachsinheet, the blacksmith, and I am a pretendian… But that doesn’t have to be a problem.

I hesitate to publish this post because it is completely personal and yet, it is the present state of my journey. I offer it for what it is worth, leaving myself open to criticism from all quarters. Still, I am not seeking approval, merely stating my present viewpoint and giving you a window into how I see myself; which seems only fair and necessary.

After decades of trying to earn a place in Native circles, I now refer to myself as “Native by choice”. I offer no logical reason why I belong in the Native community, other than my personal affinity for the cultural worldview. I permit others to see me as they wish; as a hobbyist or as a Native.

When you stand in my position, it is difficult to find authentic elders to offer instruction or guidance in the culture you aspire to. Consequently, my ongoing learning is largely from books and intuition. Fortunately, there are plenty of written resources available to assimilate and expand upon. Unfortunately, there are many more written resources of questionable worth to wade through and discard, particularly on the Internet.

From the beginning, I have been drawn to the spiritual aspects of Native culture. Though it is the most dangerous part of the culture to venture into unassisted, I continue to be drawn into learning the ways of a healer. I do not wish to elaborate further, except to say that, as I have learned, your medicine is effective only to those who accept it as such.

I am certain there are those who would call me a hypocrite for writing a blog detailing all the ways we embarrass ourselves in front of the very people we are hoping to impress. Yet, that is the very reason that I am qualified to write these posts: I have lived the life and made the mistakes. Indeed, without a doubt, I continue to do so.

This blog is not, in any sense, intended to be a recovery program for wannabes. We can have a place in the Native community if we conduct ourselves properly and properly represent the culture. This blog is about helping us wannabes figure out how to do that. This can become a community forum in which to exchange ideas and share our missteps and our successes. Hopefully, it can be a mirror in which we can see our own missteps and learn to laugh at them and ourselves, because we may be certain that we are being laughed at by others.

Our journeys encompass our lifetimes. There is much to learn and much to be encountered. As long as I live, I choose to follow the Native ways to the best of my knowledge and ability and hope that I find acceptance in the eyes of my Creator.

Toward the end of the movie Grey Owl, there is a scene in which the protagonist has the opportunity to meet with several First Nations chiefs and elders. One of these elders looks at him very closely and apparently recognizes that he is actually non-Native. He then pronounces: “A man becomes what he dreams. You have dreamed well.” I hope the same will be said of me.

[stands tall, speaking confidently, arms raised to Creator] I am called Suckachsinheet, the blacksmith, and I am a pretendian. And that is not a problem!

10 Signs You Might Be A Pretendian

If your group’s history prior to 1970 is purely oral…you might be a pretendian.

If your group is not predominantly composed of extended families…you might be a pretendian.

If your group has almost as many chiefs and clan mothers as regular members…you might be a pretendian.

If your group has a war chief and you are not presently involved in an armed conflict…you might be a pretendian.

If your group has a medicine chief but not a medicine society…you might be a pretendian.

If you proudly endorse yourself as a pipe-carrier or a medicine person…you might be a pretendian.

If you call yourself a shaman or know a shaman…you might be a pretendian.

If your Eastern Woodlands regalia includes a war bonnet…you might be a pretendian.

If you have ever worn your regalia to a costume party…you might be a pretendian.

If you have ever crafted regalia from a McCall’s pattern…you might be a pretendian.

If you don’t understand the problem with any of these…you need to do some more research.

Welcome to Pretendian Country

Wannabe. Wasicu. Culture vulture. Weekend warrior. PODIA. Pretendian.

If you have spent any time trying to find a place in the world of the modern Native American, without the genealogy to back up your claim to that place, you have probably heard those terms. If you read Indian Country Today (and you should), you have probably seen those terms used. These are derogatory terms, intended to demean the individuals they are applied to.

Twinkie. Crystal hugger. Bliss bunny. Hopefully you have never qualified as any of those.

There are numerous web sites and forums dedicated to ferreting out individuals to whom these terms can be applied. There is at least one blog site dedicated to exposing the genealogies of people erroneously laying claim to a Native American heritage (and rightly so).

People with Native ancestry more than two generations removed (less than 25% CDIB) generally receive a less than cordial welcome when they seek to [re]connect to their ancestry in the modern Native culture. The reasons for this may be well-deserved in the most general sense, but are usually applied preemptively and indiscriminately on the individual level.

It is well known that there are prophecies in many Native traditions that predict a time when the children of the colonizers will seek the wisdom of those traditions and seek to learn lifeways that are more connected to and respectful of the Earth and the web of life (all my relations). It is here that we are truly wannabes—we wannabe connected. But we ought to go about that in a proper manner.

This blog is intended to address this issue. It is hoped that this can be a place for dialog about how to achieve those connections in a manner that does not cast us in a negative light to any modern Native culture; a place to facilitate our efforts to find our place in the Native paradigm.

I have been “playing Indian” for over 20 years now. I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things along the way. It is my intent to share those lessons, and I invite the comments of Native and non-Native alike as to the validity of my observations. There is room for many different subject matters, all falling under the umbrella of learning the culture of the Native ancestors—our own and all of the others. Perhaps we can all further our journeys together.

We are, truthfully, enthusiasts, hobbyists and re-enactors. We, hopefully, have a love and respect for this culture that we were not raised with. But we had best develop the skin of seven spans if we want to persist in our pursuit, and be honest about our lack of understanding. We had better be able to laugh at ourselves, because we may be certain that we are being laughed at by others. It is my hope that this will be a place to foster that; a place where we can gather and get a proper orientation toward where we hope to progress.