Fulfilling the Prophecies

One of the realizations you will eventually have to embrace in your journey is that you are fulfilling the old prophecies of several Native cultures which predicted that a day would come when all of the other races of Man would come to the red race and seek their wisdom in saving this present world.

It is ironic that I hear those prophecies repeated often by leaders of the various tribal cultures and, yet, they never seemed to be applicable when the non-Native seeker attempts to join themselves to one of those tribal cultures. Again, this is not without reason.

There was an outgrowth of the hippie culture of the 1960s that sought to return to a more symbiotic relationship with the Earth we walk on. The blossoming of the ecology movement, the rebellion against the industrial machine and the relentless pursuit of material gain, and a desire to live more simply fed the “Back to the Land” movement which spawned communal farms across the continental United States. And who better to guide them than the original stewards of those lands, the Native peoples.

Perhaps it was coincidence that the Native youth were simultaneously rising to national prominence, demanding the justice that they had been being deprived of for hundreds of years. Suddenly, the reservations became a “Mecca” for non-Native people to seek the wisdom of the people who had been repressed for so long and yet had survived.

A very complete account can be found in the writings of Vine Deloria, Jr., particularly Custer Died for Your Sins. The Native people were rather forthcoming with their wisdom, perhaps being too perplexed by the sudden interest in their culture to consider the long-term effects of such an action. Or perhaps, as with the original colonization of their lands, they could not anticipate the sheer numbers of people who would show up.

In essence, these were the original hobbyists. It was not so much an attempt to reconnect with a personal Native heritage, as it is for some of us in the 21st century, as to reconnect with the Native philosophy and cosmology. It is not hard to imagine that these people may have been seen at that time as the fulfillment of the old prophecies.

Regardless, what was apparently not anticipated was the non-Native penchant for appropriating and adapting cultural philosophies and traditions. Misuse and distortion of cultural and sacred traditions began to disseminate into the non-Native counter-culture.

Now, 50 years later, the Native elders are much more cautious about what is revealed to people outside their culture. Hobbyists are looked upon as “culture vultures” regardless of their professed sincerity. Tribal membership is safeguarded, for many reasons. Even close descendants can be denied access to the culture of their parents if they are not found on the tribal rolls.

There is little that can be done to reverse the damage and reluctance on the part of Native elders to divulge cultural information. Patience and persistence are the only avenue available, as futile as it might seem. It will be necessary to demonstrate the sincerity of your pursuit of information; to earn the trust of those who safeguard the cultural traditions you wish to learn.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the quest to reconnect with the Native culture of your ancestor must be undertaken with absolute seriousness and determination. It is a difficult undertaking, made only the more difficult by the ill feelings that those who have preceded you have left in their wake.

Among the Lakota, people of European descent are referred to as “wasichu”, which translates literally as “fat-takers”, meaning they are self-serving, seeking always to take the best of everything for themselves. It is a term that has been well-earned over hundreds of years of colonization and exploitation. It is an unfortunate reality that the current President of the United States, Donald Trump, seems to embody these characteristics and could well be called the Colonizer-in-Chief.

Perseverance in every aspect of your pursuit must be exercised. Never stop learning; seek sources of information wherever they can be found. Grasp any opportunity to meet authentic Native people; look for opportunities to serve their needs. Perhaps, in time, your sincerity will be recognized.

Nevertheless, recognize that you will always be an outsider. There will be places you will not be invited to go. There will be limits to what you are told and allowed to experience. Accept that you will always belong to the culture you were born into; that cannot be changed and it will always color how you see the world, regardless of how hard you try to think otherwise.

The prophecies predicted that the other races would come to the red race for instruction. It did not predict that the other races would merge into the red race. That would disrupt the balance of the universe. We would be foolish to imagine any differently.

Honoring the Earth – Honoring the Medicine

A few years ago, my lawn tractor broke down. I could not get it to start; I concluded it was something in the ignition system. Anyhow, I stopped mowing the entire seven and one half acres we own. I still hand mow the acre or so around the house; the horses and goats nibble at the rest but, to my neighbors’ consternation, most of it now grows wild.

Somewhat simultaneously, I began to develop a serious interest in herbalism. I had long held a passing interest in natural medicine and alternative healing modalities, but I really began to study herbalism. And then I discovered what grew up in the places I no longer mowed.

Last year, my rather relaxed work schedule permitted me to do a fair amount of foraging and gathering. I began to make tinctures and dry roots and leaves. And I began to pay attention to what was growing up in the places I no longer mowed down and elsewhere.

Actually, even the part I was trying to keep mowed got away from me and I found myself trying just to keep pathways cleared to allow access to the barns and outbuildings and such. So, this year, I determined that I would make a concerted effort to keep up with the acre or so, and began to mow fairly early in the growing season with the intent to mow each week.

The front yard area and the areas toward the barns didn’t arouse my attention much. There is burdock and dandelion scattered throughout, but there is plenty of that elsewhere. I mowed around the patch of stinging nettle we allow to propagate next to the garden. But I ended up leaving the back yard area for the next day.

I had planted some flowering tree starts, which I had received from the Arbor Day Foundation, around the back yard area, so I knew I would have to be careful around those. But then I began to notice other interesting plants and shrubs around the periphery of the yard area. I realized that a sharply defined yard area no longer matters to me. There are still raspberry canes and wild roses growing at the edges of the slightly diminished yard area and what appears to be an unexpected domesticated rose bush growing in the middle of the yard area. And I found myself apologizing audibly to the canes and plants I did choose to mow off.

In the course of my herbal studies, I have read several authors, and heard at least one speaker, who talk about getting to know plants personally; going and sitting with them to “hear” what they can tell us about themselves, asking their permission to harvest from them and giving back to them to honor their gift to us. Each of these authors and speakers attribute these practices to Native origins. Indeed, I was already aware that these practices were a part of most indigenous medicine traditions.

In the course of my career as a farrier, I have grown more and more into intuitively practicing kinship with the horses I interact with. Likewise, I have found this to be true of all the creatures that inhabit our seven acres. I have come to realize experientially that we really ARE all related.

My wife has had to become accustomed to my conversations with mice, spiders, snakes, flies, bees, wasps, fleas, ticks and so forth regarding respecting our space so that no forceful confrontation will be required. Grudgingly, she is learning to do the same, though our limits of tolerance are not necessarily the same.

I find myself thinking that this post did not live up to the noble sentiment the title suggested. The words that rolled off of my fingers do not quite match what I had originally anticipated. But, really, the concept of honoring the earth is contained in the concept of honoring the medicine (plants). And, really, both concepts end up being rather elementary:

When you learn to internalize the precept that everything in the creation carries a spark of the Creator, animate and inanimate, you cannot see the world as a colonizer any longer. As I heard Chief Arvol Looking Horse state recently, “You begin to see the earth as our source, not a resource.” When you sense the kinship we share with the plants and animals around us and learn to appreciate the interdependence of everything in the web of life, you will not even mow your yard in the same way.

Earth People

I came across a concept that resonates with me in Kenneth Cohen’s book Honoring the Medicine. I share it for your consideration, exactly as he wrote it:

“In Native American literature, the term white man is frequently a designation of colonial values–the need to dominate, divide, and acquire–rather than of ethnicity. People who superficially imitate Native Americans while denying their own ethnicity, perhaps by wearing Native American clothing and jewelry and imitating speech patterns and mannerisms, are called by a equally derogatory term: wannabees. There are also wannabees among Native American people: ‘red apples’, who are red on the outside but white on the inside. In the past, red apples were called ‘loafers around the forts,’ because they hung around the soldiers’ forts to receive handouts rather than fight against injustice or live in a way that affirms Native American freedom, sovereignty, and values.

Today we have an entirely new fruit, one with a white skin and a red heart.What should we call people who identify with Native American values and behave in a way consistent with those values? A person can be born Indian but act like a colonizer. A person can also be born white or Asian or black and act like a traditional Native American. Yes, it is possible. Not though imitation but by having the courage to follow the guidance of the heart. I have met many non-Native people who have shed colonial assumptions and learned to live lightly and respectfully on the earth. Native American elders recognize that in today’s mixed up world, race is no longer a guarantee of culture. The Creator has revealed his wonderful sense of humor in putting so many red souls in multicolored bodies!

People who respect Native American people, culture, and land and who are willing to make a personal and political stand for them deserve a proper term of respect. I like the designation suggested by a Lakota acquaintance: Maka Oyate, Earth People. The term is similar to a Cree phrase that is sometimes used by spirits (who speak through a ceremonial leader) to refer to Indian people: aks-ju-aski-wes-skin-hagun, ‘Earth-Made People.’ In the Holy Bible, the first human being is called Adam, meaning ‘Earth Person,’ because this androgynous being was formed of earth infused with God’s breath.

You cannot become an Indian if you were not born one. But you can be an Earth Person.” (page 27)

I could live with that…

On “Tribes” and “Nations”

There are no Indians in Pennsylvania. That is the official position of the state government. And, historically, that is correct. For the most part, the Indian nations had all removed themselves westward prior to the War for Independence, though, for a time, the Seneca nation extended into the northwestern corner of the state. Yet, there are still self-proclaimed tribes and nations throughout the state.

Speaking only of the Lenape claimants, there have been eight or more groups claiming tribal identity in the last 50 years. I think there may be four remaining, though one has effectively removed itself to Ohio. I cannot knowledgeably speak regarding any group claiming tribal identity from another nation (e.g. Cherokee, Shawnee, etc.). And I cannot speak of any other state or location other than Pennsylvania. My time “playing Indian” has been spent among the Lenape of Pennsylvania.

The above cited statistic should speak volumes regarding the authenticity of such claims. The fact that the Thunder Mountain Lenape Nation and the Lightning Valley Village were both established in recent memory and have both subsequently passed out of existence ought to exemplify the fallacy of their claims. The acquisitions and mergers that underlie the present composition of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania should serve to cast a shadow on their claim. And so forth.

In short, the problem is that these groups never met the most basic criteria to support their claim to a tribal identity. They do not represent a long-standing community of Native people from a single nationality. They do not have a stable membership base. They lack a clear ethnic identity and shared genetics. They do not fit the description.

For the sake of my argument, I will enumerate the most egregious flaws in the claims of the groups with which I have had any association. I do not wish to attempt to enumerate them all. Three in particular will suffice.

An actual tribal group will have documentable origins that predate history, at least orally. The membership will be closely related genetically. (When Native people refer to one another as “cuzzin”, they are generally not too far from the truth.) They will have a long-standing history in the area in which they claim to be located.

A tribal group will have an established and stable membership base. There cannot be a revolving door on the membership. Leaving the tribe is not an option. You don’t have to attend any of the functions any longer, but you cannot divorce yourself from your tribal identity and assume a new one elsewhere. Again, it is a matter of shared genetics.

Finally, an actual tribal group will have an established and historically recognizable culture base. The language, spiritual practices, customs, mannerisms, and so forth will, in essence, have been established in antiquity. There should not be numerous instances of the establishment of a custom or ceremony within the memory of the membership, unless it is the reestablishment of a custom or ceremony from another related group (e.g. there are efforts being made among the state-recognized Lenape groups in New Jersey to recover elements of their culture from federally-recognized Lenape groups in Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Canada).

None of the Lenape groups in Pennsylvania meet any of these criteria, no less any other more minute criteria. Members come and go. Some hold dual memberships in one or more other “nations”. Close examination will reveal that the customs and spiritual practices are liberally borrowed from numerous other actual tribal cultures (e.g. Ojibwe and Lakota). And the origins of all the groups can be established to have occurred within the last 100 years.

There are no Indians in Pennsylvania, unless they have relocated from another region. Which means that their tribal identity and extended familial roots lie elsewhere.

There is one further feature of these groups that call themselves a tribe, band, village or nation that should be noted for the folly that it is: the attempt to emulate a tribal government. Perhaps it is not so evident in a group much larger than I was ever associated closely with, but my experience is that there are usually too many people with official titles. The expression “Too many chiefs and not enough Indians” could have been coined from watching these groups.

I offer two examples to illustrate this and some of the other points above: When I was a village chief, we set about to fill out the roster of governmental and social structure as we perceived it. So, with a membership of about 15, we selected a principal chief, a head warrior, a medicine chief, and a clan mother for each of the three clans of the Lenape (Turtle, Wolf and Turkey).

When we joined ourselves to the Munsee-Delaware Indian Nation the next year, we repeated the same exercise, adding a clan chief for each clan and a war chief. In each instance, by the time we were finished, nearly half of the membership had received one or more titles.

There are so many points of foolishness in these accounts, I hardly know where to begin. But I will summarize, rather than belabor each one. It should be remembered that both of these groups were largely populated with people who had decided to join themselves to Native culture. When an individual is able to ascend from novice seeker to any tribal office in less than five years, there should be a red flag set for any outside observer.

If the nation is not presently at war, there is hardly a need for a war chief (though many tribal meetings could use a sergeant-at-arms). If there is not a large warrior society, there is no reason to have a head warrior. If there is no medicine society, there is no need for a medicine chief. And, in short, there is seldom enough membership to warrant that many titled offices.

Often in these groups, titles are used as a means for manipulating the membership. Pliable individuals can be pulled closer to the group leader (the personality around which the cult is formed, regardless of their supposed position in the ersatz government hierarchy). Difficult individuals can be reined in and placated. And undesirables can be excluded.

A similar case in point: There was a woman I knew from a group other than any that I had belonged to. I met her at a gathering while I was the principal chief of a Lenape hobbyist group. She was identified to me at the time as a medicine person. I met her again a few years later, when I was participating in a powwow as a storyteller. If memory serves, in the interim she had assumed a different Native name, but now she was also a clan mother in the other group.

As an aside, the individual that had organized the powwow was an archeological field assistant with no particular ties to any Native group when he organized the powwow the first year. By the time the powwow was organized the second year, he and his wife had formed a village and joined themselves to the nation this woman was now a clan mother in.

A few years later, I saw the woman in a video that was filmed in the Southwest. In the discussion that ensued on the online forum where I saw the video, I was informed that she had “moved on” and actually relocated to the Southwest. Similarly, the individual who had organized the powwow has relocated his entire village to another nation that is more geographically convenient to him.

This begs several questions, the foremost of which should be: “How is this possible?” How can an individual assume an important role such as a clan mother (the matriarchal leader of an extended family association that represents a major portion of a village or nation) and then “move on”? Yet this typifies the transient nature of the membership and leadership of these “nations”; the only constant is the personality around which the cult formed.

I can only guess at what transpired. A difference of opinion. A better opportunity in another locale. Who can say? Yet this is hardly representative of the nature of federally-recognized, historical nations.

If you are born into an actual Native culture, you are stuck with it. You can move to the city, you can stop attending the tribal functions, you can shred your tribal ID card. But you cannot change who you are or where you came from. Among the hobbyist groups, you can just relocate to another group that more suits your interests or demeanor at any given moment and never look back.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

The horse dance stick makeover is finally finished! I think I worked on it for almost two years, on and off.

A very long time ago, I was gifted with a horse dance stick. It may be one of the first accessories I had for my regalia. As it was given to me, it was quite primitive, being decorated with cloth bands, metal tacks, a buckskin collar and some buckskin around the handle area. It has always been my practice to make those things which are given to me my own, by embellishing them further. And then I honor them by dancing them around the circle at least once.

Originally, I embellished the dance stick by adding a strip of horsehair to represent the mane and adding deer hoof rattles around the buckskin collar. And I used it in the first few powwows I attended. But a horse dance stick is actually a Plains type of accessory. Before long, I acquired a dance staff that was more appropriate for my Eastern Woodlands regalia, which I have carried ever since.

A few years ago, I was inspired to give the horse dance stick a makeover. I wanted to decorate it with a gourd (peyote) stitch design which would replace the cloth bands, which were somewhat faded. And the deer hoof rattles had mostly broken off. So, quite some time later, I have finally completed the project.

I chose to use the gourd stitch to remind myself how to do it. I am much more accomplished with the brick (Comanche) stitch; I was introduced to that many years ago because it is easier to add and subtract beads from on odd shaped pieces. But the handle area of the dance stick is fairly uniform, so that wasn’t going to be an issue and I hadn’t practiced the gourd stitch for years.

This is one of those pieces that did not turn out as nice as I had hoped. The design did not end up looking like what I mapped out on the grid paper; it is obviously distorted. I’m not sure if it is because I didn’t start the gourd stitch correctly; I can’t see how the bead placement differs, but I wasn’t about to start over just to find out. I also admit that I could not follow my own design pattern; that has never been a problem previously, but this one apparently required better attention to design than I could muster.

I was inspired to replace the deer hoof rattles with horse hair tassels made with cartridge casings. The horse hair in the tassels is from one of my own horses who had died, so they honor him. If you are familiar with the Plains traditions, you understand why this is appropriate. I would have liked to use an older rifle casing, perhaps from a .45-70, but I don’t know anyone who owns one of those so I used a modern (.30-30) rifle casing.

Later this year, I will dance the stick around the circle. But I wanted to take this opportunity to relate a humorous story about a different horse dance stick.

There is a certain hobbyist group that comes to my town each year to present an exhibition for the general public. They drum and dance and offer educational insights into Native culture. They generally represent the Eastern Woodlands culture. I try to make a habit of going to their exhibition in order to see what they have to say each year.

And so it was, this past summer, that when I arrived before the presentation and perused the items they were displaying on their artifact table, I spotted a very nice, yet unadorned, horse dance stick. It was quite nice, in that the hoof representation on the end of the stick was fully three-dimensional (you can see that mine is more two-dimensional), and apparently old, in that the hoof representation had already cracked because the wood had dried out since the artifact was originally crafted. I could not recall seeing this particular artifact in previous years, so I was curious to hear the explanation that would be given when it was displayed for the public.

The explanation that was offered defied credulity. Besides misidentifying the artifact (and the tribal culture from which it came) completely, an explanation of its use was offered which was an amalgam of misapplied factoids and outright fabrication. But I know where the presenter gathered all of that from; I had some of the same “teachers” in times past. She had heard that information in some form and somehow cobbled together the explanation she delivered.

Which points up a glaring problem present in all hobbyist groups: thoroughly uneducated educators. I suppose there could be a hobbyist group somewhere that acquires knowledge and keeps it to themselves, sharing it among themselves but never attempting to divulge it to the outside public. But I have not encountered a group yet that didn’t feel compelled at some point to have a public face, through a powwow or exhibition.

If each individual in the group had thoroughly educated themselves on at least one aspect of the tribal culture they presume to represent and stuck to what they know well, this might not be such a bad thing. But that is a concept doomed to failure, even if that was the original intent.

The viewing public is, by definition, less educated than the presenter. Ostensibly, they came to the presentation because they wanted to be educated. It must be presumed that, generally, the viewing public has only a rudimentary knowledge of the material being presented, yet they are eager to gather as much information as they can to bolster that knowledge.

Consequently, they will ask questions across the spectrum of their curiosity. They will ask questions about any bit of information they have internalized from every source they can remember. Unfortunately, it is the tendency of the presenters to attempt to answer all of those questions, hazarding a guess where necessary, usually without qualifying the certainty of the answer.

But even worse, generally, is the knowledge pool from which the guess will be drawn. Most intertribal groups mix and match their information on Native culture, using what I call the “Chinese menu” approach.

Perhaps there are not many actual Chinese restaurants left. There seem to be many more Asian buffets these days, so perhaps the metaphor is unfamiliar in current times. But there was a time when a Chinese meal was ordered by selecting an entrée from one column of the menu with side dishes listed in an adjoining column. Thus, there was an expression that became a part of the common vernacular, “One from Column A and two from Column B”.

It is my contention that New Age spirituality is assembled in the same manner, so it could be equally appropriate to characterize the cultural information appropriated by most intertribal groups as “New Age Nativeness”. The formulation proceeds somewhat like the following:

An individual selects the culture they wish to represent and learns a rudimentary amount about that culture from whatever sources they can discover, written or oral. But then they encounter an idea from a different culture that sounds interesting or attractive, so they append it to their knowledge and practice. As additional divergent concepts are encountered and appended, the original knowledge becomes increasingly adulterated and unrecognizable as accurate or authentic. Nevertheless, it is passed on to other less educated individuals as accurate and authentic.

Thus, I attended a presentation on a medicine wheel garden once which typified exactly that phenomenon. It was presented at a powwow that purported to be a Woodlands powwow (representative of the nations which comprise the Eastern Woodlands cultural group). No mention was made of the historic fact that medicine wheels did not figure prominently in Woodlands culture; they are more a feature of Plains culture. The information presented was an amalgam of medicine wheel lore from several Plains cultures. The presentation included a sort of guided visualization of the four directions with accompanying symbolism. And the presenter concluded her presentation with “Nemaste”.

I walked away from that presentation thinking to myself: “I wonder how many people think they just learned an Indian word?” Hopefully, most people recognized it for what it was and didn’t consciously connect it with the remainder of the information presented. Nonetheless, for those who didn’t, there was no one to tell them that “Nemaste” is an East Indian word; not an American Indian word.

If we are going to attempt to educate the public, we had best be certain that we are delivering the information accurately and that we can cite the source from which we acquired that information. We are doing a disservice to the public and failing to represent Native culture properly and respectfully when we fabricate information. Nothing could mark a wannabe in a more negative light.

Intertribal Does Not Mean Interchangeable

I have noted previously that most hobbyist groups call themselves intertribal. This means that they acknowledge that they represent a multitude of tribal identities without claiming a distinct tribal identity. Anyone from any tribal identity is welcome to join and participate and, in theory, bring their culture with them to share with the others.

At least, they don’t try to call themselves a tribe or a nation. They portray themselves as an association of multiple tribal identities. In principle, this is a straightforward and acceptable idea. When properly conducted, it should be an appropriate place for a seeker to begin to learn the culture of his ancestors. In reality, I have yet to see this play out correctly.

I have long believed that an intertribal group should be a springboard to real exploration of your Native heritage. Of course, it would help if there were one or more people already there who have already assimilated the culture you are wanting to assimilate. The ideal model for learning the culture of your ancestors would be one of those further along the journey reaching back to pull you along.

Unfortunately, the reality is usually that there is no one in the group that knows much about any particular tribal culture. There is usually a generalized knowledge of Native life and history, gathered from whatever books can be discovered. There will usually be a fair representation of people claiming ancestry from the best known nations (Cherokee, Lakota, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), etc.), but often none of them have any depth to their knowledge of the culture they claim ancestry from. Instead, there is a much too prevalent tendency for each individual to pick and choose information from any tribal culture that appeals to them.

Times have changed since I began my own journey. At that time, it was necessary to travel to a bookstore and peruse whatever was shelved there to find resources for study. Of course, there were libraries also, but you were still limited by the interests of the acquisitions committee and donations.

Since then, the Internet has exploded and one can find almost any book ever written available through myriad sources, often indexed by keywords, which makes locating primary source information much easier. There is also seemingly limitless information available through web searches, though it is often difficult to discern the validity of any given article.

Nevertheless, this presumes that people are motivated enough to actually research the culture they claim ancestry from. This is seldom the case. People prefer to be fed information by others, which presupposes that those people have accurate information to offer. The examples here are too numerous to recount.

I once was in a group with an individual who claimed Cherokee ancestry. So I suggested some well-known resources on the Cherokee for him to use to learn that culture. His response was that he preferred resources that had mostly pictures. I’m still looking for the Classic Comics version of James Mooney’s work.

I attended an educational presentation by a group that I was somewhat familiar with and heard an account given of an origin of ribbon work on Native clothing. The story offered was plausible enough and I liked it. So I attempted to verify it through my own research, which I was unable to do. So, the next time I heard the story in a subsequent educational presentation I asked the presenter to cite the source of their information.

This was an individual who claimed Lenape heritage. The story she had offered involved the children who were sent to the Indian boarding schools. The explanation (citation of source) I received astonished me. She tried to attribute the story to oral history because the Lenape did not have a written language.

There are two problems here: The Lenape language was transcribed and written down by Moravian missionaries before the American War for Independence. It is difficult to say how many of the Lenape could actually write the language at the time, but it is reasonable to assume that there were a few.

But even more pertinent to the explanation given is that the era of Indian boarding schools began after the American Civil War, well into the historic period of both Indian culture and American culture. It is certain that if there were any validity to the account given, someone would have written something of it somewhere.

Returning to the theme represented by the title of this post, the fundamental problem of most intertribal hobbyist groups is that all tribal cultures become generally viewed as somewhat interchangeable. Customs and practices from any culture can be grafted into each individual’s understanding of the culture they aspire to represent according to any whim or fancy.

If such an understanding were kept private and personal, no one would be harmed by the blatant inaccuracies thus constructed (other than the individual themselves). But when it is disseminated to the unsuspecting public as accurate and authentic, a transgression is committed that cannot be easily corrected. It is little wonder that pretendians are generally regarded as pariahs among those raised in the cultures that are thus misrepresented.

It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is for each individual to study the culture they aspire to represent, in as many aspects as they can. In my experience, it is likely that you will learn aspects of other national cultures in the process, but it is important to keep those carefully compartmentalized to the culture they belong to.

Likewise, it is imperative that you be able to cite the sources of your information as much as possible, and be honest when you are offering extemporaneous information (making an educated guess). Authenticity and accuracy is paramount if you are representing a tribal culture you were not raised in to the public.

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.

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!

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.