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Cultural Theft: People Pretending To Be American Indian

Example of online avatars for "pretendian" groups.

Example of online avatars for "pretendian" groups.

Pretendians: Pretending at being Indian


Being new to the internet in the 90’s, I happened upon a new-age type of online discussion group.  This particular group is gone now, but back then it was a group of (mostly) women pretending to be American Indians practicing what they believed was American Indian spirituality….on the internet.   Pretendians would have been a suitable moniker for them since the members professed to have obscure or no tribal bloodlines while claiming to be Native-at-heart.  For them, being Native-at-heart meant that no tribal lineage was required to feel the calling of American Indian spiritual ways.  Allegedly a lot of Indian Spirits were calling non-Native people to become Indian!  As such, they chose romanticized Hollywood type "Indian" names such as Little Wolf, Dancing Bear or Morning Star. The members referred to their moderator affectionately as Buffy- short for her screen name of Buffalo Woman.  Having no real life photos of themselves as avatars, they almost always chose internet images of scantily clad women petting wild animals.


The topics included every new age concept from "choosing your true Indian name" to "let’s learn how to find your animal guide or animal totem".  Some topics evolved into some of the spiritual ceremonies that true Indians have been taught by the Elders as things we don't talk about in public settings, and particularly not online.  Their particular brand of "spiritual soup"—concocted by tossing a good helping of stereotypical pan-Indian trifles, a sprinkling of Cherokee traditions, a half cup of Lakota ceremony (as detailed in several books and internet sites), and maybe some Celtic and Wiccan teachings tossed into the mix—cooked up to be a frightening new-age indigestion. This type of spiritual blending stands out like an enormous sore thumb to those who recognize pieces of their own authentic cultures.

Initially, they seemed like a wonderfully welcoming group. New members were welcomed into the fray with open arms, and encouraged to begin their soul searching within their discussion topics. Most entries ended with the usual phrases such as Love and Light, Blessed Be, and Peace and Harmony. Sarcastic humor is a common thread among many Native people, and a few of my friends would joke about the "Peas and Hominy" or how they stood for “whirled peas”. The distortions of their culture inevitably incensed many tribal folk, and humor was a type of therapy to deal with generations of cultural theft.


The way of the Indian is my birthright!

When Indigenous visitors asked the members to name their tribal affiliation, or specify whose traditions they were teaching, their peaceful and loving nature would suddenly metamorphose. What happens when a wild animal is backed into a corner? They usually come out snarling and ready to attack. This group was just like a cornered animal when put on the defensive.

The pretendian group seemed to have a really hard time when those with strong tribal ties would question them. Defensive measures typically started in a fervent assertion that "This is MY path and you have no right to tell me what I can or cannot practice spiritually!" With an idiotic sense of entitlement he/she would proclaim, "It doesn't matter if I am Indian or not- the way of the Indian is my birthright."

Discussions often developed into heated debates, and the group owner became protective of her snarling brood. Comments from the tribal-enrolled Indians would be deleted, their screen names banned from the site, due to the fact that "they were disrespectful to us." How can people be so blind in their own hypocrisy of wanting so badly to be Indian, yet so quick to eliminate the people who ARE Indian? I’m still shaking my head on that one.

A Real Life Insta-Indian

This scenario also happens in real life in nearly identical ways. I have seen non-Indian people who wanted so badly to be accepted as a Native person, join the local Native American organization to help out. Soon, their helping led to decision-making roles. As the leadership of the organization began to look less Indian and more like another white organization, many of the tribal-affiliated individuals left the group. The “pretend Indian” group then used their position to validate their (instant) Indian identity to the larger Indian community. Anyone who questioned that identity was called out for discrimination and called "Apples" (a derogatory term often used to say that a Native person is red on the outside and white on the inside). I've seen people who claim no tribal lineage one year ("not one drop", they'd say), suddenly claim a tribe the next year. There are cases in which a tribal member has "adopted" someone of European descent (nothing legal, but involves a ceremony); however this does not mean the adoptee is now a tribal member as some have claimed.

Pretenting to be Indian

Pretenting to be Indian

What is the harm in genocide and racism?

A friend once commented, "What is the harm if people want to pretend to be Indian? Who cares, just let them." To the casual observer, it may not seem like something worth complaining about. After all, unless they are enrolled in a tribe, they do not qualify for any tribal benefits (Don't even get me started on all of the monetary possibilities that go way beyond tribal benefits!) This issue is much more complicated and far-reaching than that.

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A closer inspection reveals many various facets of social justice issues. One issue, mentioned earlier, is in allowing non-Indian people control of Indian organizations, which ultimately alienates Native people who are not interested in serving another white-majority group.

There is a common pretendian mindset- thinking they know more about Native culture than those who've lived it since they were born. The snowball effect begins when other social and educational groups seek out the fake organization as a reliable source of information in cultural traditions, ceremonies, teachings and other hot topics. Sadly for society, many of these posers talk a good talk, and easily make it sound like they know what they're talking about (as good manipulators do), and most ignorant folk accept the new information as fact.

At some point much of this misinformation gets around to those who don’t know fact from fiction. Going back to the person who thinks they know more about the culture than a Native person, imagine how foolish will they be when they tell the Indian guy he's doing it all wrong!

It's like the hobbyist powwows, where everyone is white and wearing the most expensive regalia money can buy (whereas Native people MAKE their regalia or someone gifts it to them). Sadly, the hobbyist believes they are doing everything right, and that they are being respectful or honoring Native people. In this end, ceremonies and cultural traditions are distorted and become a mockery. It's the last precept of genoside: take our land, take our resources, and take our culture. Trivialize it until it has no meaning.

The tragedy is the continued genocide, appropriation and distortion of a marginalized people's land, resources and culture! The irony of non-Native people taking ceremonies and traditions for themselves, is that until the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, it was illegal for tribes to practice their own ceremonies!

There are many more points to make on this, and if you are interested please check out the links following this article. Or google the words cultural theft or cultural appropriation to find oodles more.

Books that discuss cultural theft


The Native-at-heart group would often ask, "Why can't we all just get along?" Some believe that the issues of identity—who is Native and who is not, who can be enrolled in a tribe and who cannot—was made up by the government as a method to "divide and conquer". This issue is much bigger than "getting along" and it isn't about one Indian disagreeing with another. The bottom line is that cultural theft and identity theft is just another way to TAKE from Indigenous people again and again. Additionally, many different types of resources are given to these fakes, such as scholarships, grants, sponsorships, etc. Look closely to see just how many non-Native people are acquiring resources that were meant for our First Nation people.

Cultural Theft

Cultural theft has been a widespread issue for a long time. People are finally becoming proactive about it, and it is worth noting what is being said. In fact, it is such a big topic nationally that the University of Michigan hosted the first American Indian Identity Conference during the week of October 15-19, 2008.

In the news, we're seeing reports of people who say they are the "Chief" from a newly created tribe, while earning $30,000 a day by selling "dual-citizenship" in such tribes. Whoa, that's ludicrous! But that's not all- these people perpetuate other cultural theft issues such as medicine men who have no tribal affiliation, selling sweat lodge ceremonies for $9000/person, violations of the Indian crafts law such as dream-catchers made in China, spiritual traditions sold as books, hobbyist powwows, pan-indianism, etc.

“But don’t you have more important issues to deal with, like alcoholism, diabetes, crime on the reservations, etc.?” This question is inevitably asked every time a Native person condemns a social injustice against them. What many people do not understand is that all of these issues are connected. Each one affects another. The role of an activist is to educate, which hopefully will lead to changing the way we think about social issues like these.

Spirituality is NOT something you BUY


Please, do NOT EVER pay money to go to a sweat lodge. Those who charge money for spiritual ceremonies are exploiting and making a mockery of those who NEED those ceremonies as their way of life (aka the Tribal People whose culture it is). Fake shamans do NOT understand the true nature of sweat ceremonies and must be accountable for the countless and irresponsible deaths of their customers.

Seeking Native American Spirituality: Read This First!

New Age Frauds and Plastic Shamans

Books to Avoid

Alice Dalgliesh, The Courage of Sarah Noble. New York: Macmillan (1954, 1991)

Ann Rinaldi, My Heart Is On the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl. Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania, 1880. New York: Scholastic (1999)

The Indian in the Cupboard and The Return of the Indian. Both use stereotypical imagery including broken speech: "I help. . . I go. . . Big hole. I go through. . . Want fire. Want make dance. Call spirits."

The Education of Little Tree -- written under the pseudonym, Forrest Carter who claimed to be an orphaned Cherokee. In reality, the author was Earl Carter, a former member of the KKK and speechwriter for George Wallace.

Susan Jeffers, Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, Illustrated by the author. New York: Dial (1991).

Ann Turner, The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita, a Navajo Girl. New Mexico, 1864. New York: Scholastic (1999), Dear America Series

Albert Marrin, Sitting Bull and His World. New York: Dutton (2000)

Elizabeth George Speare, The Sign of the Beaver. New York: Dell (1983)

Michael L. Cooper, Indian School: Teaching the White Man's Way. New York: Clarion (1999).

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2011 Theresa Kennedy


Mike Jones on April 12, 2015:

I would like to see you add Iron thunderhorse to your list if fakes ans books to ignore. This man was born William Coppola in New Haven CT. He has been imprisioned in TX for kidnap and rape sinve 1977. He decided he was Native American while in prisoon. He is the self appointed Sachem of the Quinnipiac. They were a small tribe in CT that is long since gone. This man has hijacked their story and wrote his own. He has a wwbsite full of "facts". He haa written many books from prison. It's sad that prople take him as real when in fact the Quinnipiac have been gone for well over a century.

Honkey on January 23, 2015:

I liked your article there is alot of white people showing disrespect to the natives pretending to be something they are not . They knowimg or unknowingly make a joke out of traditions that are not theirs . I myself am not native but I dont want to lose our native people in a sea of white people pretending to be and teaching things they know nothing about shame on them pricks .

Linda Crist from Central Virginia on July 28, 2014:

You can't see it but I am giving you a standing ovation for this hub Theresa. You did an outstanding job on a subject near and dear to me. I've wanted to write an article about this for some time but had not done so. You did it much better than I would have. I applaud you. Voted up, and across and sharing it across my network too. Awesome!!!!!

MadeThatWay on July 07, 2014:

Bravo, Theresa, for speaking out and telling it like it is!

It's sickening - and incredibly sad - to watch the lengths some will go to in order to garb themselves in a cultural persona far removed from their own reality. (Also, Hollywood's ignorance has a lot to answer for.)

It's as pitiful as the thousands who claim to be "fourth generation Shaman, taught by my grandmother" - ugh!

The exact same scenario occurs with Australia's First People, too - there are many indigenous pretenders the world over. I never know whether to vomit or laugh - it's hard doing both - but it does make my skin crawl!

Theresa Kennedy (author) from Minnesota on February 13, 2014:

Twilight, I think you totally get it, and I thank you for that! This was a difficult topic to tackle, as it really involves a web of issues. Not to mention a tendency to digress. Thank you for your support of my two most lengthy hubs. I am always tickled to know that someone has read the whole nine yards of my words!

Twilight Lawns from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K. on February 13, 2014:

A fascinating and entertaining hub. Please excuse me if I laughed several times during the introduction and well into your very well written and thoughtful piece of work.

The humour, however, began to dissipate when I realised the enormity of the situation. Then, reading further, I realised that there are people out there who don’t seem to understand the meaning of integrity or either the importance of the differences between respecting and wanting to infiltrate the cultures and social mores of another group.

Once again, may I say, “Great Hub” and also, you have another follower.

Theresa Kennedy (author) from Minnesota on January 21, 2013:

"What now, at this late date?" Awareness of what is cultural theft, for starters. Education is the cure for ignorance. Confrontation of those exploiters to let them know that cultural theft is unacceptable. Teaming up with social justice groups such as the American Indian Movement can give your efforts momentum in numbers. Letters, protests, and boycotts can also be quite effective. It took many years to become so "entitled" as cultural thieves, and it will take time to reduce and eliminate that mindset.

Theresa Kennedy (author) from Minnesota on January 21, 2013:

I am sorry Tristan, that this is your experience. My hope for you is to spend time with your Cherokee family, and know that being who you are is simply being you with no need for approval from others. Judgement about your heritage will either vanish, or you will become oblivious to it. Best wishes!

Theresa Kennedy (author) from Minnesota on January 21, 2013:

Thank you lrc7815!

Levertis Steele from Southern Clime on December 21, 2012:

This is common all over the world. I have seen people make wooden statues, walking sticks and staffs with African-like carvings on them. They say that they are from Africa, but they are not. It is not unusual for people of most cultures to exploit others. How many Chinese restaurants are open that are not run by Chinese nor serve all original Chinese food? Cultural exploitation is a business that has been around for centuries. Many people have excavated and looted from other cultural finds to make a profit. After all of this plundering and time passed, has anyone been arrested? Jails could not hold them if they were. What now, at this late date? Who is to decide among the millions who is guilty?

tristan on December 09, 2012:

i'm half cherokee, but i lived up north so i'm pale. so as soon as i put on a hand made arrowhead necklace i get laughed at and people think i'm faking my heritage

Linda Crist from Central Virginia on August 18, 2012:

Wow! What a great hub. I am so glad to see cultural theft being presented here on hubpages. You did a fantastic job! Voted up! on March 15, 2012:

I have known a few - thank ou but no thanks

Theresa Kennedy (author) from Minnesota on February 15, 2012:

Thanks so much for taking the time to read Cultural Theft, Marc! For one who has never thought about cultural theft, you have hit the mark (hehe I made a homophone)that so many fail to understand. Cultural thieves and those who don't think it's a big deal, could learn a thing or two from you. I'm so glad to be a fan of yours! p.s. thanks for your comments and compliment :)

Marc Woodard from Portland, Oregon on February 10, 2012:

I never thought about cultural theft, let alone somebody wanting to be an Indian that was not born into a tribe. It seems I learn something new everyday. Guess that's why I like to read unique hubs like this one. It just seems wrong for someone to pretend to be something their not. Exploiting a culture for one's benefit, or profit is wrong, disrespectful and degrading to the Indian tribes people. I believe it is wrong to do so and I support your talking points. Great hub!

Theresa Kennedy (author) from Minnesota on June 07, 2011:

Thank you, Dutchess! That is true, there are many spiritual belief systems that have been exploited, distorted and stolen for profit. I know some who are Celtic, and they are just as incensed about what people are doing with their traditions and calling it Celtic. It's sad, but unfortunately most people think there is nothing wrong with it.

Duchess OBlunt on June 07, 2011:

What you are describing here is not unique to the natives. People exploit, dilute and look for profit with just about anything out there - especially when dealing with anything on the spiritual level. As you say, education is the key to fighting this. And you have made a great start of that with this hub.

Excellent - keep it up

Theresa Kennedy (author) from Minnesota on June 06, 2011:

"We recognize that there's a great deal of yearning for spirituality out there," said Leigh Jenkins, the director of the Office of Culture Preservation for the Hopi tribe. "With all the madness in the country, people are looking for something to fill the vacuum. And, of course, they think we're exotic. But it's wrong to simply impose yourself on someone's else's religion."


Theresa Kennedy (author) from Minnesota on June 05, 2011:

Heyaa and miigwetch to you for stopping by and commenting!

Debbie-jeehns on June 05, 2011:

Megwetch! Well written article.

Theresa Kennedy (author) from Minnesota on June 05, 2011:

Thank you, Isabella! Oh goodness, I agree about Pawlenty. It is likely his mission to (once again) ruthlessly take from the tribes in order to be a "hero" to (ignorant) Americans. More salt, anyone?

Theresa Kennedy (author) from Minnesota on June 05, 2011:

Thank you Sembj. And I agree with Isabella- excellent point and one which has been noted by many Native folk. It is that particular point that can make the issue all the more insulting, like rubbing salt into a wound.

Isabella22 on June 05, 2011:

Excellent reading!/Very informative!

Also, note to Sembj...excellent point! Someone should tell that to Gov Pawlenty (who appears in all likely-hood to be a wannabe U.S. President) I am referring to his not too long ago attempt at siphoning their casino profits. (Bad Govenor)

Sembj on June 05, 2011:

If I was a native person I would feel pleased if people were taking an interest in my culture; however, it seems insensitive, inappropriate, unjustified and insulting when those whose forefathers were responsible for attempting genocide try and appropriate and profit from the same culture.

Excellent hub with compelling and rational arguments. I hope it is receives wide readership.

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