The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sacheen Littlefeather may have lied about her identity. Does that matter?

After a startling op-ed alleges the recently deceased activist was a fraud, heated discussions emerge about ‘policing’ Native American heritage

(AP, Frazer Harrison/Getty Images/Washington Post illustration)

Sacheen Littlefeather left an indelible impression at the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony, when Marlon Brando chose her to publicly decline, on his behalf, the best actor Oscar he received for “The Godfather” and instead take the opportunity to call out Hollywood’s mistreatment of the United States’ Indigenous people. Littlefeather, who was 26 at the time, cut a regal figure — wearing moccasins and a tasseled dress, her long, dark hair parted and clipped with intricate beadwork.

Introducing herself as an Apache and president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, Littlefeather looked out at the audience (which she later said was as White as a “sea of Clorox”) and delivered a short speech that was interrupted by scattered applause and boos. Some speculated that it was a kind of surrealist performance. Members of the media and Hollywood’s elite at the time derided Brando for the gesture. Others looked into Littlefeather’s background (she was born Marie Louise Cruz, in Salinas, Calif.), questioning her motives and accusing her of faking her identity.

She died Oct. 2 at the age of 75, not long after the Academy formally apologized for how she was treated and threw an event in her honor.

Twenty days after Littlefeather’s death, however, Native American writer and activist Jacqueline Keeler wrote an opinion column, published by the San Francisco Chronicle, alleging Littlefeather committed “ethnic fraud” by pretending to be Native American for more than 50 years.

Throughout her life, Littlefeather said she was White Mountain Apache and Yaqui, through her father’s side of the family. But Keeler’s article includes interviews with Littlefeather’s sisters, Rosalind Cruz and Trudy Orlandi, who dispute their late sister’s claims.

“It is fraud,” Cruz told Keeler. “It’s disgusting to the heritage of tribal people. And it’s just … insulting to my parents.” The sisters also challenged several aspects of Littlefeather’s life story, including that she grew up in abject poverty and was abused.

The article has since unleashed a bigger discussion online and among Native American activists and scholars, one that goes much deeper than most people’s understanding of Native cultures and tribal identity. Some took Keeler to task for “policing” Indigenous identity, arguing that such efforts have isolated and hurt those earnestly trying to reconnect with their Native tribes. (Keeler publicly tracks “Pretendians,” people who appear to be falsely claiming and profiting off Native American heritage.)

But others have defended Keeler’s work, saying that Littlefeather’s alleged fraud was an “open secret” among Native scholars and activists for many years. Falsely appropriating Native identity can cause real harm, they argue, entrenching harmful stereotypes and undermining the communal and legal bonds that have defined Native tribes for centuries.

“It’s not just about … your right to claim or to reconnect to that tribal identity, it’s about what your responsibilities are to it,” said Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a writer and lecturer of American Indian studies at California State University at San Marcos.

“The controversy about Sacheen Littlefeather is not that she’s not Indigenous; it’s that she is not who she claimed to be — as an Apache or a Yaqui,” she said. “That kind of identity implies a relationship, a legal relationship to a tribe, or in this case, two tribes. That is what she did not have.”

After all, being a member of a Native tribe is not just an ethnic identity, but a political one. A long history of genocide, forced migration, assimilation and erasure has magnified these tensions, Gilio-Whitaker added: “There’s no identity more fraught than American Indian identity in the U.S., none.”

Gilio-Whitaker, a certified descendant of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington, was aware of the rumors surrounding Littlefeather’s heritage for decades, but considered it “unthinkable” to question it.

“In Indian Country, we don’t have a lot of heroes. And so when we do have them, we tend to hold on to them, and take for granted that they are who they say they are,” she said.

After meeting with Littlefeather in 2016 to work on a book proposal about the actor’s life, Gilio-Whitaker’s doubts bubbled up. But Gilio-Whitaker still couldn’t bring herself to question Littlefeather explicitly, even when she wrote a 2018 letter to filmmakers at One Bowl Productions, who were producing a 26-minute documentary on Littlefeather.

In that letter, shared with The Washington Post, Gilio-Whitaker cited “colossal misunderstandings about Native identity” at a time when “tribal sovereignty and nationhood are under attack.”

“There are controversial aspects of Sacheen’s background and history that will inevitably bring some of these issues to light with the releasing of a documentary film about her,” Gilio-Whitaker wrote. The film was released anyway in April 2019. Gayle Anne Kelley, founder and CEO of One Bowl Productions, said in a statement that the company “stands by” its documentary.

Gilio-Whitaker, who wrote about the controversy last week, said she wishes she had been “more upfront” about her concerns: “I feel like I, on some level, have been complicit in that fraud.”

But critiquing Littlefeather publicly also seemed “unseemly,” she said. Littlefeather was diagnosed with breast cancer at the time, and had been public about her mental health issues, which include a schizoaffective bipolar diagnosis.

Cruz, Littlefeather’s estranged sister, said she, too, had felt inclined to believe Littlefeather.

When reached by The Post on the day Keeler’s article lit up the internet, Cruz said she had assumed that the story Littlefeather told the world had some accuracy to it.

“We were confused and didn’t know. Sacheen went off and cultivated American Indian. So we just assume, okay, we’re probably American Indian. We never pursued it,” she said, adding that she thought maybe Littlefeather was exaggerating a small amount of Native heritage. “We know that my father is Spanish and Mexican, and we always knew that she lied by playing it up like, ‘He’s Yaqui and he’s Apache.’ … Listening to Sacheen tell us the same thing over a thousand times, we thought, maybe we might have some [Indigenous ancestry].”

Cruz said the person she spoke to at the White Mountain Apache tribe could not find any record of her family and she was denied membership. The Post contacted the tribe to confirm Keeler and Cruz’s accounts, but received no response.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, meanwhile, issued a statement in the aftermath of Keeler’s article: “The Academy Museum is aware of claims that have been made over several decades regarding the background of Sacheen Littlefeather. This is something both Littlefeather and the Native American community have addressed continuously since the 1970s. Native American and Indigenous identity is deeply complex and layered, especially in the United States, and these communities have long battled erasure and misrepresentation. With the support of its Indigenous Alliance — an Academy member affinity group — the Academy recognizes self-identification.”

After her sister died, Cruz said she came across Keeler’s work, which confirmed her suspicions that Littlefeather was a fraud. “I started reading on Jacqueline’s tweets and the research she did, I went, ‘Yes, she’s right.’ ”

Still, many of those debating the new revelations online looked beyond Littlefeather’s personal history, drawing their attention to what they regarded as cultural gatekeeping.

Keeler is herself controversial among Native writers and activists for her ongoing investigations of “Pretendians.” Her list of alleged impostors has included actor Johnny Depp, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and former senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), an enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation. Until recently, Keeler’s project was a “show your work” kind of endeavor — with dozens of pages of research, compiled into a single Google Doc, vetting people’s various claims to Native identity. In an interview with The Post, Keeler said that five people on her list ended up having valid claims.

The most straightforward way of belonging to a tribe or nation is to be enrolled in it. Some tribes ask potential members to show lineal descent, meaning an ancestor who was a registered member. But many require a “blood quantum” — that is, a minimum amount of “Indian blood.”

There are a lot of issues with this way of determining heritage. As Elizabeth Rule, a professor of race, gender and culture studies at American University, told NPR in 2018, these were not genetic assessments, and officials would mark someone as “full blood” based on appearance or cultural involvement in the community. Mixed-race Black Natives were often excluded from official rolls. And in recent decades, some tribes have aggressively disenrolled members.

Keeler, speaking to The Post, defends her methodology, which she detailed in a 40-page article on Substack. “Native identity has to be based in something,” she said.

It carries with it a legal definition, for instance. Besides, Keeler added, “Pretendians” often have vague claims to Native identity — so issues like “blood quantum” don’t typically come into play in her work.

But this act of public vetting is harmful for a number of reasons, said Angelina Newsom, a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation who wrote about Keeler’s work in Pow Wows, a publication focused on Native issues.

What Keeler did is try to “police” Indian Country — something no single person has a right to do, Newsom said.

That should be left to tribes or councils, said Newsom. “They do have the capacity, if they so choose, to investigate these types of claims or to speak out publicly if they want.”

“We are not one big group of people in the United States. We have different sets of culture, values, traditions,” Newsom said. “So it just kind of felt like she was stepping on everyone’s toes.”

Such conversations can be particularly painful to people who have been looking to reclaim their Native lineage.

Raised by a White single mom, Carly Butler is in the process of reconnecting to her Yaqui heritage: learning the language, researching Yaqui history and unpacking her family’s past. She was told by her mother that her dad is a Mexican Yaqui, but while Butler said she has reached out to family members who have verbally confirmed her Yaqui lineage, she doesn’t have the kind of formal documentation that “people like Keeler” look for.

Butler, who defended Littlefeather in a Twitter thread, said she saw similarities between herself and the famed activist. Butler said she worries that if she ever fulfills her dream of becoming a published author, skeptics will say she doesn’t belong or accuse her of trying to profit off her identity.

“I just want to be honorable and respectful of my nation and tell the story of what happened to me personally, being displaced and not being able to reconnect in a way that I would like, without being harassed or delegitimized,” she said.

There is a notable “gray area” when it comes to claiming Indigenous identity, said Kimberly TallBear, a professor of Native studies at the University of Alberta and a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate. Blood quantum requirements can carve up bloodlines, leaving members of the same family on the outside of tribal citizenship — including her own.

But these cases are not the same as falsely claiming a Native ancestor or identity, TallBear said: “There is just no good excuse for lying.”

The people making false claims tend to double down on harmful stereotypes, leaning into traumatic stories about poverty, alcoholism and abuse, TallBear said. And, she added, some have gone on to influence policy, as well as perceptions and portrayals of Indigenous people and communities, all while having no lived experience or legal relationship to those nations, which continue to fight for resources and sovereignty.

Littlefeather herself didn’t seem to financially “profit” off her alleged lie, Gilio-Whitaker of California State-San Marcos noted. But the scholar believes Littlefeather did benefit from it, at least in recognition and acclaim.

For the people most invested in Littlefeather’s story — Native activists, scholars and descendants — there is no single lesson or focal point.

While Keeler said her work exposing “Pretendians” has come at a cost to her career, she still finds the project valuable, because being Native “is not a subjective experience.”

Others were dismayed at how the conversation has focused on defending individual identity rather than considering community responsibility, which is itself a hallmark of Indigenous cultures: “When we assert Indigenous definitions of kinship, we are talking about relatives,” TallBear said.

This emphasis on community and one’s obligations to it are especially important, she added, at a time when tribal sovereignty and land rights are being challenged.

Newsom of the Northern Cheyenne Nation said these “sensational” concerns about authentic Native identity are more important in academic circles and online discussion than they are in everyday life in Native communities. When she brings up such matters back home, people feel it’s “outrageous” to even talk about.

“They’re like, ‘We’re trying to get clean running water. We’re trying to find how we’re going to send our kids to college. We’re trying to survive.’”

correction

An earlier version of this story misidentified, in a second reference, the university system where Dina Gilio-Whitaker is a lecturer. The first reference was correct: California State University at San Marcos. This story has been updated.

clarification

An earlier version of this story described people as being removed from the list Jacqueline Keeler keeps of Native Americans whose identity has come under question. They are not removed, but their status is updated. This story has been updated.

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