Everyone Wants to Be an Indian, But Nobody Wants to Be an Indian

Mark Rogers

The title is paraphrased from a comic bit from the legendary Paul Mooney. He actually said "Everyone wants to be Black but, no one wants to be Black." By that he meant that people from other cultures like to take bits and pieces from Black culture but don't want the experience of being part of that culture. I think it applies to Native culture today more than ever and it is worth asking the question, why?

One reason is buying into the fantasy. Some people see Native culture as a quick and easy path to a spirituality that is lacking in their own lives. The old way was to recognize the spirit world and those who lived within it as coexisting with this world all of the time. This is a foreign concept to those who are taught to commune with the spirits only on certain days under the direction of a priest or pastor in a fixed place of worship. People like this seek to mimic ceremony and ritual but, still miss the point that one can live along side the spirit world constantly. In the end, they are just going through the motions and not lending respect where it is due.

Another aspect of this is the warrior fantasy where people liken themselves to be the fearless and stoic Native warrior. These people tend to ignore that fact that most of the famous warriors who opposed the American policy of Indian eradication were medicine people, farmers, hunters and ordinary citizens of their nations and became warriors out of necessity. These people seek to boost their sense of self worth rather than protecting their people or way of life. We can see this in the sports fans and teams that say they honor Natives but only perpetuate the myth of the "noble savage."

Another reason lies in the idea that Indians have an innate link to nature that is coveted by the modern "environmentalist". This is just another extension of the "noble savage" myth. The old ways taught that one should coexist with the other nations on earth. The four leggeds, the creepy crawlers, the fish, the fliers, the stones, they were all seen as having their own instructions for living in this life. This is a foreign concept to one who is taught that the land and it's inhabitants must be dominated and made to be productive for the purpose of human comfort. The modern environmentalists talk about conservation but it always comes down to a matter of resources rather than seeing the whole as a system that depends on all living and non living things doing what nature intended them to do. Being a vegetarian doesn't mean that you have a greater respect for life, it just means that you prefer to consume one life form over the other.

The prevailing reason, though, is material gain. The myth in this country is that once you are a documented Indian, you are not obligated to pay taxes or you can get wealthy from gaming. Most Natives know that this is the furthest from truth that you can get. There is absolutely no economic advantage in actually being Native American. That doesn't stop people who have the most miniscule ties to an actual nation from trying to cash in on it though. There are many tribes and bands vying for Federal recognition that are actually European descendents because the grant money is good. It's easy for them to masquerade as Native because it was their ancestors who displaced the actual Indians.

There is also a huge economic advantage in playing an Indian for the crowd. There have always been people who make money selling the image without living the life. Cher, Patti Davis (Ronald Reagan's daughter), Kathie Lee Gifford, Val Kilmer, Jack Dempsey, Farrah Fawcett, Ludacris, Snoop Dogg, Beyonce and even Oprah all claim Native descent. There are tons more because it is the fashionable thing to do. How many of these people have ever stood up for Native rights? When newscasters and talk show hosts look for the Indian point of view, where are they? While our women face domestic violence here in America and outright murder in Canada why are they silent? It's simply because, everyone wants to be Native but no one wants to be Native.

Mark Rogers is a citizen of the Montaukett and Matinecock Nations located in Long Island, New York, where he is known as Toyupahs Cuyahnu (Crazy Turtle). He has served as a grassroots activist in the African American and Native communities and is a proud veteran NCO of the U.S. Army Reserves Medical Corps. He is presently working on a writing career and seeks to aid fellow veterans through his writing.

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Mark Rogers's picture
Many thanks to ICTMN and Ray Cook for letting a writer have a voice in the conversation. If you enjoyed the piece, look for more of my writing at on FB under Mark Rogers and Toyupahs Cuyahnu/Mark Rogers for more Native oriented topics.
Mark Rogers
builds-the-fire's picture
"Cher, Patti Davis (Ronald Reagan's daughter), Kathie Lee Gifford, Val Kilmer, Jack Dempsey, Farrah Fawcett, Ludacris, Snoop Dogg, Beyonce and even Oprah all claim Native descent. There are tons more because it is the fashionable thing to do." I believe all of the above have some (documented) NA blood. When I was growing up, if you were part NA, the popular response from full-blooded NAs was "what part of you is NA: your ear, arm, leg? What part?" Likewise, it's not popular within AA culture to claim NA heritage. Those who do risk being ostracized in some way. The way most AA approach the subject is to honor all of our DNA and make mention of it all when it comes up. Most AA do associate only with AA, and know little about their actual NA heritage other than what's been documented through DNA, and family history. But if NA had a more welcoming spirit themselves instead of the constant "what tribe, no tribe? not NA" rhetoric, maybe more AA would be more willing to stand up for NA rights, and not keep silent...
hesutu's picture
A few years ago Ms. Winfrey had a DNA test done which showed she had Kpelle, Bamileke and Nkoya ancestry. These are (sometimes called tribal) nations of Africa, not of the US. The DNA test also showed 8% possible native american ancestry. Oprah stated at the time as far as she knew she had no european or native ancestry. To my knowledge she has never gone beyond that and does not claim to be an indian, contrary to the claims in this article by Mark Rogers.
Mark Rogers's picture
Thank you for the feedback. I don’t want anyone not to feel welcome when exploring their heritage. Claiming to be NA and having NA ancestry are two different things. These people have referenced at some point Native ancestry. My point is that if these people have a link to Native ancestry, they should explore it and become part of the conversation rather than sit on the sideline. I think that applies to anyone who self identifies as Native American. We can’t be a silent people anymore and we need people talking about their own identities to help decolonize the way we see ethnicity in this country.
Mark Rogers
Boricua53's picture
Relax. Some people just want to learn other cultures.
Two Bears Growling's picture
Interesting article Mark, Also, there are those who have the heritage who didn't find out about it till many years later. When I asked why, I was told their ancestors kept it quiet because people were actually murdered if it was found out in some communities you had Native ancestry. ................................................................................................................................. Yes, like folks who had African ancestry, if you wanted to stay alive & not have you or your family harmed or murdered, you kept quiet if you could pass for white in days gone by. So as I found out, sometimes our ancestry was hushed out of fear & wanting to survive in the communities our ancestors lived in times gone by. ................................................................................................................................. I know of folks whose ancestors even refused to be put on those tribal rolls out of fear. As a result, these future generations lost their Native rights in various tribal nations. However, they did not lose their right to be proud of their Native heritage. ................................................................................................................................. The long running concerning having a CDIB card & not having one has been a hotly debated conversation for more decades than I can recall. What should matter is that those of us who have that CDIB card are no better than those with the heritage either. We should be treating others as we want treated each day. As in the days of the ancestors, it didn't matter where someone came from or skin tone someone had that gave one a claim to tribal identity, what mattered was that they took part in our daily life, lived in our communities, took part in hunting, fishing, gardening, caring for the children the aged, gathering healing plants, berries, herbs, stood up & helped protect our villages, partook of our religions & ceremonies, etc. Not much else mattered to the ancestors in considering others a tribal member. ................................................................................................................................. Blood quatums were a white man's way of assessing us; NOT ours! Just remember that folks the next time the topic come up here & there. The MORE our People get back to the ways of our ancestors the better off we will ALL be. What needs to matter is how we treat others & asking ourselves each day, " Does what I do, say & think please the Creator?" If you can answer, " yes", then you can go to bed happy & thankful each day the Creator grants you one more day on this world before He calls you to join the ancestors.
Two Bears Growling
RobynL's picture
Hello Mark, re, your comment reply; "My point is that if these people have a link to Native ancestry, they should explore it and become part of the conversation rather than sit on the sideline", is so on the mark, (no pun intended)...................................................... You express a lot of great points in this post, and I will pass them on in my own writings. The more info we get out, the better for overall understanding. I couldn't agree more on the people who want to claim the ancestry, but don't speak up for what's important to us, and for us. Sometimes, I just want to scream about our missing women and why isn't there as much noise as for those poor girls in Nigeria. They are all of us. I know they are not obligated to, but I would love for anyone, especially those celebrities to use any Native heritage they claim to bring education to the general masses to help expose the very myths you point out here. Thank you for your insightful thoughts.
SFSolstice's picture
I spent many hours searching the "official" roles of the US Government in an attempt to find my ancestors rumored connection to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. I was not in search of any remuneration of any kind. All I wanted was access to the true spirit world of my ancestors and not the "weekend warrior" spirituality promised in a weekend workshop by so called native teachers or white people who had been accepted by the various tribes, mostly Sioux, and now shared the sacred knowledge for exorbitant amounts of money. Being unable to find my Tennessee ancestors on the governments POW list, I was denied any access to anything Cherokee. I did befriend some "enrolled" Indians in San Francisco who were very open to me visiting their art gallery and spending money but once they learned I could not PROVE my native heritage their attitude toward my spiritual search changed drastically. I understand how some indigenous people who shared their spiritual secrets felt betrayed when those people decided to make money off white people desperately seeking spiritual relief from their inherited religions. However, who are we to judge for that mistake in evaluating honesty and character? For sure it was not me who experienced rejection from the native peoples as well as the so-called selected white teachers who charged well beyond my means. I have now given up my search for my ancestors ways of living with the hope that someday this powerful point of view will be shared to honor and heal the earth. I don't understand people who believe they have the answer to changing the way life is expressed on earth would in these desperate times still guard it as some ancient secret while all the while still complaining nothing on earth is changing. Blessed Be :-)
Shadowwolf480's picture
"There are many tribes and bands vying for Federal recognition that are actually European descendents" I think it's only fair to add a few federally recognized tribes such as the Seminole tribe of Florida, both Cherokees Nations as "descendents of Europeans". If anyone notices that its members, primarily it's leadership and council members tend to look more white than actual Native. Note, that the real Seminole Indians have no connection with the Seminole tribe of Florida. And it's co called "council" approves Florida State to degrade and deplore the Seminole name and the Native people in general via its racist masquerading white clown, playing dress up as silly white "injun". Which is why I think the BIA should halt any continual pending "federal recognition" process of certain so called tribes.
Two Bears Growling's picture
SFSOLSTICE, I will encourage you to not give up the search for your Native ancestry. I have known folks who have searched for decades before they finally proved their connection. The search alone is exciting in that it uncovers sometimes family mysteries & proved what was suspected in how this one or that one was connected. ................................................................................................................................. My friend, don't ever give up searching for your ancestors past. It is so rewarding uncovering ones ancestors. Sometimes you uncover loads more than you ever dreamed. If you love a good mystery, searching all sorts of records is just the ticket I find. There is so much more to find online than one could use to find with decades of research at the local library, courthouse records & census records. Wishing you luck & adventure as you search for your ancestors & their past!
Two Bears Growling