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There’s cultural appropriation, dressing up like an Indian for Halloween, with the fake feathers and fringe, but saying you are Native American when you are not, is also an issue. This image is from a Halloween party in West Hollywood in 2011.

5 Fake Indians: Checking a Box Doesn’t Make You Native

Dr. Dean Chavers

Perhaps no one causes more confusion and muddies the water more than fake Indians. We used to call them wannabe Indians, affirmative action Indians, Johnny come lately Indians, census Indians, among others.

They mislead the public. My uncle, Tom Godwin, an electronics genius, worked for Martin Marietta in Denver for 30 years. During that time he was the team leader for building the lunar lander, was the chief tech rep for the Titan missile sites, was the team leader for the design and build of the Little Red School House satellite communication system, and the team leader for building the $2 billion launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

But when the affirmative action thing came about in the late 1960s, somebody looked on his records and saw that he was Indian. He was immediately given the additional duty of identifying and working with other Indians at Martin. All of a sudden people who had never claimed to be Indian said they were. They thought it would help them with promotions, job opportunities, and advancement. Some of them were obviously not Indian.

In 1976, I met with the two gentlemen at Lockheed in Sunnyvale, California, who were in charge of affirmative action. I was working for the Indian Center of San Jose at the time, setting up an education program. During the meeting they told me Lockheed was the largest employer in the Bay Area. They proceeded to pull out this big computerized logbook (they were using the old IBM 360 in those days) of several hundred “Indians” who worked there.

I was amazed. As we went through their list, I recognized none of the people they had listed. By that time I had been in the Bay Area for eight years, and had met most of the urban Indian leaders in San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco, and outlying cities. I had served a term on the board of the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland, worked as the Mainland Coordinator for the Alcatraz occupation, taught for three years at Cal State Hayward, and worked at the Indian Center for several months. I still wonder about the real ethnicity of the people at Lockheed who were claiming to be Indian.

The affirmative action managers were happy. They had met their quota of Indians—exceeded it in fact. Meeting the quota was a federal requirement. Almost all their funds came from the federal government for defense contracts. However, to be a Lockheed Indian, all one had to do was check a box.

Most of the fake Indians are people who are just trying to get hired, to get a scholarship, to get promoted, and the like. In some cases, however, they have tried to do what my mother used to call “get above their raisings.” Several of them have written best-seller books, making them rich and famous. Ultimately, however, some nosy Indian started looking at their genealogy and their credentials and found them out.

Some of these fake Indians have risen to national prominence on the strength of their fake Indian credentials. Jamake Highwater: (He pronounced it “Juh-MAH-kee.”) He claimed starting in 1969 that he was a Cherokee. However, when he was born in the 1920s (the date is disputed), he was named Jay Marks or Gregory J. Markopoulos and was Greek. Under that name he finished school at Hollywood High School and attended a few years of college in Los Angeles. He then lived in San Francisco for several years.

One of Highwater’s many books. (

He later moved to New York and wrote books under the Highwater name. He also obtained a huge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, allegedly $840,000, to produce a controversial PBS documentary called “The Primal Mind.”

He died in 2001, with his name still controversial. Hank Adams researched his life and published an exposé about him before his death. Joe De La Cruz, the late leader of the Quinault Nation and President of both the National Congress of American Indians and the National Tribal Chairman’s Association, condemned his fake Indian credentials and the pap he was pushing. But Highwater/Marks carried out his Indian charade successfully for over 30 years.


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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
Interesting that everyone wants to be an NDN, but you don't find anyone checking the HISPANIC box. I'm sure this was once also the case with the Native American box on various government forms, but the "illegals" are the current targets of Conservative demagogs. Natives, like many Hispanics, aren't usually so quick to have themselves counted by the government. Whenever our numbers (and the location of those numbers) were known by the government it fared pretty poorly for the indigenous people involved.