The Real and Unreal Indians Among Us

Jacqueline Keeler

In 1968, Vine Deloria, Jr. opened his famous American Indian manifesto, “Custer Died for Your Sins” with a chapter titled, “Indians Today, the Real and the Unreal.” In it he said, “People can tell just by looking at us what we want, what should be done to help us, how we feel, and what a ‘real’ Indian is really like ... Because people can see right through us, it becomes impossible to tell truth from fiction or fact from mythology.”

The sports news site Deadspin echoed the title of that chapter in an article last week. “New Fake Indian Joins Old Fake Indian In NY High School's R-Word Fight” featured the unmasking of two “pretendians,” Mark Yancey and Dennis Jones, who were sent free plane tickets to attend a school hearing in Lancaster, New York to urge them to keep their ‘Redskins’ mascot.

Members of local tribes also attended the meeting and testified against the mascot. Lancaster is located in Erie County, NY within the borders of the Iroquois Confederacy. Lancaster once called itself Cayuga Creek, which is still the name of a small stream that runs through traditional Cayuga lands. In a scorched earth campaign, English colonists destroyed Seneca villages killing many women and children and leaving the communities homeless and destitute. This led the Iroquois Confederacy, of which the Seneca and the Cayuga were members, to side with the British during the Revolutionary War. The town of Lancaster renamed itself in 1833 and is now 98 percent white and less than 1 percent Native American. The genocide and displacement of the indigenous people and nations is a terrible legacy that lives on in the demographics of the community.

The anonymous donor who paid for Yancey and Jones’ plane tickets, also paid for Joe Milk, an Oglala Lakota from Martin, S.D. to travel 1,400 miles to attend the Lancaster school meeting. The local paper quoted Milk saying it was his first time flying to upstate New York and he was excited to do some sightseeing. A lifelong Washington Redskins fan, he came “to help Lancaster Redskins save their name."

Redskins’ supporters must have spent thousands of dollars on plane tickets because they were not happy with opposition from local tribal members at the Jan. 21 school board meeting.

In the end, flying in agreeable Indians both real and unreal didn’t work. Following the meeting, two local high school lacrosse teams refused to play Lancaster High School citing objections to Native people as mascots. One of the teams that refused was from Akron High School where one in 10 students are Iroquois, and the majority of the lacrosse team hails from the Tonawanda Seneca reservation. The Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee) invented the lacrosse and call it the “Creator’s game.”

Lake Shore, the other high school, has a 15 percent Native student population. Lancaster school district only has six Native American students out of 5,800. "It was an easy decision for us," said Lake Shore Superintendent James Przepasniak. "We feel this action is in support of the Native American community."

Eugene Herrod from the Southern California Indian Center has done extensive background research on Mark Yancey and of Dennis “Yellowhorse” Jones. Jones is a white in-law of a Navajo family who passed himself off as Native American at the Lancaster meeting. Herrod found deep African American family roots in Yancey’s family in North Carolina. Still, Yancey claims an Apache identity, despite his ancestors have no connection with the Southwest, and he recently began using a common Navajo surname “Yazzie” on Facebook.

When I spoke to Herrod he was exasperated by Yancy and Jones’ charades. “Even when you disprove who they are they will not go away!” he said.

Even The New York Times, the U.S. newspaper of record, flatly described Mark Yancey as “Native American” in an article about the Lancaster meeting without any clarification. When I tweeted to the reporter a request for a correction, he tweeted back to me, “I've read reports that call into question Yancey's Native heritage. He maintains that he is. I'm not taking a position either way.”

I checked the Associated Press Stylebook which gave the following guideline for reporters: “Native American: Acceptable for those in the U.S. Follow the person's preference. Where possible, be precise and use the name of the tribe.” I checked the New York Times’ correction policy that stated, “Because its voice is loud and far-reaching, The Times recognizes an ethical responsibility to correct all its factual errors, large and small (even misspellings of names), promptly and in a prominent reserved space in the paper.”

Obviously, Yancey and Jones’ preference is to be called Native American; however, simply labeling both of these imposters as such without mentioning questions regarding their identity misleads the reader into believing they are Native American.

I have filed requests for correction but have heard nothing. Without a doubt it is hard to imagine this happening to any other race or nationality. If a man self-identified as Asian even with ancestry traceable only to Norway and he had never lived in Asia, would the New York Times accept his self-identification? I am 1/16th German but would the New York Times accept me as a spokesperson for the German people and the country of Germany? Of course, not! Yet for Native Americans, this is all that is required.

Being Native American is not simply an affectation like being a hipster or sports fans. We are actual citizens of sovereign nations. Our identities are political like being French or German, or as easily verified as being Asian or European. To not recognize this is to diminish the standing of our nations’ sovereignty and demonstrates a deep-seated disrespect for our political existence within the United States. Our nations still have control of 56 million of acres of land; we have vast energy resources and sovereign jurisdiction. We are not on the same level as self-identified hobbyist groups or football fans.

I tweeted some of these points to New York Times reporter Matt Higgins and received the following response: “Yancey IDs as NA, whether or not he has NA DNA. He speaks for group he founded in support of Washington, D.C. NFL franchise name.”

Apparently, Higgins is unaware that the group Yancey founded, Native American Redskins Fans (NARF) received a cease and desist letter in September from the Native American Rights Fund, which has used the acronym NARF since 1970. NARF’s letter called Yancey’s use of their acronym “cynical” and said it was done to cause confusion. It also noted that the venerable Native American legal rights organization has always opposed the Washington NFL team’s name.

Stereotypes are not an honor. They are part and parcel of what Americans politely call our “disappearance” and which Native American historians rightly call genocide. Shipping in real and unreal Indians to white communities to back up and preserve the image of Native people as mascots is grotesque. Because as long as we exist in the past or only to fulfill fanciful notions about who we really are, and what authentic Native Americans really need will never become part of America’s consciousness. Not personally, and certainly not politically.

What kind of relationship can you truly have when one is playing a role and the other dictating what that role will be? What kind of legislation is created to determine what we get in school funding and health care if the majority’s understanding of Native Americans is just stereotypes and fantasy?

All this taking place in 2015 would be nothing new to Deloria, as he said in 1968, “Experts paint us as they would like us to be. The American public feels most comfortable with the mythical Indians of stereotype-land who were always THERE. These Indians are fierce, they wear feathers, and grunt. To be an Indian in modern American society is in a very real sense to be unreal and ahistorical."

Jacqueline Keeler is a Twitter activist (@jfkeeler) and one of the founders of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry.

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Sammy7's picture
How does one handle such a sensitive subject as this respectfully? First let me say that I believe that Tribally enrolled citizens should be those spearheading First Peoples' issues. It is their right and responsibility. Second, I believe that Tribally enrolled Peoples' who still live on the Rez or Territories' voices should be given special attention and consideration. I do part ways with those who categorize all or most non-enrolled Native People as non-Native. There are many people who because of historical circumstance, politics, or a personal choice not to enroll who are very much Native and very much Native to their own Tribe. They have blood, culture, language, community, and sometimes even place. They have been outlanders and lived among the settler colonialists, while often secretly practicing and preserving their culture. Many of the Traditionals have more culture than exists on most Rez's today. They consider the Rez as a place of Colonial assimilation, and thus refuse to join. These are First Peoples, who because of genocide, find themselves on the outside, but remain faithful to the beliefs of their ancestors, and are living free and unconstrained by the non-constitutional assertion of plenary power by the United States based upon the doctrine of Christian Discovery and Dominion, and Tribal assertions that they are non-Native.