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The race-shifting of 'Pretendians'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The number of people who identify as Native American on the U.S. Census has soared in recent years by 86% from 2010 to 2020. That is a much bigger jump than can be explained by birth rates alone. It's totally clear that a lot of people who are claiming Native status now did not before, which raises concerns in Native communities about why people are doing this and what it means for their own identities. Sam Yellowhorse Kesler from NPR's Code Switch podcast explains

SAM YELLOWHORSE KESLER, BYLINE: Joey Clift is a comedian. He's an enrolled member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, and because he's Indigenous, he finds himself in a lot of conversations like this.

JOEY CLIFT: A friend of mine was posting on Facebook about a protest against the Washington, D.C., NFL team a few years ago. And somebody commented on the post saying something to the effect of, like, I just got my DNA test in the mail, and it turns out I'm one-sixteenth Indian. And I think the team name is fine. So everybody lay off.

KESLER: So what did Joey do? He made a short film about this sort of thing called...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: "Telling People You're Native American When You're Not Native Is A Lot Like Telling A Bear You're A Bear When You're Not A Bear."

CLIFT: The title is 24 words long. It's basically a Fiona Apple album title of short film titles. It's an animated comedy short about a lot of just, like, weird microaggressions that, like, Native folks run into in day-to-day life.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If you tell a bear you're one-sixteenth bear, but you don't know what kind of bear, and you've never bothered to research your bear culture, and yet you think you have more right to an opinion about bear issues than the actual bear standing in front of you, you're going to get mauled by that bear.

(SOUNDBITE OF GROWLING)

KESLER: Practically every Native American has run into someone like this who says that they got a DNA test to prove they're Indigenous, or that they have a distant ancestor who was supposedly a Cherokee princess. And there are words for people like this, pretendians (ph) or wannabes. High-profile instances that come to mind are Elizabeth Warren, who claims Cherokee identity, but has since apologized for doing so, or Andrea Smith, an academic who also claimed Cherokee identity but could not provide proof of her enrollment in the tribe. She claims her Native identity is legitimate. And that's not even mentioning people playing Indian on screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I too seek the windigo, Butch Cavendish. I was prisoner on the train the way coyote stalks buffalo.

KESLER: Most people will tell you that race is deeper than skin color or blood ties. Joey Clift describes it like a spectrum, where he sees some people as indisputably Indian on one end and complete fakes on the other.

CLIFT: But then there's definitely like a grey area in the middle of people who maybe are involved in the culture, are Native biologically, but are not enrolled member of a tribe for various reasons. Maybe there are people who are Native but don't speak their tribal language like myself. There are people of all different skin tones that are authentically native.

KESLER: According to the census, the Native American population in the U.S. has grown from 552,000 in 1960 to 9.7 million in 2020, a growth of over 1,600%. Circe Sturm is a professor of anthropology at UT Austin. She wrote a book about the subject called "Becoming Indian." She lays out a few possible reasons that more people are claiming Indigenous identity who didn't previously. One possibility that's not so sinister is that Native people who once felt pressured to pass as white don't feel that way anymore, and the census reflects that. The other possibility - people who lean on that distant ancestry or that DNA test and claim a tribal affiliation even if they've never identified that way before.

CIRCE STURM: I never ran into anyone where I felt like they were overtly lying, you know, and fabricating this in order to get something, right? It doesn't seem to be that instrumental. I think that most of the people who are engaged in this process of claiming think that they are reclaiming.

KESLER: So why do people want to be Native? Sturm says that many of these race shifters, as she calls them, cited spirituality as an important factor.

STURM: So everything that they associate with, you know, white life as being like modern and alienated and not having culture - right? - these things that are associated with whiteness, the near opposite is what they're finding in Indigeneity, which is that it's culturally rich, and it's being part of a community and there's a spiritual foundation to it.

KESLER: Kim TallBear, a professor at the University of Alberta and author of the book "Native American DNA," agrees, though she adds another possible explanation.

KIM TALLBEAR: I think there is a deep desire to disown complicity in the settler project. I think people don't want to feel the historical guilt for living on stolen land. And I'm not saying they are obviously or explicitly thinking these things. I think a lot of this stuff is subconscious.

KESLER: TallBear says that when pretendians rise through the ranks as thought leaders and spokespeople for Indigenous communities, they produce knowledge and artwork that is not based on lived experience as Indigenous people, as tricky to define as that is. And she says that all of this is essentially an extension of colonialism.

TALLBEAR: They stole our children. They stole our land. Now they have stolen our representations, cultural artifacts. They stole Indigenous bones and blood to do scientific research on them. All of these things are entangled.

KESLER: Now, keep in mind practices in the U.S. and Canada, like Indian boarding schools and the adoption of Native children out to non-Native families, often complicate indigenous identity. So that leaves some individuals in a difficult spot, people who have an ambiguous relationship to a tribe and want to identify as Indigenous, but wonder if they can do so in a way that is honest with themselves and others, and in a way that won't make them pretendians.

JUSTIN BRAKE: I mean, I was encouraged to embrace it. Nobody told me to, you know, maybe take five or 10 years to ask questions and explore and kind of observe.

KESLER: Justin Brake is a Canadian journalist who wrote about his struggle to connect with his First Nation roots. He only learned of Mi'kmaq ancestry in his mid-20s, during a time when applications for tribal enrollment for a new band of the Mi'kmaq opened up. His family applied, and he got his acceptance letter in the mail soon after.

BRAKE: It's embarrassing for me to say now that I had no frame of reference, no understanding of the significance politically, culturally, historically of what was happening and what I was bound up in. However, I guess I was thinking critically or skeptically enough to say that I'm not 100% comfortable with this.

KESLER: So he set out to learn about Mi'kmaq history and culture, to figure out where he stands in relation to all that. He started going to powwows and building friendships with members of the community, some of whom were on the same journey he was. And he had honest conversations about his identity and his relationship with Mi'kmaq culture. It wasn't easy. It required him to seriously consider whether he could, in good conscience, call himself Indigenous.

BRAKE: But at some point, I had to accept that if I'm being 100% honest with myself, if I'm really looking for answers here, I have to accept the possibility that I'm going to land on, no, I'm not Mi'kmaq, and no, I don't have a right to claim make my identity.

KESLER: Through this process, Justin learned that the individual identity is not what's important. And he says he didn't want to be a part of what he calls the epitome of white privilege, of claiming Indigenous identity when it's convenient for him.

BRAKE: That's very dangerous, and it's not something that I'm interested in being a part of. But I do have compassion because every family and every community's story is different. And I know that there are a lot of people like me who never want to do any harm and who are bound up in the exact same struggle and journey of questioning.

KESLER: A journey that for many is ongoing. Sam Yellowhorse Kesler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Yellowhorse Kesler is an Assistant Producer for Planet Money. Previously, he's held positions at NPR's Ask Me Another & All Things Considered, and was the inaugural Code Switch Fellow. Before NPR, he interned with World Cafe from WXPN. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and continues to reside in Philadelphia. If you want to reach him, try looking in your phone contacts to see if he's there! You'd be surprised how many people are in there that you forgot about.