When using the term ‘Pretendian’, a mashup of ‘pretend’ and ‘Indian’, many Indigenous peoples will recognize it while some non-Natives may be left wondering. There are at least two different avenues leading to a Pretendian. We’ll be looking at the two most common. One will be familiar enough immediately. The second, not so much so despite her constant inflammatory pro-Trump rhetoric. Some of us have dubbed her ‘Pretendian of the year 2018’ though the year isn’t over, this one will be a hard Pretendian to top.
Senator Elizabeth Warren and the saga of family lore
Ever since I was a kid, people have often told me, ‘my great great grandmother was Cherokee’. As a kid, it was just a weird thing to hear and something that seemed weird enough years later that it always seemed to be a grandmother and she was always Cherokee. Or more often than not, a Cherokee princess.
It wasn’t until speaking with other Natives about it that I discovered that this seemed to be a thing with non-Natives, most especially white people. The claim was so common that it became a joke.
A Think Progress Op-Ed by Rebecca Nagle noted, “Warren’s claims of Cherokee identity make her the only representation of Cherokees that the average American will likely ever see.” Warren’s position in government is not a representation of Cherokee, let alone Natives.
This year, she appeared at the National Congress of American Indians saying, in part, “You won’t find my family members on any rolls, and I’m not enrolled in a tribe. And I want to make something clear. I respect that distinction.”
What she doesn’t seem to respect is that if this family lore came from her mother claiming to be Cherokee through some ancestor, it’s also entirely possible and probable that this story is just a story. It’s okay to let it go.
In the past when people had to put their names on documents such as the Dawes Roll, it was a government system of determining who was Native. There were flaws with this. Two of them are the fact that non-Natives could manage to be listed on rolls, such as the historic $5 Indian. Another is that some tribal members refused or simply weren’t placed on rolls and that ancestry becomes ambiguous. Where in there does Warren fit? It’s hard to tell, really. But two things are clear – she has no documented ancestry and is not claimed by any Cherokee tribe, nor does she have any cultural or traditional connections to any Cherokee tribe.
For the most part, when people claim to us that they’re long ago ancestor was Cherokee, it poignantly illustrates a few things.
- They consider their ancestor that tribe, not themselves
- They are not culturally connected to those people, nor have they tried to connect
- They do not understand anything about that tribe or people, yet too often speak as though they have authority or knowledge about the issues that a tribe or other tribes face
In the end, if you’re the average citizen claiming to have some far back ancestor who’s Cherokee or any other tribe, you won’t do a lot of damage with that claim in just speaking it. Perhaps earn an out-of-sight eye roll from the next Native you say it to. But look at the negative press that Warren has brought to Natives, especially in drawing it out to a point of Trump and his devotees turning an historic figure into a slur. This is not someone who represents Indian Country. This is a Pretendian who will not let go of family lore.
Kaya Jones and the DNA test claims
Who is Kaya Jones? Quite a few have asked this question every time she tweets some inflammatory thing that’s usually a pro-Trump thing.
Kaya Jones calls herself an ex-Pussycat Dolls member, but according to Robin Antin, the founder of PCD, Kaya “was actually just on a trial basis and never an official member of the group.” according to an EOnline story. I’ve written about Kaya Jones before, most notably with:
To quote myself from the first tumblr link.
“What makes these ‘pretendians’, ‘instant Indians’, ‘wannabes’ dangerous is that they can often be more accepted because they’re white or non-Native. It’s easier to relate to a “Native” to which no accountability on either party is expected. These fakes can speak about issues that are counter to what most Natives actually believe. For example, in a controversy for mascots or racial slurs for team names, a ton of non-Natives invariably come forth claiming to have some semblance of Native descent and to proclaim that as such, they are not offended. This erases Native voices on issues that should only be ours to discuss and decide on. In another example, Natives have protested being used as costumes for Halloween. Kaya Jones felt that it was acceptable and deleted a tweet relating to that when Natives objected and pointed it out.”
Kaya Jones and her desire to be a “Native American ambassador” has been beset with showing her ignorance of our cultures and often simply calling herself “Native American”, which is a fairly generic umbrella term rather than the actual tribe she claims to be. At one point, she claimed Apache, but never confirmed which Apache tribe. Currently in her Twitter bio, she has listed “Native and Jamaican”, which is curious because ‘Native’ doesn’t identify her supposed tribe and Jamaica is a country, not a race.
Most recently, Kaya has pushed the idea that she’s black, calling on another estimate from her Ancestry DNA test that shows she has small percentages from African regions. Insofar as I can tell, she’s never expressed having grown up or having experiences as a black person. She’s even weighed in on the girl who wore a Chinese dress to her prom because she’s 1% Chinese according to her DNA test.
In this attempt to ‘be Native’ and represent Native voices, this person does not know much about our cultures or issues that we face. When the topic of ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act) came up, she asked “Where’s that?” She’s displayed the bodies of dead Natives as a prop for her pro-second amendment rhetoric. When challenged that she didn’t know about Wounded Knee, her reply was that she was at the massacre in Las Vegas, not at Wounded Knee.
The Wounded Knee massacre happened in 1890 and the occupation of it by the American Indian Movement was in 1972. While she gave the year in a subsequent tweet, it was obvious she didn’t know what it was, nor its significance as the largest mass shooting in the country’s history.
A DNA test has been Kaya’s sole claim to ‘being Native’. The problem is that DNA tests won’t tell you what tribe you may have belonged to and can’t give you cultural and familial connections. That 16% could be 16 different tribes from Canada all the way down to South America. Genealogy is the strongest determining factor on who gets claimed by their tribe or tribes. Kaya’s constant call for Warren to take a DNA test is just one non-Native thinking a DNA test will make either of them ‘one of the club’. It won’t. No tribe will accept a DNA test in consideration for proof of membership.
If Kaya wanted truly to be accepted by Indigenous people, she would figure out her genealogy and connect with whatever tribe or tribes she finds. If any. The fact that she hasn’t suggests that she’d rather wear the idea of ‘Native’ and not actually BE Native. Her words and tweets about anything ‘Native’ are accepted by other non-Natives who know even less about our cultures. Rather than educate her 180k followers about something correct, Kaya tends to speak for us erroneously and her ignorance is accepted and shared. It’s been almost a year and she’s done nothing with or for any of our tribes, but sometimes laments about unrecognized tribes. This is not an ally to Indian Country either. This is a Pretendian wearing a generic “Native American” title because of a DNA test that gave a percentage estimate.
These are two examples of Pretendians and brief info on why they can be harmful. I’ll have an upcoming series focusing on individuals who have made false claims of being Native. Stay tuned!