Putting the Sha in Shaman

Posted: Mar 14, 2005 12:00 AM

Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado professor who called the victims of 9/11 "little Eichmanns," is a sign of our times. Not just because his error-riddled work and reflexive hostility toward American power reflect the mediocrity and stale orthodoxy of much of academia. He also belongs to one of the nation's hottest ethnic groups: the fake Indian.
  Churchill has described himself as three-sixteenths Cherokee, or one-sixteenth Cree, or both. But what's a few sixteenths here or there? He has never documented his ancestry, and he gained his membership in the Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians when it allowed in people who aren't Indians. Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee who has long known Churchill, told John J. Miller of National Review magazine, "Right away, I could tell he was a faker, because he refused to talk about his family."

    In an article in the magazine's latest issue, Miller documents the rash of "professional imposters who have built entire careers by putting the sham into shaman." According to Miller, "Between 1960 and 2000, the number of Americans claiming Indian ancestry on their census forms jumped by a factor of six." Churchill described himself as a "Caucasian" when he served in Vietnam. He became an "American Indian" when he was filling out an affirmative-action form at the University of Colorado to become a lecturer in Native American studies.

    Churchill is part of a great tapestry of American Indian-related fraud. Non-Indian arts and crafts are marketed as "Indian made," a practice Congress has tried to discourage with the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. The possibility of opening casinos sends lily-white opportunists scouring for any drop of Indian blood. Then there are the affirmative-action hucksters, like the California contractor who got preferential treatment on account of his one-sixty-fourth Indian ancestry.

    There is no marketing quite like faux Native American status. Forrest Carter wrote a book in the mid-1970s called "The Education of Little Tree" about being raised as an orphan by his Cherokee grandparents. "Students of Native American life," said the introduction to the paperback edition, "discovered the book to be as accurate as it was mystical and romantic." In 1991, the book became a cult smash and hit the paperback nonfiction best-seller list. Then it was switched to the fiction best-seller list.

    It turned out that Forrest Carter was Asa Carter, a former white supremacist with a vivid imagination. A recent edition of "Little Tree" explains that it is "autobiographical if not all factually accurate. For instance, Granma is based on family memories of Carter's great-great-great grandmother, who was a full Cherokee, combined with the author's own mother, who read Shakespeare to him when he was a child." Got that?

    Carter was in the same tradition as Iron Eyes Cody, the "Indian" actor who made the Keep America Beautiful TV ads so memorable in the 1970s. He had more than a hundred movie roles as an Indian, even though his real name was Espera DeCorti.

    Falsified Native American ancestry and experiences are most readily rewarded by those who worship multiculturalism and conceive of Indians as near-mystical beings. Carlos Castaneda tapped into this audience with his New Age classic "The Teachings of Don Juan," a book based on his dubious meetings in the desert with a Yaqui sorcerer who taught him (conveniently for the college market) the marvels of mind-altering drugs. In response to Castaneda and his many imitators, the National Congress of American Indians has denounced "non-Indian 'wannabes' and self-styled New Age shamans."

    Indian fakery is reprehensible not just because it is based on lies, but because it falsifies and cheapens the Native American experience to which it is supposed to pay tribute. Miller quotes a writer who calls this "cultural genocide," scoring the fakers for their "misrepresentation and appropriation of indigenous spirituality." The author of those words was Ward Churchill. Who knew? He is not just an apologist for mass murder, but -- on his own terms -- a practitioner of cultural genocide.