Etrange destinée, étrange préférence que celle de l’ethnographe, sinon de l’anthropologue, qui s’intéresse aux hommes des antipodes plutôt qu’à ses compatriotes, aux superstitions et aux mœurs les plus déconcertantes plutôt qu’aux siennes, comme si je ne sais quelle pudeur ou prudence l’en dissuadait au départ. Si je n’étais pas convaincu que les lumières de la psychanalyse sont fort douteuses, je me demanderais quel ressentiment se trouve sublimé dans cette fascination du lointain, étant bien entendu que refoulement et sublimation, loin d’entraîner de ma part quelque condamnation ou condescendance, me paraissent dans la plupart des cas authentiquement créateurs. (…) Peut-être cette sympathie fondamentale, indispensable pour le sérieux même du travail de l’ethnographe, celui-ci n’a-t-il aucun mal à l’acquérir. Il souffre plutôt d’un défaut symétrique de l’hostilité vulgaire que je relevais il y a un instant. Dès le début, Hérodote n’est pas avare d’éloges pour les Scythes, ni Tacite pour les Germains, dont il oppose complaisamment les vertus à la corruption impériale. Quoique évoque du Chiapas, Las Casas me semble plus occupé à défendre les Indiens qu’à les convertir. Il compare leur civilisation avec celle de l’antiquité gréco-latine et lui donne l’avantage. Les idoles, selon lui, résultent de l’obligation de recourir à des symboles communs à tous les fidèles. Quant aux sacrifices humains, explique-t-il, il ne convient pas de s’y opposer par la force, car ils témoignent de la grande et sincère piété des Mexicains qui, dans l’ignorance où ils se trouvent de la crucifixion du Sauveur, sont bien obligés de lui inventer un équivalent qui n’en soit pas indigne. Je ne pense pas que l’esprit missionnaire explique entièrement un parti-pris de compréhension, que rien ne rebute. La croyance au bon sauvage est peut-être congénitale de l’ethnologie. (…) Nous avons eu les oreilles rebattues de la sagesse des Chinois, inventant la poudre sans s’en servir que pour les feux d’artifice. Certes. Mais, d’une part l’Occident a connu lui aussi la poudre sans longtemps l’employer pour la guerre. Au IXe siècle, le Livre des Feux, de Marcus Graecus en contient déjà la formule ; il faudra attendre plusieurs centaines d’années pour son utilisation militaire, très exactement jusqu’à l’invention de la bombarde, qui permet d’en exploiter la puissance de déflagration. Quant aux Chinois, dès qu’ils ont connu les canons, ils en ont été acheteurs très empressés, avant qu’ils n’en fabriquent eux-mêmes, d’abord avec l’aide d’ingénieurs européens. Dans l’Afrique contemporaine, seule la pauvreté ralentit le remplacement du pilon par les appareils ménagers fabriqués à Saint-Étienne ou à Milan. Mais la misère n’interdit pas l’invasion des récipients en plastique au détriment des poteries et des vanneries traditionnelles. Les plus élégantes des coquettes Foulbé se vêtent de cotonnades imprimées venues des Pays-Bas ou du Japon. Le même phénomène se produit d’ailleurs de façon encore plus accélérée dans la civilisation scientifique et industrielle, béate d’admiration devant toute mécanique nouvelle et ordinateur à clignotants. (…) Je déplore autant qu’un autre la disparition progressive d’un tel capital d’art, de finesse, d’harmonie. Mais je suis tout aussi impuissant contre les avantages du béton et de l’électricité. Je ne me sens d’ailleurs pas le courage d’expliquer leur privilège à ceux qui en manquent. (…) Les indigènes ne se résignent pas à demeurer objets d’études et de musées, parfois habitants de réserves où l’on s’ingénie à les protéger du progrès. Étudiants, boursiers, ouvriers transplantés, ils n’ajoutent guère foi à l’éloquence des tentateurs, car ils en savent peu qui abandonnent leur civilisation pour cet état sauvage qu’ils louent avec effusion. Ils n’ignorent pas que ces savants sont venus les étudier avec sympathie, compréhension, admiration, qu’ils ont partagé leur vie. Mais la rancune leur suggère que leurs hôtes passagers étaient là d’abord pour écrire une thèse, pour conquérir un diplôme, puisqu’ils sont retournés enseigner à leurs élèves les coutumes étranges, « primitives », qu’ils avaient observées, et qu’ils ont retrouvé là-bas du même coup auto, téléphone, chauffage central, réfrigérateur, les mille commodités que la technique traîne après soi. Dès lors, comment ne pas être exaspéré d’entendre ces bons apôtres vanter les conditions de félicité rustique, d’équilibre et de sagesse simple que garantit l’analphabétisme ? Éveillées à des ambitions neuves, les générations qui étudient et qui naguère étaient étudiées, n’écoutent pas sans sarcasme ces discours flatteurs où ils croient reconnaître l’accent attendri des riches, quand ils expliquent aux pauvres que l’argent ne fait pas le bonheur, – encore moins, sans doute, ne le font les ressources de la civilisation industrielle. À d’autres. Roger Caillois (1974)
If the individual wishes, he can add touches to his clothes to make them a costume, expressing whatever he feels at the moment. With the magic deftness of state sorcery, a headband can produce an Indian, a black hat a cowboy badman. Charles Reich (The Greening of America, 1970)
Mythologies or national stories are about a nation’s origins and history. They enable citizens to think of themselves as part of a community, defining who belongs and who does not belong to the nation. The story of the land as shared and developed by enterprising settlers is manifestly a racial story. Sherene H. Razack (Race, Space and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society)
Depuis la fin du XIXe siècle, les ethnologues nous ont accoutumés à voir dans l’Indien un être rivé à sa communauté fermée au reste du monde. En privilégiant la vision d’informateurs censés préserver la tradition ancestrale, ils excluaient de leur champ d’observation tout ce qui faisaient des Indiens des êtres pareils à nous – c’est-à-dire inauthentiques, avides de changements et d’innovations. La vulgarisation … a fait le reste (…) l’Indien est devenu le dépositaire d’un savoir millénaire miraculeusement préservé; il entretiendrait avec la nature des relations d’une harmonie parfaite; figé hors du temps et de l’Histoire, il échapperait aux mélanges et aux contaminations qui seraient notre sort … Serge Guzinski
D’après Denys Delâge, historien de l’université Laval, les Amérindiens n’étaient pas plus écologiques que nos ancêtres paysans. Les pigeons sauvages étaient pour les Amérindiens ce qu’étaient les poules ou les vaches pour les Canadiens, c’est-à-dire des animaux domestiques. Les tourtes faisaient «partie de l’ordinaire», de leur vie de tous les jours. Les tuer était donc l’équivalent pour le colon de voir un Amérindien abattre une de ses vaches. L’habitant de la Nouvelle-France, tout comme ses descendants vivant dans les campagnes québécoises jusqu’au milieu du XXe siècle, possédait aussi ses propres habitudes écologistes. Selon Delâge, les habitants comprenaient bien qu’il ne fallait pas exterminer tous ses animaux durant une même année, au risque de mourir de faim l’année suivante. Pas question non plus de gaspiller les restes: tout était récupéré. On salait, on congelait ou on mettait en conserve les surplus. Les restes de table servaient de nourriture aux chiens et aux chats, on n’utilisait ni emballage de plastique ni produit chimique. Les vêtements étaient faits de fibres naturelles, de lin et de laine, et lorsqu’ils étaient trop usés, ils étaient recyclés en tapis et en courtepointes. Le bois servait à construire, à chauffer et à récolter de l’eau d’érable. Aucun habitant n’aurait songé à couper à blanc le petit bois si utile près de chez lui. Presque aucun déchet ne venait donc polluer l’environnement de ces habitants. Même le contenu des «bécosses» était parfois utilisé comme engrais. Lequel vivait alors le plus en harmonie avec la nature: le Blanc ou l’Indien? En fait, chacun adaptait son style de vie à ses besoins et ses croyances. Ce style de vie était marqué dans les deux cas par l’autosubsistance, où il fallait gérer habilement ses ressources pour survivre. Les choses ont changé lors du passage à une économie de marché. Pour les cultivateurs, c’est à ce moment que l’agriculture à grande échelle s’est imposée et qu’ils ont commencé à détruire la nature avec la machinerie, la surexploitation des sols et l’utilisation d’engrais chimiques. Pour les Amérindiens, c’est surtout lorsqu’ils ont été intégrés dans un réseau d’échanges international par l’intermédiaire de la traite des fourrures qu’ils ont adopté des gestes jugés aujourd’hui dangereux pour l’environnement. Par exemple, le castor était disparu de plusieurs régions du Québec aussitôt qu’au XVIIe siècle. Le Jésuite Paul Le Jeune, dans la Relation de 1635, s’inquiétait déjà de la surexploitation du castor. Il relate de quelle façon les Montagnais les tuaient tous dans leurs cabanes, alors qu’il leur conseille d’y laisser au moins quelques petits afin qu’ils se reproduisent. Cette surchasse est extrêmement contradictoire avec la vision du monde des Amérindiens évoquée plus haut. (…) Charles A. Bishop par exemple, un historien américain, croit plutôt que malgré le respect voué à la nature, il n’y avait rien dans les croyances des Amérindiens qui les empêchait de tuer beaucoup d’animaux, à condition que leurs restes soient bien traités et que la traite rapporte quelque chose de bénéfique. C’était bien le cas, puisque un grand nombre d’objets utiles étaient échangés contre des fourrures. Il s’agit peut-être là d’une piste d’explication de l’apparente absence de scrupules des Amérindiens à chasser le castor presque jusqu’à l’extinction complète de l’espèce. (…) Bien que la plupart d’entre eux tuait d’abord les animaux pour survivre, ils considéraient aussi que ces animaux se donnaient et venaient s’offrir à eux. «Cela aurait paru mesquin de ne pas prendre tous les animaux offerts: on pouvait, on devait même, en certains occasions, tuer au-delà des besoins», affirme-t-il. Des sacrifices étaient également réalisés, particulièrement de chiens. Le Père de Charlevoix écrivait dans son Journal historique en 1721 comment les chiens étaient parfois immolés ou suspendus vivants à un arbre par les pattes de derrière jusqu’à la mort lorsque les Amérindiens devaient franchir des rapides ou des passages dangereux. Des pratiques qui auraient fait frémir les défenseurs des droits des animaux d’aujourd’hui… Plusieurs autres gestes pouvaient aussi avoir des conséquences assez graves pour l’environnement. Le père Louis Nicolas racontait dans son Histoire naturelle des Indes qu’il avait vu des Amérindiens couper des arbres entiers pour ramasser les noix ou accéder aux nids d’oiseaux. Les autochtones allumaient également des feux pour toutes sortes de raisons. On fertilisait les terres avec des feux, on régénérait les forêts de pins et d’épinettes ou encore on facilitait le transport. Mais les Amérindiens perdaient parfois le contrôle de ces incendies et en plus de la pollution qu’ils provoquaient, ils détruisaient d’autres plantes et animaux qui n’étaient pas utilisés par la suite. Le grand respect des Amérindiens envers la nature répondait donc surtout à des croyances religieuses. On est bien loin des grands principes écologistes du XXe siècle! Pourquoi cette image de l’Amérindien écologiste existe-t-elle aujourd’hui si elle ne correspond pas à la réalité passée? Selon l’anthropologue américain Shepard Krech III, ce sont les Blancs qui ont créé ce mythe durant les années 1960, parce qu’ils avaient de nouvelles préoccupations pour l’environnement. Krech croit que les Amérindiens n’ont jamais été écologistes, mais qu’ils ont peu à peu adhéré à ce stéréotype et qu’ils l’utilisent maintenant eux-mêmes pour revendiquer de meilleures conditions d’existence. Et s’ils n’ont pas véritablement fait de dommages malgré des comportements parfois nuisibles pour la nature, c’est tout simplement parce qu’ils n’étaient pas assez nombreux et qu’ils n’exploitaient pas les ressources dans le but de faire des profits. Sylvie LeBel
Archie se crée un monde imaginaire très tôt dans son enfance malheureuse. Abandonné de ses parents, il est élevé par deux tantes sévères qui sont déterminées à ne pas laisser leur neveu suivre les traces de son vaurien de père. Il se réfugie dans la lecture et dans un univers peuplé d’images romantiques des Indiens d’Amérique du Nord. Quand il arrive au Canada en 1906, Belaney se dirige vers le lac Témiskaming, une contrée sauvage à la frontière du Québec et de l’Ontario. C’est là qu’il entreprend de créer son propre mythe familial lui donnant des origines apaches du Sud-Ouest américain. Il épouse une Ojibwa du nom d’Angèle et commence à s’approprier des bribes de langue et de culture pour tisser sa propre histoire. Il se teint les cheveux en noir, assombrit sa peau avec du henné et passe des heures devant un miroir à s’exercer au stoïcisme « indien ». Il quitte Angèle et se présente dans son nouveau personnage à Gertrude Bernard, une jeune iroquoise. Archie aime et respecte Gertrude, qu’il appelle Anahareo, mais il ne pourra jamais lui révéler la vérité sur ses véritables origines. (…) Pour assurer sa subsistance, Archie s’essaie à l’écriture. Dans son premier article, destiné à la revue anglaise Country Life, il se présente comme un « écrivain indien » et, pour la première fois, signe « Grey Owl ». Il se lance avec acharnement dans un manuscrit qui paraîtra en 1931 sous le titre de La Dernière Frontière (Men of the Last Frontier). Le livre de Grey Owl relate l’histoire de sa famille inventée, mais révèle aussi son merveilleux talent de conteur et, après sa « conversion » sous l’influence d’Anahareo, sa propension à la conservation et à la défense des castors alors menacés d’extinction. Grey Owl parsème délibérément son style d’imperfections orthographiques et grammaticales qu’il insiste pour que ses éditeurs respectent. Le livre connaît un grand succès, et l’auteur devient l’enfant chéri de la presse canadienne. (…) En 1936, Grey Owl fait un retour triomphant en Angleterre sous le nom de Hiawatha, un personnage que, enfant, il avait imaginé. Partout, il fait salle comble et répète le même message : « La nature ne nous appartient pas, nous lui appartenons. » Sa peur d’être découvert croît avec son succès. Au moins un journaliste, Ed Bunyan du Nugget de North Bay, sait que Grey Owl est un imposteur, mais opte de ne pas ébruiter la chose. Les autochtones que rencontre Grey Owl savent généralement qu’il n’est pas des leurs, mais ils apprécient la valeur de son discours. Alors que des anthropologues comme Marius Barbeau rabaissent le mode de vie des autochtones, Grey Owl le célèbre. Toujours en Grande-Bretagne, son succès atteint un summum en 1937 lorsqu’il rencontre le roi et la reine. Il effectue ensuite une frénétique tournée de conférences au Canada et aux États-Unis, mais sa santé, rendue fragile par l’alcool et l’épuisement, il meurt le 7 avril 1938. Dès que le Nugget apprend sa mort, il publie enfin l’article, vieux de trois ans, qui cite Angèle affirmant que Grey Owl est « un blanc pure race ». Les journaux du monde entier s’empare de l’histoire, mais hésitent à condamner Grey Owl. Anahareo réagit avec incrédulité, mais avoue avoir eu l’affreux sentiment d’avoir été mariée pendant toutes ces années à un fantôme. Certes, la vie de Grey Owl relève de la fiction. Elle aura souillé ses relations personnelles, mais sa compassion pour la nature, les animaux sauvages et le mode de vie des autochtones l’auront racheté. À travers sa supercherie complexe, Grey Owl aura réussi à sensibiliser les Canadiens à des questions qu’ils estiment aujourd’hui essentielles à leur bien-être. Encyclopédie canadienne
Quand il ne fut plus possible de douter que l’homme enseveli en Saskatchewan sous le nom de Grey Owl était bel et bien né Belaney en Angleterre, je compris mieux quel extraordinaire excentrique venait de nous quitter, d’une espèce comme seule l’Angleterre sait en produire. Lovat Dickson
Naturellement, la valeur de son œuvre n’est pas compromise pour autant. Tout ce qu’il a accompli en tant qu’écrivain et défenseur de la nature lui survivra. The Ottawa Citizen
Set the blood quantum at one-quarter, hold to it as a rigid definition of Indians, let intermarriage proceed as it [has] and eventually Indians will be defined out of existence. Ward Churchill
At some point after I was hired by them, I . . . provided that information to the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. My Native American heritage is part of who I am, I’m proud of it and I have been open about it. Elizabeth Warren
Beaucoup de signataires de ce document de soutien n’approuvaient pas le mariage civil entre personnes de même sexe. D’autres n’avaient pas d’idée arrêtée sur la question. Ceci dit, depuis que le Massachusetts (nord-est) et d’autre Etats ont fait du mariage civil entre personnes de même sexe une réalité, (les signataires), comme beaucoup d’Américains, ont réexaminé les faits et leur position et ont conclu qu’il n’y a pas de raison légitime ou basée sur des faits pour refuser aux couples homosexuels la même reconnaissance légale qu’aux couples hétérosexuels. Lettre de personnalités républicaines (dont Clint Eastwood) à la Cour suprême
Adolescent and adult readers have warmed to the uplifting story of how this well-known writer of westerns — author of « The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales » and « Cry Geronimo » and friend of Clint Eastwood — came to know the wisdom of his Cherokee ancestors. In the wake of the success of « Dances With Wolves, » there is even talk of a Hollywood film. Unfortunately, « The Education of Little Tree » is a hoax. The carefully constructed mask of Forrest Carter — Cherokee cowboy, self-taught writer and spokesman for Native Americans — was simply the last fantasy of a man who reinvented himself again and again in the 30 years that preceded his death in 1979. His real name was Asa (Ace) Earl Carter. (…) Between 1946 and 1973, the Alabama native carved out a violent career in Southern politics as a Ku Klux Klan terrorist, right-wing radio announcer, home-grown American fascist and anti-Semite, rabble-rousing demagogue and secret author of the famous 1963 speech by Gov. George Wallace of Alabama: « Segregation now . . . Segregation tomorrow . . . Segregation forever. » He even organized a paramilitary unit of about 100 men that he called the Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy. (…) But anyone who transformed himself into a new-age wise man for the greening of America while taking the name of « Forrest » Carter couldn’t have been entirely humorless. Mr. Carter, after all, took his new name from Nathan Bedford Forrest, the tobacco-chewing ex-mule skinner, slave trader and Civil War general who founded the original Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee in 1866. Can this be the same man who wrote « The Education of Little Tree » with its saccharine environmentalism and patronizing descriptions of imaginary Cherokee grandparents? (« They gave themselves . . . to nature, not trying to subdue it, or pervert it, but to live with it. And so they loved the thought, and loving it grew to be it, so that they could not think as the white man. ») (…) In his lifetime, Forrest Carter was able to move from Klan rabble-rouser to speech writer for George Wallace’s white backlash to successful author and screenwriter by finding a voice in harmony with a changing America. In Asa Carter’s first book, the rebel outlaw Josey Wales seeks common ground with the Commanche chief, Ten Bears, in a soliloquy that Clint Eastwood repeats in his film. « What ye and me cares about has been butchered . . . raped, » Wales tells Ten Bears. « It’s been done by them lyin’, double-tongued snakes that run guv-mints. Guv-mints lie . . . promise . . . back-stab . . . eat in youre lodge and rape youre women and kill when ye sleep on their promises. » Even the gentle Little Tree, Mr. Carter’s newly popular hero, learned to despise all representatives of organized society — teachers, politicians, religious leaders — as « powerful monsters who had no regard for how folks had to live and get by. » From Tom Mix to Gary Cooper, the task of the traditional western hero was to replace the savage world of the desperado with the civilized community governed by the rule of law. Americans might feel a loss at the end of the frontier, but the word « outlaw » was seldom a compliment. All that changed in the 1960’s. American moviegoers flocked to see Clint Eastwood in « A Fistful of Dollars, » his grimy spaghetti western, and by the 1980’s, Rambo was king of the box office. Asa Carter’s celebration of sadomasochistic violence and thinly veiled vigilantism in his westerns of the 1960’s and 70’s had become a powerful theme of American popular culture. In the last three years of his life, with his books on « The Education of Little Tree » and « Cry Geronimo, » Mr. Carter changed course. But there are threads that stretch from Asa Carter’s racist pamphlets to his new-age novels of the Native American: We live unto ourselves. We trust no one outside the circle of blood kin and closest comrades. We have no responsibilities outside that closed circle. Government and all its agencies are corrupt. Politics is a lie. What does it tell us that we are so easily deceived? Dan T. Carter
Attention: un bon sauvage peut en cacher un autre !
Faux Pied Noir métis (Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance alias Sylvester Clark Longle), faux Indien anglais (Archibald Belaney dit Grey Owl – Chouette Grise en français, né la même année que le célèbre dhimmi Lawrence d’Arabie : La dernière frontière, Un homme et des bêtes, Sajo et ses castors, Récits de la cabane abandonnée, Ambassadeur des bêtes, L’arbre), faux Indien pleurant sicilien (Iron Eyes Cody alias Espera DeCortile), faux indien ancien suprémaciste et plume de George Wallace et Clint Eastwood (Little tree, alias Forrest Carter et Asa Earl Carter), faux Navajo gay (Nasdijj), fausse petite indienne noire adoptive des quartiers pauvres de Los Angeles (Margaret Seltzer alias Margaret B. Jones), faux universitaire Cherokee qui avait comparé les victimes du 11/9 à des « petits Eichmann » (Ward Churchill), sans parler de Richard Penn Smith (alisas Davy Crockett), Opal Mehta (plagiaire originaire d’Inde), Laura Albert (fausse transexuelle) ou Herman Rosenblat (faux rescapé des camps nazis) ou la blondissime Elizabeth Warren …
A l’heure où, sondages ventriloques obligent et malgré son malencontreux soutien de Romney l’une des dernières images de la virilité occidentale comprise, les Républicains aux Etats-Unis comme l’UMP en France voire le nouveau pape au Vatican, se voient sommés de revoir leur copie et de se plier au nouveau diktat médiatique du mariage obligatoire pour tous c’est-à-dire en fait pour le dernier bon sauvage en date de notre postmodernité …
Retour, dans notre série des impostures littéraires et outre leur esclavagisme ou leurs vélléités de nettoyeurs ethniques, sur cette longue tradition américaine de travestis ethniques revendiquant une plus ou moins prétendue indianité ….
Qui, comme le rappelait dans le NYT l’historien Dan T. Carter, en dit si long sur l’incommensurable appétit de notre âge pour toute cause dument étiquetée victimaire …
Dan T. Carter
The New York Times
October 04, 1991
« Surprising best sellers often provide publishing’s sweetest stories, » began a story that appeared in USA Today on Tuesday about the nonfiction paperback hit of the summer, « The Education of Little Tree. »
First published in 1976 by Delacorte Press and reprinted in 1986 by the University of New Mexico Press, the late Forrest Carter’s gentle memoir of his Native American childhood has remained in first or second place on The New York Times paperback best-seller list for 14 weeks.
Adolescent and adult readers have warmed to the uplifting story of how this well-known writer of westerns — author of « The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales » and « Cry Geronimo » and friend of Clint Eastwood — came to know the wisdom of his Cherokee ancestors. In the wake of the success of « Dances With Wolves, » there is even talk of a Hollywood film.
Unfortunately, « The Education of Little Tree » is a hoax. The carefully constructed mask of Forrest Carter — Cherokee cowboy, self-taught writer and spokesman for Native Americans — was simply the last fantasy of a man who reinvented himself again and again in the 30 years that preceded his death in 1979.
His real name was Asa (Ace) Earl Carter. We share a common Southern heritage and he may be a distant relation of mine. Between 1946 and 1973, the Alabama native carved out a violent career in Southern politics as a Ku Klux Klan terrorist, right-wing radio announcer, home-grown American fascist and anti-Semite, rabble-rousing demagogue and secret author of the famous 1963 speech by Gov. George Wallace of Alabama: « Segregation now . . . Segregation tomorrow . . . Segregation forever. »
He even organized a paramilitary unit of about 100 men that he called the Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy. Among its acts, these white-sheeted sociopaths assaulted Nat (King) Cole during a concert in Birmingham in 1956. In 1957, the group, without Mr. Carter present, castrated a black man they chose at random in a Birmingham suburb as a warning to « uppity » Alabama blacks.
His agent and publishers have described Mr. Carter as a self-taught writer. Indeed he was. For almost 30 years he honed his skills by spewing out racist and anti-Semitic pamphlets. In 1970 he wrote that all N.A.A.C.P. presidents « have been Jews . . . the same gang who financed the Russian Communist Revolution with millions out of New York City. »
The same year, in a disquisition on the prospect of black policemen, he wrote: « SOON, you can expect your wife or daughter to be pulled over to the side of the road by one of these Ubangi or Watusi tribesman wearing the badge of Anglo-Saxon law enforcement and toting a gun . . . but [ he will be ] as uncivilized as the day his kind were found eating their kin in the jungle. »
Those who knew the gun-toting Ace Carter never found him very amusing, certainly not the two fellow Klansmen who were critically wounded by Mr. Carter in a 1957 shootout over Klan finances. Though Mr. Carter was indicted for assault with intent to murder, the Jefferson County district attorney, influenced by the highly charged racial climate in Alabama, ultimately decided to drop the charges.
But anyone who transformed himself into a new-age wise man for the greening of America while taking the name of « Forrest » Carter couldn’t have been entirely humorless. Mr. Carter, after all, took his new name from Nathan Bedford Forrest, the tobacco-chewing ex-mule skinner, slave trader and Civil War general who founded the original Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee in 1866.
Can this be the same man who wrote « The Education of Little Tree » with its saccharine environmentalism and patronizing descriptions of imaginary Cherokee grandparents? (« They gave themselves . . . to nature, not trying to subdue it, or pervert it, but to live with it. And so they loved the thought, and loving it grew to be it, so that they could not think as the white man. »)
One explanation is suggested by the Calhoun County High School yearbook for 1943. The senior class prophet predicted he would return to Calhoun County as a « famous movie star. » When he died in Abilene, Tex., of heart failure at the age of 53, he was on his way to California with a screenplay for his second Josey Wales book. Handsome, energetic, ambitious, always the actor, his classmates had known that Asa Carter would do whatever he had to to escape the sleepy little Alabama town of Oxford.
In his lifetime, Forrest Carter was able to move from Klan rabble-rouser to speech writer for George Wallace’s white backlash to successful author and screenwriter by finding a voice in harmony with a changing America.
In Asa Carter’s first book, the rebel outlaw Josey Wales seeks common ground with the Commanche chief, Ten Bears, in a soliloquy that Clint Eastwood repeats in his film. « What ye and me cares about has been butchered . . . raped, » Wales tells Ten Bears. « It’s been done by them lyin’, double-tongued snakes that run guv-mints. Guv-mints lie . . . promise . . . back-stab . . . eat in youre lodge and rape youre women and kill when ye sleep on their promises. »
Even the gentle Little Tree, Mr. Carter’s newly popular hero, learned to despise all representatives of organized society — teachers, politicians, religious leaders — as « powerful monsters who had no regard for how folks had to live and get by. »
From Tom Mix to Gary Cooper, the task of the traditional western hero was to replace the savage world of the desperado with the civilized community governed by the rule of law. Americans might feel a loss at the end of the frontier, but the word « outlaw » was seldom a compliment.
All that changed in the 1960’s. American moviegoers flocked to see Clint Eastwood in « A Fistful of Dollars, » his grimy spaghetti western, and by the 1980’s, Rambo was king of the box office. Asa Carter’s celebration of sadomasochistic violence and thinly veiled vigilantism in his westerns of the 1960’s and 70’s had become a powerful theme of American popular culture.
In the last three years of his life, with his books on « The Education of Little Tree » and « Cry Geronimo, » Mr. Carter changed course. But there are threads that stretch from Asa Carter’s racist pamphlets to his new-age novels of the Native American: We live unto ourselves. We trust no one outside the circle of blood kin and closest comrades. We have no responsibilities outside that closed circle. Government and all its agencies are corrupt. Politics is a lie.
What does it tell us that we are so easily deceived?
Dan T. Carter, professor of history at Emory University, is working on a biography of George Wallace.
The education of Little Fraud
How did a racist speechwriter for George Wallace turn into a « Cherokee » sage and author of a revered multicultural text? The weird tale of Asa (« Forrest ») Carter.
Dec 20, 2001
Twenty-three years ago this past June 7, Forrest Carter was laid to rest in the Carter family plot at D’Armanville Cemetery near Anniston, Ala. A short time later, family members yanked out the old headstone and put in a new one inscribed with the words “Asa Earl Carter, Sept. 4 1925-June 7 1979.”
Forrest must have been spinning in his grave. For the last few years of his life, he tried hard to kill off Asa. And if he had stayed off television, he might have pulled it off.
Forrest Carter was the bestselling author of “The Education of Little Tree: A True Story,” a literary phenomenon that was published 25 years ago this fall and is credited by many as the book that touched off the boom in what is still referred to in publishing as “Native American Lit.” Carter also wrote another famous book, “The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales,” whose eponymous ex-Confederate superhero was played by Clint Eastwood in the most influential western since “The Searchers.”
But “Forrest Carter’s” most memorable creation was himself. “Forrest Carter,” revered author of the beloved “Little Tree,” was actually Asa Carter — virulent segregationist, former Klansman, speechwriter for George Wallace and professional racist. In both incarnations, Carter is the focus of new interest. Diane McWhorter’s critically acclaimed history of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Ala., “Carry Me Home,” has revealed more about the role of “Ace” as a warrior for white supremacy, while the 25th anniversary publication of Forrest’s “The Education Of Little Tree” — minus the “True Story” subtitle — continues to exalt him as a pillar of New Age wisdom and a multicultural hero.
For a man with just three slim volumes published in his own lifetime, Forrest Carter made a significant impact on American culture. (A fourth book, “Cry Geronimo,” published posthumously, has influenced two screen depictions of the Apache chief.) “The Education of Little Tree,” about an orphan boy named Forrest who learns about life from his sage Cherokee grandparents, has never been out of print since it was first published in 1976 to rave reviews in the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly and elsewhere. According to an editor at the now-defunct Delacorte Press, the book sold more than a million copies in hard and soft covers before the University of New Mexico Press picked it up in 1985. Since then, it has become the biggest seller in the publisher’s history and one of the great publishing successes for any university press, selling more than 1,440,000 copies in paperback and at least 56,000 more in cloth.
The sales for “Little Tree” don’t begin to tell the story of the book’s influence. Schoolchildren have been so moved by it that they have formed Little Tree fan clubs. For years there were rumors in Hollywood that Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, and even Stephen Spielberg were interested in filming “Little Tree”; many think “Little Tree” helped shape the depiction of Indians in Costner’s “Dances With Wolves.” In 1991, 15 years after its publication and 12 years after Carter’s death, “Little Tree” won the coveted Abby Award and climbed onto the New York Times’ bestseller list.
Even though “Little Tree” was publicly exposed as fraudulent the very year of its publication, most readers simply refused to believe the evidence. This despite the fact that the Asa/Forrest Carter scandal was known far and wide, at least in academia: The distinguished African-American literary critic Henry Louis Gates wrote a widely discussed piece about it, for example. (In one of the many peculiar twists of the Asa-Forrest saga, some teachers acknowledge the controversy and include it in their lesson plans.) But while some know about the book’s peculiar history, years after the exposé many, perhaps most, new readers and fans who discover the book through the well-received movie version for young adults don’t even know there’s a controversy. That “The Education of Little Tree” was written by the same man who immortalized George Wallace by writing his racist manifesto, the famous “Segregation forever!” speech, is an inconvenient fact that hundreds of thousands of people seem willing to ignore.
Leading the way in the ignoring department is the University of New Mexico Press, which is apparently not about to do anything that might kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Incredibly, UNM’s handsome new 25th anniversary edition (with a cover painting by the Oklahoma Cherokee artist Murv Jacob) makes no mention of Asa Carter or the controversies that have surrounded the book over the years — an omission that Diane McWhorter equates to “publishing a book of Hitler’s paintings without mentioning the word ‘Nazi.’” The specious “biography” that appeared on the book’s back cover in the original UNM edition, which moistly gushed that “Forrest Carter, whose Indian name is Little Tree, was known as ‘Storyteller in Council’ to the Cherokee Nations … His Indian friends always shared a part of his earnings from his writing,” is gone, as is the subtitle “A True Story.” Only the words “Young Adult Fiction” in small print on the corner of the back cover hint at the book’s stormy history. The introduction (which has remained unchanged since the first UNM edition in 1985) by Rennard Strickland, a professor of law at the University of Oregon, blandly tells us that Forrest Carter “wrote a number of important books,” and that “‘Little Tree’ speaks to the human spirit and reaches the very depth of the human soul.”
The University of New Mexico Press declined to comment about its nonacknowledgment of “Little Tree’s” unseemly provenance, referring a reporter to Rennard Strickland. Strickland said he was not consulted by the University of New Mexico about updating his introduction and that his purpose in writing the introduction was to “tell readers what they’d find in this book. I wasn’t doing a history of the controversy.” He added, “I have given my last interview on the subject.”
One of the remarkable things about Forrest Carter’s self-reinvention is how few reminders of his Asa existence still remain. Indeed, aside from a couple of slim pieces of physical evidence, it might be difficult to prove now that Asa and Forrest Carter were the same man.
A few years ago, Buddy Barnett, a childhood friend of Carter’s, produced a first edition of “The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales” with an inscription in Carter’s handwriting that reads “Forrest (Asa) Carter.” Veteran Alabama journalist Wayne Greenhaw, who first broke the story of the Asa-Forrest Carter connection, had the handwriting in Barnett’s copy of “Wales” checked against the sample in Asa Earl Carter’s own biography, submitted when he ran for governor in 1970. They matched. In the biography, Carter said that he was born in Oxford, Ala., on Sept. 4, 1925. He claimed his parents, who were dairy farmers, had Cherokee blood in their background, which is either true or a “damn lie,” depending on which family member you speak to. Carter’s brother Doug insists that the family had no Cherokee ancestors, but Barnett claims that “Asa’s mother’s people were Cherokee, and Asa was proud of that fact.”
Some family members recall that while growing up in the Appalachian hills of north Alabama, young Asa Carter pestered older family members for details about Confederate ancestors on both sides of the family. One rode with Morgan’s Raiders, another was a guerrilla fighter with Col. Mosby, the legendary “Grey Ghost.” Maybe Carter had heard family stories of Cherokee ancestors, or maybe he heard stories about the Cherokee when growing up near Chocoloco Creek. Both “Wales” and “Little Tree” feature Cherokee Indians who were Confederate officers. In “Little Tree” the boy makes one of them into his own ancestor: “Granma and Granpa spoke of his Pa in his last years. He was an old warrior. He had joined the Confederate raider, John Hunt Morgan, to fight the faraway, faceless monster of “the guv’mint” that threatened his people and his cabin.” In “Little Tree” Carter brings together the two strains of his ancestry — one real and one, it would appear, assumed — to account for the famed “Rebel Yell”: “Exultation … brought the rebel Indian yell rumbling from his chest and out of his throat, screaming, savage.”
Carter graduated from high school in 1942, joined the Navy and became, like his future boss George Wallace, a boxing champ. He told friends he turned down the Army because he wanted to fight the Japanese rather than the Germans, his “racial kin.” After the war, Carter married Thelma India Walker, a high school sweetheart, moved to Colorado, and attended the state university. After graduating, he returned to Alabama and established a career as a full-time racist.
Around Birmingham, you can still find copies of the Southerner, a monthly magazine devoted to white supremacy, which Carter helped found. Collectors of civil-rights era memorabilia have copies of his radio broadcasts and pamphlets from his 1970 campaign for governor. In one of these, he warned white Alabamians about the prospect of black policemen: “Soon, you can expect your wife or daughter to be pulled over to the side of the road by one of these Ubangi or Watusi tribesmen wearing the badge of Anglo-Saxon law enforcement and toting a gun… but (he’ll be) as uncivilized as the day his kind were found eating their kin in a jungle.”
After getting fired from a radio station for criticizing National Brotherhood Week, Carter formed a group called the White Citizens Council, an organization that espoused the same fundamental views as the KKK. Carter’s association didn’t last; he couldn’t stomach the idea of making a common cause with anti-integrationist Jews, even to segregate blacks.
Instead, he helped create a new and even more virulent organization, the original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy, whose members wore Confederate gray robes instead of white. In Carter’s view, the old KKK had become too soft and compromised. Various acts of violence were associated with the new Kluxers, the most famous being the assault on Nat “King” Cole at a concert in Birmingham in 1957. Less well known but far uglier was the 1957 abduction of a black handyman named Edward Aaron who had offended members of Carter’s group with inflammatory talk of forced integration. The abductors, never identified, sliced off Aaron’s scrotum and poured turpentine on his wounds. According to his childhood pal Buddy Barnett, Carter — who openly advocated violence in his speeches and articles — was appalled by the coldbloodedness of the attack. But Don Carter, who wrote a biography of George Wallace, took a darker view, saying, “[Carter] had a long history of violence, in fact, it’s not an exaggeration to call him something of a … psychopath.”
By 1958, disillusioned with the new Klan’s leadership, whom he called “a bunch of trash,” he quit the group. With few prospects and four kids to feed in Anniston, Asa Carter took an ill-advised turn into politics, running for state lieutenant governor. He finished fifth in a five-man field.
Alabama’s most powerful moderate in the second half of the decade was George Wallace. In 1958, stunned over his loss in the governor’s race to Klan-backed John Patterson, Wallace famously swore to an aide that he’d never be “outsegged” again. (Or, as some of Wallace’s less flattering biographers have phrased it, “outniggered.”) The solution was the talented but unstable Asa Carter, whom Wallace’s aides thought they could keep, as one of them now admits, “under wraps.”
Till the day he died, George Wallace denied that he ever knew Asa Carter. He may have been telling the truth. “Ace,” as he was called by the staff, was paid off indirectly by Wallace cronies, and the only record that he ever wrote for Wallace was the word of former Wallace campaign officials such as finance manager Seymore Trammell. “He lived out of back offices in Wallace’s headquarters,” says Wayne Greenhaw. “He’d see his wife and kids on weekends and be a family man. During the weekdays he’d hole up in his room with his typewriter, a quart of whiskey, a dozen packs of Pall Malls and a gun.” Adds a former campaign official: “A revolver, an Old West type of gun.”
From this back room, Asa Carter wrote the most famous racist rhetoric of the civil rights era, words that would reach and be remembered by more people than anything published by Forrest Carter. From the steps of the Alabama state capitol building, on Inauguration Day, 1963, Wallace delivered the speech that, for sheer grandiloquence, rivals Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream.” “In the name of the greatest people that ever tread the earth,” thundered Wallace, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny. And I say: Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” Wallace’s national reputation was made.
When Wallace ran his wife, Lurleen, for governor in his place, there was talk of making Carter her press secretary, but cooler heads among Wallace’s advisors suggested that this might be too high-profile for a man with Carter’s past. He was kept on for a while as a speechwriter until Lurleen Wallace died of cancer. By 1968 Wallace was ready to run for president and had to clean up his rhetoric. All ties to “Ace” were cut. Deserted and, he felt, betrayed, Carter ran against Wallace for the governor’s seat in 1970. In his TV commercials, Carter looked large, thick-set and barrel-chested, with dark, thick, Russian-like hair and eyebrows. He looked like George Wallace’s bigger, meaner brother. Positioned in front of a Confederate flag, he railed against “race-mixing,” Communists in Hollywood and anything else he could tie to the “guv’mint” in Washington. He finished last.
Wales was born out of the ashes of Asa Carter’s political defeat, just as, in Carter’s novel, Wales rises from the ruins of the old Confederacy. In 1973 Carter and his wife, Thelma, sold their Alabama home and moved to Florida where Carter could get away from his political debacle. Within a year, a new Carter emerged, slimmer, darker (all that Florida sun) and with a new name: Forrest. The name was chosen in homage to Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, the infamous Confederate cavalry general and a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. And, like Wales, Forrest Carter went to Texas to begin a new life — one that was to definitively disprove F. Scott Fitzgerald’s claim that there are no second acts in American life.
From writing racist speeches, Carter turned to writing genre fiction. In 1973 Eleanor Friede at Delacorte Press accepted his first novel, “Gone to Texas,” for publication. Carter was now spending time around Abilene, visiting his sons (whom he referred to, for reasons that remain unclear, as his nephews) and making new friends. He told them that he was from Florida, that he had Cherokee family in north Alabama and that he was an official “story teller” and “oral historian” for the Cherokee nation. He dressed in jeans and string ties and affected a folksy speech pattern. He performed what he called Cherokee songs and dances for his friends. To the surprise of his friends and family, and probably Carter himself, “Gone to Texas” was published and, thanks to Friede’s clout, even got reviewed in publications that ignored westerns. It sold well, pleasing the vast readership of Louis L’Amour, but also impressing a handful of readers beyond the western audience that an intense new sensibility was at work in the tired and predictable genre. Carter was delighted to promote his book with personal appearances. An Austin bookseller recalls that “He was such a great storyteller that people who heard him, people who didn’t buy westerns, bought his books.”
What kind of people have bought Forrest Carter’s books? Certainly the Wales novels appealed to the readers of pulp westerns and action-adventure novels. But Carter also seemed to make fans of thousands who wanted something more from their pulp — and the story he told shared important themes with his lone wolf, white-supremacist past. The character of Wales is a superhero-like conflation of several Confederate guerrilla fighters of the Civil War and post-Civil War era, particularly Jesse James and Cole Younger. Wales is a child of the mountains, and “he preferred the mountains to remain wild, free, unfettered by law and the irritating hypocrisy of organized society.” Wales is white, but “His kinship . . . was closer to the Cherokee than to his social brothers of the flatland.” Like thousands of ex-Confederates, he hangs a “G.T.T.” sign on his door — “Gone to Texas” — and flees through Indian country, pursued, long after it would seem necessary, by federal soldiers and marshals. Before the novel ends, the Goya-esque landscape is cluttered with corpses, almost in anticipation of Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.”
In contrast to the Wales stories, “The Education of Little Tree” is a sweet, sad idyll, a pastiche of pop Zen and New Age homilies crossed with a dash of down-home red-in-tooth-and-claw Darwinism. On the surface “Little Tree” is a story of peace and tolerance; at its heart it shares much with the bloody Wales books. Carter’s philosophy of implacable nature is displayed in a passage where Little Tree is saddened when a hawk tears a harmless quail to pieces. “Don’t feel sad, Little Tree. It is the Way. Tal-con caught the slow and so the slow will raise no children who are also slow … and so Tal-con lives by the Way. He helps the quail.” And so, in nature’s harmony, the dominant species rules. Man upsets the harmony by empowering the weak. Government corrupts nature by helping the weak.
In addition to wisdom from Granpa and Granma, Little Tree learns life lessons from a kindly Jewish peddler, “Mr. Wine.” Mr. Wine, anticipating Milton Friedman by half a century, says, “If you was loose with your money, then you would get loose with your time, loose with your thinking and practically anything else. If a whole people got loose, then politicians seen they could get control. They would take over loose people and before long you had a dictator. Mr. Wine said no thinking people ever had a dictator.” Fascists, of course, do not regard their leaders as dictators but as expressions of their own will.
Perhaps no two books by the same author have ever had so few readers in common. But scratch the surface of “Little Tree’s” Native American worldview and you’ll find a Confederate-minded noble savage. In fact, the Cherokees in both “Little Tree” and the Wales’ books are honorary Confederates, fighting the evils of what both Little Tree and Wales call “guv’mint.”
Sometime in late 1973 Bob Daley, a producer for Clint Eastwood’s Malpaso Productions in California, received a book with a note for Eastwood. “The letter spoke of Clint’s ‘kind eyes,’” says Daley. “I thought, ‘Who in the world thinks that Clint Eastwood has ‘kind eyes’? I was curious.” Daley didn’t read westerns, but he gave “The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales” a try. Intrigued, he talked Clint into giving it a try; the next day Eastwood told Daley to buy it for Malpaso. Carter’s cut was $25,000 for screen rights — not bad for a first-time author writing in a pulp genre — with an additional $10,000 if the film was made.
A short time later Carter called to say he’d be in the area and wanted to stop by. “Fine,” said Daley, “where will you be? Los Angeles? He said, ‘No, I’ll be in Dallas.’ I just looked at the phone, wondering what kind of character we’d gotten involved with.” Daley had no idea. When Carter arrived, he was staggeringly drunk and proceeded to piss all over the office carpet. Daley had an assistant hustle him to a hotel.
The next day, sober, he made his way back to Daley’s office. “He no sooner got there,” Daley recalls, “than he said, ‘Well, it was fine meetin’ ye, but I reckin’ I’d better be gittin’ ta home.’ It took me a moment to realize that he was talking like Wales. I thought, ‘This is worse than I thought.’ I talked him into staying another night to have dinner with some of my people from the production office. Again, he showed up drunk, and he pulled a knife and held it to the throat of one of our secretaries. He later said it was all a joke.”
The film’s first director, Philip Kaufman, was not impressed by “The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales.” “‘Fascist’ is an overworked word,” says Kaufman from his California home, “but the first time I looked at that book that’s what I thought: ‘This was written by a crude fascist.’ It was nutty. The man’s hatred of government was insane. I felt that that element in the script needed to be severely toned down. But Clint didn’t, and it was his movie.” Eastwood eventually fired Kaufman and went on to direct himself.
Then, the same year as the release of “Josey Wales” came the publication of “Little Tree,” and Carter was on the verge of superstardom. But Carter’s gift for promotion became his undoing. In 1975 Carter appeared on the Barbara Walters show, doing pre-publicity for the Eastwood film “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and Carter’s upcoming books, “Little Tree” and his second western, “The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales.” He smiled, winked and squinted under the brim of his black cowboy hat, but moments after his appearance NBC was bombarded by calls from area code 205. A handful of his old cronies in Alabama had made him. Forrest Carter’s days were numbered.
The mask was crumbling, and 1976 brought with it a double blow from which Carter never recovered. First, his distant cousin Dan Carter, a historian and future biographer of George Wallace, wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times blowing the whistle on the identity of the new literary lion from Texas. Shortly after, Carter’s nemesis, Alabama journalist Wayne Greenhaw, wrote a piece — also for the New York Times — digging even deeper into his sordid past. But neither story would have any effect on book sales; indeed, at first, it seemed as if the stories would have no effect on Carter’s career at all. Delacorte Press’s Eleanor Friede publicly denied any connection between Ace and Forrest; for Carter’s new friends in Texas, many of whom weren’t disposed to give the New York Times much credence anyway, that was good enough.
For two years, Forrest Carter hung on in Texas, playing the local celebrity and trying to let Asa Carter fade back into the past. In 1978, in Dallas, he appeared at the Wellesley Book and Author Patron Party, sitting on a distinguished panel including historians Lon Tinkle, Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey and, incredibly, Barbara Tuchman. He played the folksy noble savage to the hilt, winning over both the panel and the audience. Tuchman laughed out loud when Carter embraced her and called her “a good ol’ Jew girl.”
I met Forrest Carter shortly after that at the Houston airport, working on a profile for the Houston Post. He was lean and sunburned and had a bushy mustache; he reminded me of an old photo of Wyatt Earp. Wearing a broad Stetson, he looked like a figure in a Remington painting in sunglasses. As a student in Birmingham I had watched him on TV when he ran for governor, but I wouldn’t have recognized him as Asa if he had been pointed out to me.
I knew him only as the author of “The Education Of Little Tree,” a book that I had regarded as inconsequential when I first read it, and of “Gone to Texas,” which seemed a brutal but above-average genre piece. I vaguely remembered having seen something in the New York Times about Asa Carter’s having gone off somewhere and started a new life for himself, but I never connected the bellowing hatemonger on TV with the grizzled-looking urban cowboy who mumbled as if he was the character in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” who spoke in “authentic frontier gibberish.” We talked about his second Wales novel and about his recently finished book on Geronimo. I asked him if Clint Eastwood would be involved in the rumored next movie about Wales. He looked at me warily from under his hat, puffed on a cigarette and said, “I think Clint’s had all he can take ‘a me.” He offered that “Robert Duvall kinda looks more like my Josey” and would make a “good ‘un.”
I told Carter that I thought his Wales novels were an attempt to win back the values on a mythical level that the Confederacy had lost on the battlefield. Carter squinted at me, smiled and said, “The values of a civilization never die so long as they’re kept alive in legend.”
I never got a chance to write my story. Shortly afterward, Forrest Carter was dead. Exactly how and why has never been made clear. Friends said that he had been drinking; rumors of Asa were starting to reach Abilene. One Texas friend said Carter aged 10 years between 1976 and 1978, largely because of his fear of the trickle-down from Dan Carter’s piece. Though it took a year and a half for Carter’s Op-Ed to have an effect, Carter began to feel the heat. A canceled speaking gig at a university here, a call from a local paper wanting to discuss the controversy there. By the summer of ’78, said a friend, “Forrest was a mess. None of us understood at the time, but after the tragedy we could see in retrospect he was turning into a nervous wreck.”
One night in June, Carter stopped off to visit one of his sons in Potosi, just south of Abilene. Perhaps two hours later, an ambulance arrived to pick up Forrest Carter’s body. The death certificate listed “aspiration of food and clotted blood” as probable cause. It also mentioned a “history of fights.” A story circulated that Carter had gotten into a drunken fight with his son and choked on his own vomit; one of the ambulance drivers said the scenario fit. An old friend from Birmingham conjectured that a fight between father and son broke out over the treatment of Carter’s wife, whom he apparently deserted in Florida. Thelma Carter later resurfaced in Alabama, and has gone into seclusion, refusing to discuss her years with Asa.
Most of Forrest Carter’s friends received a triple shock the next day when they picked up the papers. First was the news of his violent death. Added to that was the fact that many did not know he really was, or was suspected of being, the notorious Asa Carter. Finally, most had never heard Carter talk of having a son.
The question of whether the “The Education of Little Tree” represented a conscious attempt by Forrest Carter to rehabilitate himself can never be answered. In the essay mentioned above, Henry Louis Gates argued, as others have, that the sordid past of the author is irrelevant to the book’s message and theme, which is one of tolerance and acceptance. The problem is that when one scratches the surface of the idyllic world of “Little Tree” one finds a philosophy as harsh and unforgiving as the one Josie Wales lives, a world where even the mention of “guv’mint” inspires hatred, paranoia and fear. One might even question whether “Little Tree” is really the plea for racial tolerance that its supporters have always maintained. American Indian activist Vine Deloria Jr. long ago noted that white American men who would bristle at the suggestion that they had African or Asian blood are often quick to claim Indian ancestry so long as the connection is on the mother’s side (as Carter said his was) and Cherokee (also as Carter claimed). Why? Perhaps out of guilt at the deposal of the Cherokee from the eastern states, but more likely because it seems the safest connection to the “real” America, the one experienced by noble savages before the corrupting influences of civilization — of “guv’mint.” Like Asa Carter, many American males see a spiritual kinship between their ancestors, the savage Celts and Anglo-Saxons, and the American Indian, and to be born with Indian blood somehow better justifies being born with a chip on one’s shoulder than being born white.
There appears to be no simple answer to who Carter was, or exactly what his books are about, but for some the solution is to simply deny the apparent contradiction between the legacy of Asa and Forrest. Indeed, some continue to deny that they were even the same man. Eleanor Friede, who manages the Carter literary estate, no longer goes that far, but insisted to the New York Times after Carter’s death that “There was nothing anti-black or anti-Jewish about the man I knew.” (Friede, who is Jewish, says she is retired and declined, through a representative, to be interviewed for this story). To Buddy Barnett, his childhood friend, “Forrest wasn’t no bigot, just somebody who wanted to see right done to Indians.”
However his books should be interpreted, as works of the imagination they pale before the most remarkable creation of Asa Carter’s strange, short literary life: that half-breed ancestor of Confederate soldiers and Cherokee warriors named Forrest Carter.
Donald B. Smith.
Red Deer, AB: Red Deer Press (Distributed by Raincoast Books), 1999.
400 pp., pbk., $19.95.
Review by A.D. Gregor.
He was one of the most famous North American Indians of his day.
Newspapers and magazines hungered for stories about him but kept their research to a minimum. Reporters reveled in his many achievements: athlete, war hero, journalist, biographer, full-blooded Indian chief, public lecturer, Indian rights advocate, actor pilot. The story went that he had once trained with the legendary athlete Jim Thorpe; he had once sparred with none other than Jack Dempsey. An American president had granted him a special appointment to West Point; a grateful French nation had awarded him the Croix de Guerre for exceptional military valor. Born a Blood Indian in a teepee in the Sweetgrass Hills near the Canadian-American border, Long Lance had risen in celebrity through intellect, charm, courage and tremendous will. He was, one reporter claimed, one hundred percent American.
Written by a history professor at the University of Calgary, Long Lance is a carefully researched and well-illustrated study, presented in a fashion that would very much appeal to any adolescent reader (and to any adult reader, for that matter). It is a remarkable story that bears some interesting resemblance to the more familiar Grey Owl legend. Long Lance was an American black born in 1890 in North Carolina, who through the next four decades, until his suicide in 1932, assumed the persona of a full-blood Aboriginal (Canadian or American, as the story evolved). Despite reckless lies and ever-changing personal histories, he was able to fool most of the people most of the time, rising to international prominence as the spokesman of the aboriginal peoples. That he was not entirely able to fool all the people all the time lends the edge of a mystery novel to the story, as time and again he narrowly evades eventual and inevitable disclosure. But while the invented identity held, Long Lance attained wealth and fame, as a writer, editor, speaker, socialite, and even movie star.
In part the fraud began as an attempt to elude the foreordained fate that his birth had allotted him; but as he entered the aboriginal culture and history, he turned his talents and prominence to becoming a champion of their cause. Indeed, the theme of his story is balanced between the poles of celebrity (actively seeking fame and material rewards), and service to his adopted culture. He shamelessly used his fabricated persona for personal advancement: entry to educational institutions (including West Point, though this was not taken up) and to high-paying jobs. At the same time, the prominence he thereby acquired was put to important social use in bringing the plight of the aboriginal population to a public that might not otherwise have paid attention.
Long Lance’s story involved a number of settings and institutions in both Canada and the United States ranging from black communities in the American south to Indian Reservations in Canada, and from an American military academy to the Canadian army. It involved as well a significant cast of players: from Indian Commissioners, to newspaper proprietors. In all of these settings and with all of these people, the author provides careful detail and interpretation. The reader is moved along by a story of adventure and intrigue; but is in the process acquiring some very valuable insights into aspects of our history and culture. As self-styled (and self-invented) champion of he aboriginal cause, Long Lance wanted to « tell their story. » This he did for his own generation; but his life and influence have faded over the intervening decades. In tracing Long Lance’s remarkable life, Donald Smith has allowed that important story to be re-told to a new generation.
Alexander D. Gregor is a professor of educational history in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
Si les héros ne sont pas parfaits, Archie Belaney, alias Grey Owl, l’est moins que la plupart. En effet, alors qu’il était le plus célèbre des Canadiens de son époque, ses œuvres, pourtant bonnes et considérables, reposaient, à la base, sur un mensonge.
Archie se crée un monde imaginaire très tôt dans son enfance malheureuse. Abandonné de ses parents, il est élevé par deux tantes sévères qui sont déterminées à ne pas laisser leur neveu suivre les traces de son vaurien de père. Il se réfugie dans la lecture et dans un univers peuplé d’images romantiques des Indiens d’Amérique du Nord.
Quand il arrive au Canada en 1906, Belaney se dirige vers le lac Témiskaming, une contrée sauvage à la frontière du Québec et de l’Ontario. C’est là qu’il entreprend de créer son propre mythe familial lui donnant des origines apaches du Sud-Ouest américain. Il épouse une Ojibwa du nom d’Angèle et commence à s’approprier des bribes de langue et de culture pour tisser sa propre histoire.
Il se teint les cheveux en noir, assombrit sa peau avec du henné et passe des heures devant un miroir à s’exercer au stoïcisme « indien ». Il quitte Angèle et se présente dans son nouveau personnage à Gertrude Bernard, une jeune iroquoise. Archie aime et respecte Gertrude, qu’il appelle Anahareo, mais il ne pourra jamais lui révéler la vérité sur ses véritables origines.
Anahareo travaille à ses côtés, mais déteste la souffrance que les pièges d’Archie font subir aux animaux. Un jour où il attrape et tue une mère castor, il entend les cris de ses petits et s’apprête à leur donner le même sort, Anahareo le supplie de les épargner et, étonnement, il y consent. Au fil de l’hiver et de l’été 1929, les deux castors font sa conquête. Ils réveillent en lui « la tendresse qui dort dans le cœur de l’être humain », dira-t-il. Dès lors, tuer ces bêtes lui apparaît monstrueux et il ne pourra plus le faire.
Pour assurer sa subsistance, Archie s’essaie à l’écriture. Dans son premier article, destiné à la revue anglaise Country Life, il se présente comme un « écrivain indien » et, pour la première fois, signe « Grey Owl ». Il se lance avec acharnement dans un manuscrit qui paraîtra en 1931 sous le titre de La Dernière Frontière (Men of the Last Frontier).
Le livre de Grey Owl relate l’histoire de sa famille inventée, mais révèle aussi son merveilleux talent de conteur et, après sa « conversion » sous l’influence d’Anahareo, sa propension à la conservation et à la défense des castors alors menacés d’extinction. Grey Owl parsème délibérément son style d’imperfections orthographiques et grammaticales qu’il insiste pour que ses éditeurs respectent. Le livre connaît un grand succès, et l’auteur devient l’enfant chéri de la presse canadienne. À sa lecture, le commissaire des parcs James Harkin décide d’inviter Grey Owl à assurer « l’intendance des animaux du parc » au parc national du Mont-Riding, au Manitoba, puis au parc national de Prince-Albert, en Saskatchewan.
En 1936, Grey Owl fait un retour triomphant en Angleterre sous le nom de Hiawatha, un personnage que, enfant, il avait imaginé. Partout, il fait salle comble et répète le même message : « La nature ne nous appartient pas, nous lui appartenons. »
Sa peur d’être découvert croît avec son succès. Au moins un journaliste, Ed Bunyan du Nugget de North Bay, sait que Grey Owl est un imposteur, mais opte de ne pas ébruiter la chose. Les autochtones que rencontre Grey Owl savent généralement qu’il n’est pas des leurs, mais ils apprécient la valeur de son discours. Alors que des anthropologues comme Marius Barbeau rabaissent le mode de vie des autochtones, Grey Owl le célèbre.
Toujours en Grande-Bretagne, son succès atteint un summum en 1937 lorsqu’il rencontre le roi et la reine. Il effectue ensuite une frénétique tournée de conférences au Canada et aux États-Unis, mais sa santé, rendue fragile par l’alcool et l’épuisement, il meurt le 7 avril 1938.
Dès que le Nugget apprend sa mort, il publie enfin l’article, vieux de trois ans, qui cite Angèle affirmant que Grey Owl est « un blanc pure race ». Les journaux du monde entier s’empare de l’histoire, mais hésitent à condamner Grey Owl. Anahareo réagit avec incrédulité, mais avoue avoir eu l’affreux sentiment d’avoir été mariée pendant toutes ces années à un fantôme.
Certes, la vie de Grey Owl relève de la fiction. Elle aura souillé ses relations personnelles, mais sa compassion pour la nature, les animaux sauvages et le mode de vie des autochtones l’auront racheté. À travers sa supercherie complexe, Grey Owl aura réussi à sensibiliser les Canadiens à des questions qu’ils estiment aujourd’hui essentielles à leur bien-être.
James H. Marsh est rédacteur en chef de L’Encyclopédie canadienne.
L’Encyclopédie canadienne Copyright © 2013 Fondation Historica du Canada
Un moment de notre histoire…
Alias » Grey Owl « , il a persuadé le monde entier qu’il appartenait aux Premières Nations, et est devenu l’un des personnages canadiens les plus célèbres. D’origine anglaise, la véritable identité de Grey Owl a été mise à jour peu après sa mort et, dans le tollé général qui suivit cette découverte, on en vint à ignorer complètement sa lutte pour la protection de la nature. Mais la génération suivante a reconnu en Grey Owl un ardent défenseur de notre patrimoine naturel, et le message écologique qui se dégage de ses textes est encore actuel aujourd’hui. Sans sa détermination et sa passion, le Canada aurait bien pu perdre des grands pans de sa beauté naturelle. Grey Owl a sensibilisé un pays entier à la protection de la flore et de la faune.
Issu d’un milieu riche, Archibald Belaney est né en 1888, à Hastings, en Angleterre. Fasciné par les Autochtones de l’Amérique du Nord, il avait une connaissance impressionnante des groupes linguistiques autochtones et de leurs tribus. À l’âge de 17 ans, il quitta l’Angleterre pour le Canada, dans l’intention d’y faire de la trappe.
Au lac Temagami, en Ontario, ses amis Ojibwa le surnommèrent » petit hibou « , soulignant ses talents d’observation et sa soif de tout connaître sur le mode de vie des Amérindiens. En 1915, il entra dans les forces canadiennes et subit, en France, des blessures qui allaient le tourmenter toute sa vie. À son retour au Canada, Archie prit l’identité de son alter ego, Grey Owl, le fils d’un Écossais et d’une Apache.
En 1925, il épousait selon la coutume autochtone une iroquoise appelée Anahareo. Ensemble, ils s’établirent comme gardes forestiers et commencèrent à trapper le castor. Mais la vie de trappeur était cruelle et répugnait à Anahareo. Elle persuada Grey Owl de construire des colonies de castors plutôt que de les trapper pour le commerce. Converti à l’écologie, il se fit le défenseur de la nature et des animaux dans ses articles et ses livres.
En 1931, Grey Owl devint le » gardien des animaux » du parc national du mont Riding, au Manitoba. Des milliers de personnes ont pu apprécier sa passion pour la faune dans le premier film qu’il prépara pour le Service des parcs nationaux. Dans la même année, on écrivit des critiques dithyrambiques à la sortie de son premier ouvrage, The Men of the Last Frontier. Il publia plus tard Pilgrims of the Wild, ainsi qu’un livre pour enfants, intitulé Sajo and Her Beaver People.
Sa renommée était telle qu’il entreprit un voyage en Angleterre, en 1936, pour donner des conférences. On s’arrachait ses livres lorsqu’il publia son quatrième ouvrage, Tales of an Empty Cabin. Sa tournée anglaise connut un grand succès, mais elle l’épuisa et ébranla son mariage ainsi que sa santé mentale. En 1936, Grey Owl quitta Anahareo et se remaria. Il tomba malade après une série de conférences en Angleterre, au Canada et aux États-Unis. On l’hospitalisa sur-le-champ, mais il mourut trois jours plus tard, le 13 avril 1938.
Anahareo. Devil in Deerskin: My Life with Grey Owl. Toronto : New Press, 1972.
Dickson, Lovat. « Half-Breed: The Story of Grey Owl. » London : Peter Davies, 1939.
Dickson, Lovat « The Green Leaf: A Memorial to Grey Owl. » London : Lovat Dickson Limited, 1938.
Owl, Grey « Tales of an Empty Cabin. » Toronto : Key Porter Books, 1998.
Ruffo, Armand Garnet. « Grey Owl: The Mystery of Archie Belaney. » Regina : Coteau Books, 1997.
Smith, Donald. « From the Land of Shadows: The Making of Grey Owl. » Saskatoon : Western Producer Prairie Books, 1990.
« The 1998 Canadian & World Encyclopedia.[en ligne] » » Grey Owl » McClelland & Stewart, 1997.
Voir de plus:
Claim: The actor known as Iron Eyes Cody was a true-born Native Indian.
Origins: Although no one could say exactly when we humans first began to have concerns about the effects our activities have on our environment, most of us baby boomers could pinpoint 1970-71 as the Iron Eyes Cody timespan during which we first became aware of the « ecology movement, » as the era when concern for what humans were doing to the world they lived in ran at a fever pitch. Protecting the planet’s resources by calling upon each person to pitch in and do whatever he or she could do to limit the abuse was seen as the right and proper focus of the times. High schools offered classes in ecology. Public school students painted posters decrying pollution. And television ads worked to remind everyone that the problem was real, here, and now.
Three events which occurred during the year between March 1970 and March 1971 helped bring the concept of « ecology » into millions of homes and made it a catchword of the era. One was the first annual Earth Day, observed on 21 March 1970. The second was Look magazine’s promotion of the ecology flag in its 21 April 1970 edition, a symbol that was soon to become as prominent a part of American culture as the ubiquitous peace sign. The third — and perhaps the most effective and unforgettable — was the television debut of Keep America Beautiful’s landmark « People Start Pollution, People Can Stop It » public service ad on the second Earth Day in March 1971.
In that enduring minute-long TV spot, viewers watched an Indian paddle his canoe up a polluted and flotsam-filled river, stream past belching smokestacks, come ashore at a litter-strewn river bank, and walk to the edge of a highway, where the occupant of a passing automobile thoughtlessly tossed a bag of trash out the car window to burst open at the astonished visitor’s feet. When the camera moved upwards for a close-up, a single tear was seen rolling down the Indian’s face as the narrator dramatically intoned: « People start pollution; people can stop it. »
That « crying Indian, » as he would later sometimes be referred to, was Iron Eyes Cody, an actor who throughout his life claimed to be of Cherokee/Cree extraction. Yet his asserted ancestry was just as artificial as the tear that rolled down his cheek in that television spot — the tear was glycerine, and the « Indian » a second-generation Italian-American.
(The spurious use of Native Americans to promote « save the Earth » messages was not limited to this one instance. A moving exposition on the sanctity of the land and the need for careful stewardship of it is still widely quoted as the bona fide words of Chief Seattle. Though the chief was real, the speech was not — the words came not from the chief’s own lips in 1854 but flowed from the pen of a screenwriter in 1971.)
Iron Eyes Cody was born Espera DeCorti on 3 April 1904 in the small town of Kaplan, Louisiana. He was the son of Francesca Salpietra and Antonio DeCorti, she an immigrant from Sicily who had arrived in the USA in 1902, and he another immigrant who had arrived in America not long before her. Theirs was an arranged marriage, and the couple had four children, with Espera (or Oscar, as he was called) their second eldest. In 1909, when Espera was five years old, Antonio DeCorti abandoned his wife and children and headed for Texas. Francesca married again, this time to a man named Alton Abshire, with whom she bore five more children.
As teenagers the three DeCorti boys joined their father in Texas. He had since altered his name from Antonio DeCorti to Tony Corti, and the boys apparently followed suit as far as their surname was concerned. In 1924, following their father’s death, the boys moved to Hollywood, changed « Corti » to « Cody, » and began working in the motion picture industry. It was about this time Iron Eyes began presenting himself to the world as an Indian. Iron Eyes’ two brothers, Joseph William and Frank Henry, found work as extras but soon drifted into other lines of work. Iron Eyes went on to achieve a full career as an actor, appearing in well over a hundred movies and dozens of television shows across the span of several decades.
Although Iron Eyes was not born an Indian, he lived his adult years as one. He pledged his life to Native American causes, married an Indian woman (Bertha Parker), adopted two Indian boys (Robert and Arthur), and seldom left home without his beaded moccasins, buckskin jacket and braided wig. His was not a short-lived masquerade nor one that was donned and doffed whenever expedient — he maintained his fiction throughout his life and steadfastly denied rumors that he was not an Indian, even after his half-sister surfaced to tell the story in 1996 and to provide pointers to the whereabouts of his birth certificate and other family documents.
Cody died on 5 January 1999 at the age of 94.
Iron Eyes Cody wasn’t history’s only faux Indian. Others also falsely claimed this mantle:
* Long Lance, the 1928 thrilling first-person account of Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, was the work of Sylvester Long, an African-American who conned the literary world into believing he was a Cherokee, and then a Cree. While the ruse lasted, Buffalo Child Long Lance was a hit on the lecture circuit and one of the darlings of New York society. His spree ended when the truth about his background was exposed in 1930, and he killed himself with a shot to the head in 1931.
* Grey Owl, a noted Canadian naturalist and author, lived as an Indian and claimed to be half-Apache. Only after his death in 1939 did the world discover he was really an Englishman born Archibald Belaney.
* One of the most popular books on Indian life is Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree, the story of a boyhood spent with Cherokee grandparents. This « autobiography » was yet another fake, penned by Asa Carter, a white supremacist and Ku Klux Klan member.
Even if Iron Eyes was not a true-born Native American, he certainly did a lot of good on behalf of the Native American community, and they generally accepted him as one of them without caring about his true ancestry. In 1995, Hollywood’s Native American community honored Iron Eyes for his longstanding contribution to Native American causes. Although he was no Indian, they pointed out, his charitable deeds were more important than his non-Indian heritage.
Barbara « going native » Mikkelson
People Start Pollution, People Can Stop It « People Start Pollution, People Can Stop It » public service ad
(Keep America Beautiful)
Last updated: 9 August 2007
Aleiss, Angela. « Native Son. »
The Times-Picayune. 26 May 1996 (p. D1).
Cody, Iron Eyes. Iron Eyes: My Life As a Hollywood Indian.
New York: Everest House, 1982. ISBN 0-89696-111-7.
Russell, Ron. « Make-Believe Indian. »
New Times Los Angeles. 8 April 1999.
Schmitz, Neil. « The Other Man. »
The Buffalo News. 8 October 1995 (Magazine, p. 12).
Waldman, Amy. « Iron Eyes Cody, 94, an Actor and Tearful Anti-Littering Icon. »
The New York Times. 5 January 1999 (p. A15).
The Boston Globe. « Iron Eyes Cody: Actor Known for Anti-Littering Ad. »
5 January 1999 (p. A13)
Did a struggling white writer of gay erotica become one of multicultural literature’s most celebrated memoirists by passing himself off as Native American?
Jan 23 2006
January 3, 2012
“So achingly honest it takes your breath away.”
—Miami Heraldon The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping
In June of 1999 a writer calling himself Nasdijj emerged from obscurity to publish an ode to his adopted son in Esquire. “My son is dead,” he began. “I didn’t say my adopted son is dead. He was my son. My son was a Navajo. He lived six years. They were the best six years of my life.”
The boy’s name was Tommy Nothing Fancy, and Nasdijj wrote that he and his wife adopted Tommy as an infant and raised him in their home on the Navajo reservation. At first, Tommy seemed like a healthy baby, albeit one who consistently cried throughout the night. “The doctor at the Indian Health Service said it was nothing. Probably gas.”
But it wasn’t gas. Tommy suffered from a severe case of fetal alcohol syndrome, or FAS. Though Tommy looked normal, his crying continued and as he grew older he began to suffer massive seizures. “I thought I could see him getting duller with every seizure. He knew he was slowly dying.”
Nasdijj knew too, and he tried to give his son as full a life as time would allow. Fishing was Tommy’s favorite thing to do and they went often — sometimes at the expense of his medical care. “For my son hospitals were analogous to torture. Tommy Nothing Fancy wanted to die with his dad and his dog while fishing.”
Nasdijj’s wife wanted Tommy in the hospital receiving modern medical treatment. “She was a modern Indian. .?.?. She begged. She pleaded. She screamed. She pounded the walls. But the hospitals and doctors never made it better.”
Though the conflict tore his marriage apart, Nasdijj continued to take his son fishing and, true to his last wish, Tommy died of a seizure while on an expedition.
“I was catching brown trout,” Nasdijj wrote. “I was thinking about cooking them for dinner over our campfire when Tommy Nothing Fancy fell. All that shaking. It was as if a bolt of lightning surged uncontrolled through the damaged brain of my son. It wasn’t fair. He was just a little boy who liked to fish. .?.?. I was holding him when he died. .?.?. The fish escaped.”
The Esquire piece, as successful as it was heartbreaking, was a finalist for a National Magazine Award and helped establish Nasdijj as a prominent new voice in the world of nonfiction. “Esquire’s Cinderella story,” as Salon’s Sean Elder called it, “arrived over the transom, addressed to no one in particular. ‘The cover letter was this screed about how Esquire had never published the work of an American-Indian writer and never would because it’s such a racist publication,’ recalls editor in chief David Granger. ‘And under it was .?.?. one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’d ever read.’ By the time the piece was published in the June issue, the writer (who lives on an Indian reservation) had a book contract.”
The contract was for a full-length memoir, The Blood Runs Like A River Through My Dreams, published by Houghton Mifflin in 2000 to great acclaim. It was followed by two more memoirs, The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping(Ballantine, 2003), and Geronimo’s Bones: A Memoir of My Brother and Me (Ballantine, 2004). As if losing a son was not enough, the memoirs portray a lifetime of suffering.
Nasdijj was born on the Navajo reservation in a hogan in 1950, he claims, the son of an abusive white cowboy “who broke, bred, and bootlegged horses” and a Navajo mother. “My mother,” he writes, “was a hopeless drunk. I would use the word ‘alcoholic’ but it’s too polite. It’s a white people word. .?.?. There is nothing polite about cleaning up your mother in her vomit and dragging her unconscious carcass back to the migrant housing trailer you lived in.”
Nasdijj says his father would sometimes pimp his mother to other migrant workers for “five bucks” and that she died of alcoholism when he was 7. Though their time together was short and turbulent, Nasdijj says his mother instilled in him the Navajo traditions that now inform his work.
His father, he says, was a sexual predator who raped him the night his mother died. Because his father was white, Nasdijj says he was treated like an “outcast bastard” on the reservation. Like Tommy Nothing Fancy, Nasdijj claims to have fetal alcohol syndrome and to have been raised, with his brother, in migrant camps all over the country.
Nasdijj knows how to pull heartstrings. Both The Blood and The Boy revolve around the lives and deaths of his adopted Navajo sons. “Death, to the Navajo, is like the cold wind that blows across the mesa from the north,” Nasdijj writes in The Blood. “We do not speak of it.” But Nasdijj does speak of it. In fact, he speaks of it almost exclusively. Death and suffering are his staples.
“My son comes back to me when I least expect to see his ghostly vision,” he writes. “He lives in my bones and scars.”
But Nasdijj hasn’t built his career purely through the tragic and sensational nature of his stories. His style is an artful blending of poetry and prose, and his work has met with nearly universal critical praise. The Blood “reminds us that brave and engaging writers lurk in the most forgotten corners of society,” wrote Ted Conover in The New York Times Book Review. Rick Bass called it “mesmerizing, apocalyptic, achingly beautiful and redemptive .?.?. a powerful American classic,” while Howard Frank Mosher said it was “the best memoir I have read about family love, particularly a father’s love for his son, since A River Runs Through It.”The Blood was a New York Times Notable Book, a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award and winner of the Salon Book Award.
The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping was published to more glowing reviews — “vivid and immediate, crackling with anger, humor, and love” (The Washington Post) and “riveting .?.?. lyrical .?.?. a ragged wail of a song, an ancient song, where we learn what it is to truly be a parent and love a child” (USA Today).
Shortly after The Blood came out, Nasdijj writes, he moved back to the Navajo reservation, where word of his book and his compassion spread. One day while fishing, a Navajo man and his 10-year-old son approached him. The man took Nasdijj aside and explained that he, his wife and their son, Awee, had AIDS. “They were not terrific parents,” Nasdijj wrote, “but they wanted this child to have a chance at life.” Nasdijj was that chance. For the next two years Nasdijj cared for Awee until his death from AIDS-related illness.
The Boy won a 2004 PEN/Beyond Margins Award and helped solidify Nasdijj’s place as one of the most celebrated multicultural writers in American literature. But as his successes and literary credentials grew in number, so did his skeptics — particularly from within the Native American community. Sherman Alexie first heard of Nasdijj in 1999 after his former editor sent him a galley proof of The Blood for comment. At the time, Alexie, who is Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, was one of the hottest authors in America and was widely considered the most prominent voice in Native American literature. His novel Indian Killerwas a New York Times Notable Book, and his cinematic feature Smoke Signals was the previous year’s Sundance darling, nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and winner of the Audience Award. Alexie’s seal of approval would have provided The Blood with a virtual rubber stamp of Native authenticity. But it took Alexie only a few pages before he realized he couldn’t vouch for the work. It wasn’t just that similar writing style and cadence that bothered Alexie.
“The whole time I was reading I was thinking, this doesn’t just sound like me, this is me,” he says.
Alexie was born hydrocephalic, a life-threatening condition characterized by water on the brain. At the age of 6 months he underwent brain surgery that saved his life but left him, much like Tommy Nothing Fancy, prone to chronic seizures throughout his childhood. Instead of identifying with Nasdijj’s story, however, Alexie became suspicious.
“At first I was flattered, but as I kept reading I noticed he was borrowing from other Native writers too. I thought, this can’t be real.”
Indeed, Nasdijj’s stories also bear uncanny resemblance to the works of N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Silko and especially Michael Dorris, whose memoir The Broken Cord depicts his struggle to care for his adopted FAS-stricken Native Alaskan children. Although there was never more than ?a similar phrase here and there, Alexie was convinced that the work was fabricated. He ?wasn’t alone.
Shortly after his review of The Bloodcame out in The New York Times Book Review, Ted Conover received an Internet greeting card from Nasdijj chastising him for his piece. Conover, an award-winning journalist whose 2003 book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, was taken aback. Not only is it highly unusual for an author to attack a reviewer, but it is especially unusual when the review in question was overwhelmingly positive — Conover’s flattering words would grace the paperback cover.
Conover’s main critique was that Nasdijj was “stingy with self-revelation.” He questioned certain inconsistencies in the author’s background, noting that Nasdijj sometimes said his mother was “with the Navajo,” sometimes she was “Navajo, or so she claimed,” and other times she was just “Navajo.” Conover never accused Nasdijj of lying, he merely suggested that the writer be more forthcoming. Nasdijj, however, rejected this suggestion and sent the angry letter, which Conover characterizes as a sprawling diatribe.
“The whole thing was just really bizarre,” Conover says.
Conover sent a copy of the card to Anton Mueller, Nasdijj’s editor at Houghton Mifflin and an acquaintance. “I wondered if he might shed a little light on this,” he says. Mueller, however, never responded, and the incident left Conover wondering whether he should have been more thorough in investigating Nasdijj before writing his review. It didn’t take him long to find an answer. Several weeks later, Conover was contacted by an expert in fetal alcohol syndrome who had read his review. She informed him that while she sympathized with the plight of Nasdijj and his son, the symptoms described in The Blood are not actually those of FAS.
Says Conover, “I immediately thought, ‘Oh no, I’ve been duped.’?”
This work is a memoir and represents, to the best of my ability and my memory, an accurate reporting of facts and events as I know them and as they have been told to me. I have attempted to protect the privacy of people through the editorial decision to frequently change names, appearances, and locations, as these are not relevant to the focus of the work or the issues the work strives to deal with.
No, these are not the words of James Frey, author of the exaggerated A Million Little Pieces, but of Nasdijj in the author’s note for The Blood. But why? Was this just standard legalese or was Houghton Mifflin concerned about the veracity of this book? Had Sherman Alexie actually gotten through to them? Is the “author’s note” a cynical attempt to protect a piece of fiction passed off as memoir?
Anton Mueller, editor of The Blood, says no. “Nasdijj’s life is hazy and complex, and we both felt it would be a good idea.”
Indeed, getting to the bottom of Nasdijj’s story is no easy task. He alleges a nomadic existence that is virtually free of specific names or places, rendering it difficult to substantiate his claims. A Google search brings up first and foremost his blog — http://www.nasdijj.typepad.com. (Shortly after Nasdijj was contacted for this story, his blog was taken offline.) A sampling of his almost daily blogs over several months suggests that one (and perhaps only one) thing is clear: Nasdijj is a very angry man. If in the books his passion and fierceness are modulated and concentrated, his blog posts are full of rants and denunciations. Targets include the American health care system, government treatment of Indians, middle-class values and, especially, the publishing industry.
He has recently made a routine of calling ReganBooks über-publisher Judith Regan a “cunt,” a designation that in Nasdijj’s estimation she shares with Gina Centrello of Random House, among countless others. “Like the naked Jew who covers his penis before he turns the shower on, there is no fucking hope for you,” he admonishes them.
Non-metaphorical Jews alike are not immune from Nasdijj’s wrath. “Jews [in publishing] would sell the gas chamber shower heads if they thought it might make a buck.” In his acceptance speech for the prestigious PEN/Beyond Margins Award, an edited version of which was delivered in absentia, he took the opportunity to call New York literary agent Binky Urban a “white bitch.” (It’s available online at http://www.literaryrevolution.com/mr-nasdijj-62804.html.)
Nasdijj’s blog is typical of a recent shift in his work. Though his first book was thoughtful, even tender, as his career has progressed Nasdijj has increasingly taken the role of an artist whose willingness to push boundaries often borders on disturbing. His most recent book, Geronimo’s Bones, brought Nasdijj’s tales of suffering to startling heights, or lows depending on your perspective. Surrealistic accounts of forcible incest by his father read less like rape and more like lukewarm trysts. “His lips to mine. His tongue in my mouth. His words: ‘Nasdijj, please, please love me.’ .?.?. He was a lousy lover with his tongue in my mouth. The same tongue that had just been inside my bowels.”
Though incestuous rape may be difficult to trump, perhaps even more disturbing is Nasdijj’s tendency to sexualize teenage boys. A recent post on his Web site featured a nude photograph of the open anus and testicles of a supposedly cancer-ridden teenager. Nasdijj claims this was done in an effort to humanize the disease, but such pictures are often posted alongside graphic accounts of adolescent sexuality. Indeed, they are sometimes posted alongside naked sadomasochistic pictures of Nasdijj himself.
But Nasdijj’s explicit Web site isn’t the only curiosity a Google search of his name reveals — it also brings up a rather caustic reader review of The Boyand the Dog Are Sleeping on BookBrowse (www.bookbrowse.com). “I find this book full of the author’s misinformation regarding his family,” it begins. “I take exception with his opinion of his ‘Anglo father’ and his ‘Navajo mother.’ I happen to be related to this author and his family is tracable [sic] back through the American Revolution on his father’s side and to Holland on his mother’s side. I resent the fact that he seems to be ashamed of his notable ancestors (i.e., Cyrus McCormick, a great grandfather that pioneered nerve block dentistry, couragous mem [sic] that lost their lives at Valley Forge). This kind of dribble [sic] should have been investigated prior to printing or should have been labeled as purely fiction.”
While such a review could easily be dismissed on its own, a Yahoo search of the name attached to it offers up a comprehensive genealogical site. And when the reviewer’s name is searched in conjunction with the name of Nasdijj’s daughter, Kree, one name comes up: Timothy Patrick Barrus.
Barrus, the site says, was born in 1950 (the same year as Nasdijj), is married to Tina Giovanni (also the name of Nasdijj’s wife), and has a daughter named Kree. The site then charts his family lineage back several generations to the 1700s, and, indeed, as the review states, to the McCormick family.
Evidence compiled from other searches seems to corroborate the site.
Just like Nasdijj, Tina Giovanni also hosts a blog — http://www.autism911.blogspot.com. (It also was taken offline in the past week but has returned minus its archives.) A post from Giovanni in July 2005 shows a picture of Nasdijj’s daughter, Kree, and Kree’s husband, Steve, both of whom, Giovanni says, are teachers in La Paz, Bolivia. A follow-up Internet search reveals the December 13, 2004, meeting minutes of the American Educational Association of La Paz, announcing the hiring of Kree Barrus and Steve Poole as teachers at the American Cooperative School in La Paz. (A photograph of Steve Poole on the American Cooperative School’s Web site confirms that he is the same Steve pictured in Giovanni’s blog.) As for Giovanni, a records search reveals her legal name to be Tina Giovanni Barrus, with addresses in and around Taos, New Mexico. This obviously begs the question — who exactly is Timothy Patrick Barrus?
Yet another Google search, this time for Tim Barrus, brings up the heading “Sadomasochistic Literature” and the following: “Some of the best pornographic fiction to come out of the leatherman tradition is by Tim Barrus whose Mineshaft (1984) describes the sexual exploits of the infamous New York S/M palace of the same name.” The site is GLBTQ: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and queer culture. The section in which Barrus’ name appears is titled “Gay Male Writers Since the 70’s.”
Could the heart-wrenching Navajo memoirist actually have been the gay leather novelist in a previous life?
The streets of downtown Lansing, Michigan, are crowded on a Friday night, but not with people — with squirrels. They congregate in the middle of Washington Street, staring with incredulity as a lone car approaches. Despite an impending collision, they don’t bother to move out of the way, apparently shocked to see anyone out at this time of night. The oncoming car doesn’t slow down and crushes one of them into the red brick street. No one is around to notice. It wasn’t always like this.
In the 1950s and ’60s, when Tim Barrus was growing up here, Lansing was a prosperous middle-class community. Washington Street wasn’t a site of squirrel manslaughter, but the heart of a thriving theater district. Oldsmobile, Fisher Auto Parts and General Motors all had factories nearby.
No cowboy, Maynard Barrus worked as a shift foreman at the Lansing Board of Water and Light. In 1948 he married Barrus’ mother, Jean Anne Steginga, a local Lansing girl of Scandinavian descent. Two years later, Timothy Patrick was born.
Tim Barrus was raised with his younger sister, Suzanne, in a modest three-bedroom home off of Aurelius Road close to the Michigan State University campus. His mother was in fact around throughout his childhood and is still alive today. He has no younger brother.
Barrus attended Eastern High School in Lansing, where he was far from a slayer of suburban values. He was a member of the student council, the forensics team, the forum club as well as a homeroom officer. He was also an actor, playing several minor roles in the 1968 class production of Molière’s The Physician in Spite of Himself.
“He was a good, good actor — very passionate,” says one former castmate of Barrus’ who wishes not to be named. “He was able to completely absorb himself into the mind of a character in a way that most people are never able to.”
“He was a thinker — very pensive,” the castmate continues. “But he was a warm person, very friendly.”
Beneath his generally pleasant veneer, however, a simmering temper would occasionally boil over.
“You didn’t know what you were going to say to the guy to make him angry,” recalls Rosemary Taylor, who was also in the cast alongside Barrus, “so you were extremely careful with him because you wanted to stay in his orbit. He was one of those guys that was a little ahead of his time.”
Barrus graduated from high school in 1969 and a year later married Jan Abbott, a local girl from neighboring Okemos. According to a source close to the family, the couple took in foster children to make ends meet. In 1971 Barrus and his wife moved to Largo, Florida, where his sister, Suzanne, lived with her husband, Steve Cheetham. Barrus attended community college while Abbott worked at Winn-Dixie to support him, according to Cheetham. Although Barrus wasn’t publishing his work at the time, he wrote constantly. “He wrote most of his life in one way or another,” says Cheetham by phone from Lansing. “He’s a storyteller. You never knew if he was telling you something true, or part of his imagination or what.” In 1973 the couple moved again before finally winding up back in Lansing. Cheetham never saw Barrus again.
In 1974, Barrus’ only daughter, Kree, was born and, according to sources, the couple also adopted a mildly autistic boy around this time. The boy could have inspired Tommy Nothing Fancy, although several discrepancies exist between his story and Tommy’s.
Nasdijj claims that he adopted Tommy as an infant and that he died at age 6. A Kree Barrus resumé posted online, however, indicates that as a girl she helped care for a mildly autistic 7-year-old. Likewise, an article written by Barrus in 1996 asserts that he adopted his son at age 4 and that he was alive and well as of the ’90s, having survived adolescence and grown “almost as big as I am.”
Cheetham, who was still married to Barrus’ sister at the time, tells a slightly different story. According to him, Barrus and his wife did indeed adopt an autistic boy, but that the boy’s “emotional problems” proved too much for the couple to handle. After less than a year they were forced to give the boy up, and to Cheetham’s best recollection he returned to being a ward of the state.
Address records indicate that the young family lived in an apartment on Cooper Avenue near downtown Lansing until 1975. It is unclear where they moved immediately after that. At some point, Barrus and his wife divorced, and he moved to San Francisco where he began to write — primarily for the gay leather magazine Drummer. Barrus was widely praised for coining the term “leather lit,” and for being one of the founders of the newly formed genre.
In 1984 he moved to Key West and, according to his friend Bill Bowers, took residence with his partner Adolfo. (Barrus would later deny being gay.) There he published his first book, The Mineshaft, a sloppy attempt at erotica, but one that nonetheless garnered him some attention. He soon became a regular contributor to The Weekly News, the local gay newspaper, writing fictional stories reminiscent of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.
It was in Key West where Barrus met Bowers, a local artist and photographer, and the two began work on a number of projects together.
“He was a crazy queen. He did things other people just didn’t do,” says Bowers fondly of Barrus. “He was really a master of publicity.”
Bowers remembers collaborating with Barrus on an erotic-photo exhibit called Sadomasochism: True Confessions. After the opening night of the show drew lukewarm interest, Barrus assumed the fake name John Hammond and wrote an open letter to The Weekly News attacking the exhibit.
“Sadomasochism is a disease,” the letter read, “and gay men who are into that scene are wrong.” He then had Bowers write a response to their mythical antagonist Hammond, inviting him to “take a Valium, take a douche,” and published it in The Weekly News. “The next time Mr. Hammond wants to show his ignorance he should do some heavy research before he rejects his very own brothers.” The ensuing controversy rallied the gay community around the artists and propelled the exhibit to a successful run.
“He would do anything to shock people,” said Bowers. “It works every time if you want a reaction, be it good or bad. Bad is good too, sometimes better.”
Not all of Barrus’ acquaintances found his antics quite so charming, however. Lars Eighner grew quite tired of his routine. “If you look up dilettante in the dictionary, there’s a picture of Tim Barrus,” says Eighner.
Best known for his 1993 book Travels With Lizbeth(which The Blood would partially parrot), Eighner first became acquainted with Barrus around 1984, after he received a random letter from Barrus expressing his most frequent theme — “publishers are scum.” Eighner was just breaking into writing at the time and found Barrus’ angry candor instructive. The two soon began a three-way correspondence with another gay writer, T.R. Witomski, which lasted for several years.
Though he never met Barrus in person, Eighner came to know him quite well through his letters and phone conversations. Barrus would routinely harangue Eighner with long soliloquies about the evils of publishing. “There was always some great injustice that had been done him — he had been slighted by everyone, betrayed; there was treachery everywhere.” Eighner is quick to point out that he didn’t think Barrus was crazy — just irrationally angry.
“He didn’t think windmills were monsters, he just hated windmills.”
According to Eighner, Barrus and the established gay writer John Preston had a one-sided literary rivalry — and Barrus was the perennial loser. While Barrus’ books were well reviewed in the gay press (The Advocate called his 1987 book Anywhere, Anywhere “a rewarding encounter with compelling characters”), he was never able to achieve the mainstream success that Preston, Witomski and eventually Eighner were able to. This made him, according to Eighner, “insanely jealous.”
That Barrus might have adopted a Native American persona to facilitate his career strikes Eighner as completely in character. Similar behavior was routine when Eighner knew him. Barrus’ third book, Anywhere, Anywhere, is supposedly a novelized account of his service in the Vietnam War, which, Eighner says, “some serious publications thought was really a memoir of a gay soldier.” The book is a love story between wheelchair-bound Chris and his commanding officer in Vietnam, Boss. The pair fell in love fighting alongside each other, and upon their return to America they used their feelings for each other to battle the physical and emotional scars inflicted on them by the war. Anywhere, Anywhere was praised in the gay press for revealing the previously untold gay experience in Vietnam. “Of course Barrus had never been near Vietnam or military service,” says Eighner. (When asked if his brother-in-law served in Vietnam, Cheetham replies, “Absolutely not.”)
In a 1994 article he wrote for the Lambda Book Report, however, Barrus claims to be a Vietnam vet, or so it seems: “I knew lots of gay men in Vietnam. Not that I had sex with them. No one was telling ?their story.”
Barrus, a natural mimic, would routinely take stories that had happened to Preston or Witomski, and tell them as if they had happened to him. Eventually, word got back to the other two that this was going on and they both fell out with him. “As you may have guessed, Barrus doesn’t wear well,” said Eighner. “Whether it’s the first or 15th time you catch someone telling your anecdotes as if they were his own, eventually, almost everyone has a limit.”
Witomski took special umbrage, and in a 1992 article published in The Advocate shortly before his death, he labeled Barrus one of “five gay writers we could do without.” Other writers followed suit in their condemnation, and Barrus’ delusions of censure became reality. In 1993, with his bridges burning in gay publishing, Barrus met and married his current wife, Tina Giovanni, in San Francisco and disappeared. Eighner never heard from him again. And neither did the Internet until 1996, when something (and someone) curious emerged. In an article now available only through the archives of an obscure Australian company called Infant Massage Australia, a kinder, gentler Barrus appeared in a service article on how to be a loving father. Though the piece is trite and filled with gooey, ’90s parenting clichés (“It takes a real man to nurture”), it appears to be his first experimentation with the caring father persona.
Sometime between then and the Esquire article that launched his career, Nasdijj was born.
Peering out from behind a pair of silver-framed glasses, Irvin Morris sits at his office desk thumbing thoughtfully through a weathered copy of The Blood. A quiet man with sad, dark eyes and a closely trimmed head of raven black hair, Morris is focused as he reads, occasionally sighing in dismay when something he sees disturbs him. A giant fake plant hovers over him, draping plastic leaves onto a sizable portion of his cluttered desk. He looks up briefly from the text ?in time to catch me eyeing the plant strangely. “I don’t know where ?that thing came from,” he says with a smile, “but I really should do something about it.” But first thing’s first — another possible impostor needs ?to be dealt with.
Morris has suspected for years that Nasdijj is not who he says he is. A full-blooded Navajo and a professor of literature and Navajo studies at Dine College in Tsaile, Arizona, on the Navajo reservation, Morris is among the world’s foremost authorities on Navajo culture. Shortly after The Blood was published, he saw Nasdijj’s name listed on the national index of Native writers. Under the author’s bio, it said Nasdijj claimed his name meant “to become again” in Navajo Athabaskan. This came as news to Morris, who is fluent in Athabaskan. “There is no word ‘Nasdijj’ in the Navajo language,” he explains. “It’s gibberish.”
Not long thereafter, Morris got a call from Sherman Alexie asking if he would take a look at The Blood. After reading the book, Morris felt certain Nasdijj was not Navajo. “He seems to know some facts aboutthe culture, but he has no sensibility of it.”
“Every Navajo he meets seems to live in a hogan,” Morris jokes. “No one has really lived in hogans since HUD housing started being built on the reservation in the ’60s. Only people who are extremely traditional live in hogans.” Traditional people who would not make the kind of cultural errors that Nasdijj depicts them making. Navajo Rose, for instance.
Navajo Rose is a character in The Bloodwho, Nasdijj writes, lives in a hogan near his on the reservation. Navajo Rose is illiterate and, though Nasdijj says she graduated from high school, she somehow has never seen the inside of a library.
“You have to be really traditional to have never even seen inside a library,” says Morris.
Nasdijj takes it upon himself to teach Navajo Rose how to read and drives her off the reservation to “White People Town” to see her first library. “She was impressed with all the books,” Nasdijj writes.
Morris bristles at the condescending tone. “We do have libraries here.”
But the error that really made Morris crazy was a culinary one. To thank Nasdijj for his lessons, Navajo Rose routinely brings him Navajo tacos made of mutton. “Now that’s just disgusting,” says Morris of the tacos, which are traditionally made with beef. “We love our mutton but no one would use it in a Navajo taco; the spices just don’t mix.” (Indeed, in my experience on the reservation, the suggestion of a Navajo taco with mutton induces a nearly universal crinkling of noses in distaste.)
While a non-Navajo may see these gaffes as minor, Morris asserts they add up to a character that doesn’t exist. Like a rabbi eating pork or a Hindu beating his cow, they are culturally incriminating, and the book is littered with them, he says. Nasdijj writes that when he was a boy, his mother used to have religious sings for him to familiarize him with his culture. “That’s a communal activity,” Morris says. “To have a sing by yourself is highly aberrant behavior. Like holding a church service for yourself.”
Most startling and offensive to Morris is Nasdijj’s depiction of Navajo clanship, which plays a vital role in tribal identity. In Geronimo’s Bones, Nasdijj claims his mother was a member of the Water Flowing clan; no such clan exists, however. “There’s a Water Flowing Together clan,” explains Morris, “but the difference isn’t insignificant. If I was going to claim my mother’s clanship, I would at least make sure to get the name right.”
Nasdijj also writes that because his father was white and without a clan, Nasdijj had no clan and was therefore treated as an “outcast bastard” by other Navajo. This, says Morris, is misrepresentative in that it wrongly portrays the Navajo clan structure as an authoritarian caste system. It is also factually incorrect. “Our lineage is passed on through our mother. If his mother had a clan, he has a clan.”
Immediately after reading the book, Morris contacted the Native author registry and asked them to take Nasdijj’s name off the list. Without specific information about Nasdijj’s true identity, however, the registry refused, and Morris let the subject drop.
“I have always been bothered by the false claim to the Dine identity by Nasdijj,” Morris says, “but if I spent my time tracking down every white writer pretending to be Navajo, I’d have no time left to do anything else.”
Indeed, in the long history of Indian appropriation by whites, the Navajo have become the primary target. Of particular ire to the Navajo is mystery writer Tony Hillerman. For the past several decades Hillerman has written detective stories from the perspective of his Navajo protagonists Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Though not actually claiming Navajo ancestry, Hillerman infuses healthy doses of Navajo spirituality into the story through his characters — sometimes accurately, sometimes not. Hillerman’s appropriation is well-known and disliked across tribal lines and was the subject of parody in Sherman Alexie’s book Indian Killer.But despite the criticism from Alexie and other Native writers, Hillerman’s success has sparked imitators. So much so that Morris claims the existence of at least 14 white authors living in nearby Gallup, New Mexico, writing Navajo murder mysteries.
Of course, white appropriation of Native identity far predates Tony Hillerman. Arguably the most infamous Indian appropriator is rabid segregationist and Ku Klux Klansman Asa Earl Carter, the former speechwriter for George Wallace who penned the notorious “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” speech. After Wallace’s failed presidential bid and the collapse of segregation in the South, Carter assumed the identity of a Cherokee orphan and began publishing memoirs under the name Forrest Carter, allegedly in honor of KKK founder Nathaniel Bedford Forrest. His 1976 book Education of Little Treewas a critically acclaimed best-seller, and despite being outed as fraudulent decades ago, it is, remarkably, still in print.
Though Carter’s is perhaps the most unusual case of Indian impersonation, there are many others, most of whom romanticize Native spirituality and culture, even though they often misrepresent the culture to suit their spiritual or literary aims. What’s interesting about Nasdijj is that, on the surface, anyway, he doesn’t. The Nasdijj persona lacks the spiritual ambitions that Indian appropriators have historically tried to capitalize on. He mentions Navajo spirituality as if only to prove he is familiar with its conventions. Instead, his preoccupation is the social world: the world of men and especially boys.
His Indians are often both spiritually and monetarily poor, sometimes gay, and have AIDS and FAS; mainly they are powerless and sometimes homeless little boys. There are no parents in their lives, other than the author, and an absence of embracing and strengthening culture. He uses these impoverished characters, including his own persona, as a springboard to attack the dominant white culture, which has, apparently, spurned him. In the pantheon of self-appointed Native spokesmen, this puts him more in the company of contemporary gadfly Ward Churchill, who uses his dubious heritage as a soapbox for an airing of his political ideology and personal grievances.
The question that remains is how these frauds are perpetrated in such abundance. A writer, seemingly white in appearance and lacking anything resembling a verifiable personal history, turns in a manuscript filled with sage-like wisdom from an ancient and secretive people and no one bothers to check the facts? Houghton Mifflin’s Anton Mueller, presumably speaking for the publishing industry at large, has an answer: “As you know, we don’t fact-check books.”
There is a Chinese proverb: How is it that a toad this large comes to stand in front of me?
James Dowaliby can tell you. A former vice president of Paramount International Television Group, he decided to pick up a copy of The Boy after reading a review and noting it was about fatherhood, a topic Dowaliby considers too rare in publishing. A single father himself, Dowaliby was astonished by what he read: “I’d never seen a book that so articulated a father’s love for his son.” Dowaliby knew immediately that this was a film he wanted to make, and after securing the rights to the book from Nasdijj he was able to bring FilmFour (the filmmaking arm of Channel 4 in the U.K.) into the project. By the end of 2004, a feature-length adaptation of The Boy was greenlighted for development.
After securing the film rights to The Boyand the Dog Are Sleeping and negotiating the deal with FilmFour, in early 2004 Dowaliby was finally ready to get down to the business of making a movie with Nasdijj. What Dowaliby didn’t know at the time was the controversy that nearly derailed his new partner’s burgeoning career four years earlier.
When he received his galley copy of The Blood and determined the book was fraudulent, Sherman Alexie not only refused to blurb the book but openly accused Nasdijj of both manufacturing his identity and plagiarism at a private lunch with Nasdijj’s editor, Anton Mueller. Alexie says he begged Mueller to reconsider releasing the book.
“I said, you’re going to pay for this later — this is not real,” Alexie says.
According to Alexie, however, Mueller was unmoved by their conversation. “Basically his attitude was that it’s a great book and the art is more important than the truth.”
“I know I may sound like Tipper Gore here,” says Alexie, “but we have to hold our art to higher standards.”
Mueller acknowledges he spoke with Alexie but says that he found the allegation of plagiarism to be an “odd claim” and unjustified. Regarding Nasdijj’s supposed Native heritage, he says, “I think even Nasdijj would tell you his own biography or parentage is something he has never been entirely sure of.”
After his unsuccessful meeting with Mueller, Alexie sent a letter to Houghton Mifflin, asserting that the author was a fake who had borrowed heavily from several Native writers, including himself. But his accusations were dismissed, and the publication went forward. “And every time I bring it up, I’m ignored,” says Alexie.
Alexie’s allegations did have some apparent effect, though. After The Blood came out, Nasdijj’s then-agent, Heather Schroeder, dropped him and Houghton Mifflin declined to publish his next book. Mueller credits Nasdijj’s erratic behavior as the reason: “To be honest, Nasdijj is simply not the most stable person in the world. It showed up in the editing process. His instability wore me down. Sending inappropriate e-mails to people like Ted Conover. His blog. I couldn’t deal with it.”
Did this unstable behavior lead him to suspect the veracity of Nasdijj’s story? “Well, I didn’t publish a second book with him, so that indicates something. But I would say that it was mainly because of his instability.” Yet Mueller still regards Nasdijj as “one of the most, if not the most talented writer I have ever worked with.”
Nasdijj found a new agent, Andrew Stuart, and eventually secured a multibook deal with Ballantine. The Boy was published with the specter of The Blood hanging over the proceedings.
By the time Dowaliby began trying to make a film version of The Boy, he was stuck with a giant toad standing in the road in front of him. Following a few weeks of discussions, FilmFour and Dowaliby agreed to solicit a prominent British screenwriter, who had previously scripted a film about Navajo code talkers, to adapt the book. The writer had spent significant time on the Navajo Nation researching his film and had acquired a great deal of knowledge and respect for the Navajo culture. Immediately after reading The Boy, however, he called Dowaliby with his concerns.
The writer pointed out several inconsistencies in Nasdijj’s story that he found suspicious, particularly Nasdijj’s mischaracterization of Navajo clanship. “What did I know about clanship?” says Dowaliby. “I had taken Nasdijj for his word.”
For both creative and liability purposes, Dowaliby was already fact-checking the book and he promised the writer he would look into the matter further. Dowaliby then began the almost daily routine of trying to draw honest information from Nasdijj about his past. He had little success. Dowaliby needed specifics; Nasdijj gave him none.
“He just kept recycling the same story about sheep camps and migrant work,” Dowaliby says.
The producer intensified his background check of Nasdijj and found out about the Alexie incident. His doubts grew, and Nasdijj’s responses to his queries only raised more questions. As the deadline for hiring the writer neared, Dowaliby concluded that Nasdijj was either unable or unwilling to confirm the details necessary to back up the truth of his story. He briefly considered simply billing the project as “inspired by true events” or the weaker “based on the book by Nasdijj” and not offering it as true in any fashion. “But admitting it was fiction would have ruined the emotional truth — the core of the book.”
Dowaliby refused to go forward with the film until he got answers. Nasdijj refused to speak with him, claiming that he had moved back to the Navajo reservation. Dowaliby did, however, get a response from Nasdijj’s wife, Tina. Though Dowaliby will not repeat what they discussed in confidence, he admits that she came clean about a number of things. Shortly thereafter it became apparent to him “that this wasn’t just a fraud against the intellectual community, but against the entire Navajo Nation, and that Nasdijj needed to apologize.”
Dowaliby then contacted FilmFour and told them the project needed to be dropped. “People like Nasdijj,” he says, “can’t exist without some sort of complicity.”
What can you do when the truth isn’t enough?
For as long as white writers have been impersonating Indians, Indians have been exposing them as frauds. Yet despite remarkable investigative successes in uncovering the truth, their efforts have been largely ignored.
“For some reason people lose their sense of discernment when it comes to Indians,” says activist and Indian Country Today columnist Suzan Shown-Harjo.
Harjo, who is Muscogee Creek and Cheyenne, has had her own battles outing those she believes to be Native American impostors. She challenged University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who gained notoriety last year when he referred to the victims of the 9/11 attacks as “little Eichmanns,” and who claims to be of Cherokee and Creek descent. Though he has no specialized training in the field, he rose through the university ranks to become chair of the Ethnic Studies Department, largely on the basis of his claimed heritage. Yet as Harjo and other journalists have pointed out, he is not an enrolled member of any federally recognized tribe. Likewise, genealogical research carried out by the Rocky Mountain News and several Native journalists could find no trace of Indian blood in Churchill’s family. Despite the insistence of both the Cherokee and Creek nations that Churchill is not one of them, Churchill maintains his position as a professor of ethnic studies and is frequently paid to lecture on Native and political issues around the country. In response to those who question his identity, he simply denies everything and calls his accusers “blood police.”
“Indian identity has nothing to do with blood quantum,” counters Harjo. “You hear that from the phony baloneys trying to attach themselves to some 1,000th particle of Indian blood.”
For Harjo and many Native Americans, the issue of identity extends well beyond the existential or racial question of “Who am I?” It is a legal issue of citizenship. As sovereign entities, tribes have laws that govern who is and isn’t Native. “Someone who’s Italian doesn’t have to look a certain way or be a certain way,” Harjo explains. “They are Italian by virtue of being an Italian citizen. The same is true in Indian country.
“If I go to Italy and say, ‘I think the world of you people. I speak a little Italian, I love spaghetti, so I’m going to be voting in your next election. Give me preference as an Italian citizen as opposed to noncitizens. Give me a job. Give me grant money. And maybe I’m going to carry on your diplomatic relations with other nations,’ people would lock me up. But that’s what happens. The people that step into our world don’t do so in a respectful way. They rush right in and say ‘I’m your leader, I’m the articulator of your culture.’?”
But given the response of many, including prominent publishers and Oprah Winfrey, to the James Frey affair — that his message of redemption is true and so who cares about literal untruths — is it possible that Tim Barrus is using the Nasdijj persona as a vehicle for social justice? After all, AIDS and FAS on the reservation have been themes of his for more than six years. Though his methods are misguided, could his intentions be genuine, and if so, what is the problem with that?
“It’s crazy,” says Harjo, “that’s the problem with it. Why can’t you be who you are, a non-Native person, supporting the same things Indians care about? Why do you have to be one of us to support us? That’s a little loopy, isn’t it? So you have to stand back and say why is that person lying about that? And the answer is because people like that don’t do it for altruistic reasons. It’s about profit. They think pretending to be Indian will help them sell more books.”
And provided the complicity of a publisher, they may be right. On many issues, preachy whites simply lack the political and cultural cachet of someone perceived to be Native American.
“My stepfather once told me, if you want anyone in the world to like you, just tell them that you’re Indian,” says Sherman Alexie. “For some reason we are elevated simply because of our race. I’m so popular I could start a cult. I could have 45 German women living with me tomorrow.”
Indeed, the world has had an Indian fetish since the days of P.T. Barnum. Certain steps have been taken to protect cultural integrity — the Native American Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, for instance, makes it a federal crime for anyone not enrolled in or associated with a federally recognized tribe to sell their art as “Indian.” Yet literature, strangely enough, is not covered under the Arts and Crafts Act, leaving it vulnerable to exploitation.
“The backbone of multicultural literature,” says Alexie, “is the empathy of its audience — their curiosity for the condition of a group other than themselves. Nasdijj is taking advantage of that empathy.”
If Nasdijj is not Native American, he’s not only misinforming his audience, he’s making it harder for genuine work to come forward. The PEN/Beyond Margins Award is given annually to a Native American writer to help spread “racial and ethnic diversity within the literary and publishing communities.” When Nasdijj accepted the award in 2004, he accepted money and prestige specifically earmarked to help Native Americans share their story.
“The last act of colonialism is for the dominant culture to completely supplant the Native one,” says Alexie. “Nasdijj is disappearing people. With every book he writes he makes Indians disappear.”
In the end it is, ironically, Nasdijj who sums up appropriation most eloquently. In an essay on Louis L’Amour titled “The Saddest Book I Ever Read,” Nasdijj writes, “The accumulated weight of fictions (like L’Amour’s), when added up, form a place that never was and a time that never happened. Fictions like this are murderous. They pass off illusion as fact, stereotype as portraiture. .?.?. Counterfeit comes to be seen as the genuine article. It kills people. It kills culture. It kills even the shadow of truth.”
Epilogue: When I approached Nasdijj last week, via e-mail after many attempts to find a working phone number, I received a quick reply from someone called Mike Willis, who identified himself as Nasdijj’s assistant. He told me that Nasdijj was high in the Sierra Madres of Mexico without access to phones or the Internet. He offered no sense of when Nasdijj might return, adding that it was “quite sad” that the author couldn’t “defend himself.” When asked for a phone number for either himself or Tina Giovanni, Willis did not reply. Shortly thereafter, Nasdijj’s Web site was taken offline and all mention of his daughter Kree Barrus was removed from the archives of Giovanni’s blog. The next day, that blog was also shut down and queries sent to Nasdijj’s e-mail address went unanswered. But on Monday, the following post appeared on Nasdijj’s blog: “For those seeking Refuge consult the Hyena. Follow those directions to the Old Hotel. To find N, take the stairs to the roof. Bring your medication. The view is magnificent. And safe. You know who you are. Do not answer questions. Sealed. They do not care about you. You know that. Do not be fooled. Someone will. You will connect. Follow the Hyena’s path. Mike.”
Jan. 29, 2006
In 1999 a Native American writer, born fragile and poor on a destitute Indian reservation, published an essay, « The Blood Runs like a River Through My Dreams, » in Esquire. It earned a National Magazine Award nomination and was later expanded into a memoir of the same title that became a finalist for a PEN/Martha Albrand Award. That rez-to-riches tale of courage and redemption sounds like a Horatio Alger story, doesn’t it? It should be a movie. Or at least an episode of A&E’s Biography. Of course, I’m biased, because, well, it’s my story. Kind of.
I did not write « The Blood Runs like a River Through My Dreams. » But raised fragile and poor on the destitute Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State, I published a story, This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona, in Esquire in 1993. My story, which features an autobiographical character named Thomas Builds-the-Fire who suffers a brain injury at birth and experiences visionary seizures into his adulthood, was a finalist for a National Magazine Award and the basis for the film Smoke Signals, which won the Audience Award at Sundance in 1998.
Nasdijj, the one-name author of The Blood Runs like a River Through My Dreams, claimed to be the son of a Navajo mother and a white father. His memoir features a child named Tommy Nothing Fancy who suffers from and dies of a seizure disorder. Quite the coincidence, don’t you think?
Of course, after reading Nasdijj’s essay and book, I suspected that he was a literary thief and a liar. As a Native American writer and multiculturalist, I worried that Nasdijj was a talented and angry white man who was writing as a Native American in order to mock multicultural literature. I imagined that he would eventually reveal himself as a hoaxer and shout, « You see, people, there is nothing real or authentic about multicultural literature. Anybody can write it. »
Angry, competitive, saddened, self-righteous and more than a little jealous that this guy was stealing some of my autobiographical thunder, I approached Nasdijj’s publishers and told them his book not only was borderline plagiarism but also failed to mention specific tribal members, clans, ceremonies and locations, all of which are vital to the concept of Indian identity. They took me seriously, but they didn’t believe me.
And how do I feel now that the author of an investigative story in L.A. Weekly believes that Nasdijj is a fraud and actually a white writer named Timothy Barrus? Vindicated? Well, sure. I dream of leaving « I told you so » messages on many voice mails, although unlike James Frey’s publisher, who initially supported his lies and moral evasions about his exaggerated memoir, A Million Little Pieces, Nasdijj’s publisher dropped him because of personality conflicts even before the L.A. Weekly story came out. Of course, Frey has sold millions of books and will probably sell a few million more. Nasdijj hasn’t sold millions of books, and he will probably fade into obscurity. In response to the L.A. Weekly story, Nasdijj posted a rambling statement on his blog saying that people should pay attention to « real scandals » like poverty.
So why should we be concerned about his lies? His lies matter because he has cynically co-opted as a literary style the very real suffering endured by generations of very real Indians because of very real injustices caused by very real American aggression that destroyed very real tribes. He isn’t the first to do it. In 1991 the American Booksellers Association gave its book-of-the-year award to Forrest Carter’s Cherokee-themed memoir, The Education of Little Tree, despite the documented fact that Carter was really Asa Carter, a rabid segregationist and the author of George Wallace’s infamous war cry, « Segregation today! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever! »
I can only hope that Nasdijj’s readers will look to Oprah for inspiration. After initially defending the essential truth of Frey’s memoir, a selection for her book club, Oprah changed her mind, admitted that she had been duped, invited Frey back onto her show and called him a liar. When was the last time a public figure like Oprah admitted to being wrong? When was the last time a powerful person like Oprah issued a genuine public apology? I think all the people who profited from Nasdijj’s fraud should take heed of that lesson and issue public apologies to Native Americans in general and to Navajo in particular. And I hope we won’t be waiting for that apology as long as the rivers flow, the grasses grow and the winds blow.
— Sherman Alexie, a member of the Spokane tribe, is the author of 17 books, including Ten Little Indians, his latest
Rocky Mountain News
June 06, 2005
Investigation confirms Ward Churchill is, indeed, a fraud.
University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill fabricated historical facts, published the work of others as his own and repeatedly made false claims about two federal Indian laws, a Rocky Mountain News investigation has found.
The two-month News investigation, carried out at the same time Churchill and his work are being carefully examined by the university, also unearthed fresh genealogical information that casts new doubts on the professor’s long-held assertion that he is of American Indian ancestry.
The findings come as Churchill is, essentially, on trial — in the court of public opinion and in the halls of academia. Prickly debates swirl around him on the standards of academic integrity, the limits of free speech and the responsibilities of scholarly writers.
A faculty committee is working behind closed doors, conducting a detailed and time-consuming examination of four allegations — fabrication, plagiarism, mischaracterization of federal Indian laws and misrepresentation of his ancestry.
The stakes are high.
For Churchill, it’s a process that ultimately could cost him his job. For Colorado’s flagship university, it’s a process that could bear heavily on its integrity and reputation.
Churchill has maintained a confident public posture — portraying himself as a renegade who isn’t afraid to challenge commonly held beliefs, defiantly scoffing at the allegations he faces, characterizing his scholarly standards as typical and casting himself as the victim of a witch hunt.
« This may be all new and unique to you, » he told the News, « and in my personal experience it is to me, too. (But) it’s happened about 20 times over the last decade to people who challenge orthodoxy. And they play the script out pretty much the same. And you all are just in lock step. »
Churchill has framed the CU investigation not as a look at the rigor and accuracy of his scholarship, but as a right-wing crusade and an attack on academic freedom and free speech.
While it is likely to be months before the university’s faculty committee finishes its probe of Churchill’s scholarship and ancestry, the News found serious problems in all four of the major areas the panel is examining:
• He accused the U.S. Army of deliberately spreading smallpox among the Mandan Indians of the Upper Missouri River Valley in 1837 — but there’s no basis for the assertion in the sources he cited. In fact, in some instances the books he cited — and their authors — directly contradict his assertions.
• He published an essay in 1992 that largely copies the work of a Canadian professor. But the piece is credited to his own research organization, the Institute for Natural Progress. Churchill published that essay — with some minor changes and subtle altering of words — even though the writer, Fay G. Cohen, had withdrawn permission for him to use it.
He also published portions of an essay in a 1993 book that closely resemble a piece that appeared the year before under the byline of Rebecca L. Robbins. However, the News could not determine what occurred. Churchill said he initially wrote the piece and allowed Robbins to publish it under her name. Robbins did not return numerous messages left by the News.
The News also could not determine who actually wrote an essay published under the name of Churchill’s former wife, Marie Anne Jaimes, who also goes by Annette Jaimes. A paragraph from that essay also was published in a Churchill essay.
• He mischaracterized an important federal Indian law in repeated writings in the past two decades, saying that the General Allotment Act of 1887 established a « blood quantum » standard that allowed tribes to admit members only if they had at least « half » native blood. Churchill has accused the government of imposing what he called « a formal eugenics code » as part of a thinly veiled effort to define Indians out of existence. The News found that the law — while a legislative low point in Indian history that resulted in many tribes losing their lands — does not contain any requirements for Indian bloodlines.
In addition, the News found, Churchill similarly mischaracterized a more recent piece of legislation, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.
• He has repeatedly claimed to have American Indian ancestry, but an extensive examination of genealogical records that traced branches of both sides of Churchill’s family to pre-Revolutionary War times turned up no solid evidence of a single Indian ancestor. In addition, the News found that DNA tests taken last year by two brothers prove that the father of Joshua Tyner — Joshua Tyner is the ancestor Churchill most often has cited for his Indian lineage — was not Indian.
During its investigation, the News also unearthed other evidence of possible research misconduct by Churchill that has not been taken to the faculty committee.
In one instance, the News discovered an obscure 1972 pamphlet written by activists in Canada that Churchill later began claiming as his own work.
And in at least three other cases, the News revealed Friday, he published works by others without their permission. Churchill credited authors Robert T. Coulter, Rudolph C. Ryser and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, but didn’t notify them that he was publishing their articles.
Catalyst of controversy
Although he had been an ethnic studies professor at CU for more than a decade, it wasn’t until January that Churchill’s name — already well-known in some circles — exploded onto the general public’s consciousness.
That’s when a college newspaper reporter in upstate New York rediscovered an essay that Churchill wrote on Sept. 11, 2001, a now-infamous piece in which he referred to those who died in the terrorist attacks as « little Eichmanns » — a reference to a ranking Nazi who helped carry out the Holocaust.
Within days, talk-radio and cable-television hosts made Churchill a daily staple. Gov. Bill Owens and other political leaders called for his job, and the university’s board of regents demanded a careful examination of his work.
Churchill stepped down from his position as head of the ethnic studies department but kept his faculty position.
That examination cleared Churchill of wrongdoing for the « little Eichmanns » comment and other controversial writings and public pronouncements, concluding that they were free speech, protected by the First Amendment.
But the initial review raised specific questions about his scholarship and his assertion of Indian ethnicity, and concluded that they were serious enough to refer to the standing committee on research misconduct.
That committee is now under the gun as CU administrators try — again — to extract the state’s flagship school from a public relations disaster.
First, it was a football recruiting scandal, one that ultimately saw the resignations of President Betsy Hoffman, Boulder campus Chancellor Richard Byyny and Athletic Director Dick Tharp.
Now, it is Churchill.
In a wide-ranging interview in his office in the basement of the Ketchum classroom building on the Boulder campus, Churchill addressed all the issues investigated by the committee. He ended the interview, however, without addressing other issues raised in the News investigation, agreeing to look at written questions left by reporters. He later declined to answer them.
Churchill stands by work
In his defense, Churchill told the News he didn’t commit plagiarism, academic fraud or research misconduct.
For example, he said he never claimed to write the essay that mirrors Cohen’s, and that if there was wrongdoing involved, it was committed by someone else.
As for the instances of alleged misuse of other authors’ material, including the essay linked to Robbins, the professor said he was the original author.
He said the controversy over that particular piece of writing might have merit but that it doesn’t amount to plagiarism.
« I’m free to make disposition of my ideas and my material any way I see fit, » he said. « That’s my understanding of the situation, and I’ve basically confirmed that, OK? If there’s an issue around that, then there’s an issue around that.
« I’m perfectly happy to deal with the issue, OK? We start by calling the issue, whatever it might be, by its right name. You don’t call it something else because it resonates. »
He said he would not discuss his ancestry.
And on the smallpox allegation and the General Allotment Act controversy in particular, Churchill said he could make « slam dunk » cases on both.
But he did not back that up with evidence.
When he was pushed for sources on the smallpox epidemic, for example, he cited the names of books that not only don’t support his allegation but, in fact, undermine it: Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn and R.G. Robertson’s Rotting Face: Smallpox and the American Indian. Both authors have told the News that Churchill has mischaracterized their work.
Churchill also insisted that he was being held to a different standard than other authors.
« You’re sitting here in full knowledge that what you’re sort of trying to winnow out of me in terms of a defense is not particularly required, in most instances, » he said. « I’ve provided more citations to support what I said than Evan Connell and a couple of other people that have come up. »
Genocide common theme
Churchill’s voluminous writings — which span more than 100 books, essays, chapters and articles, some citing more than 200 endnotes — are at the heart of his professional being.
And they roil with the same theme: The white man, and later the U.S. government, carrying out a centuries-long war of genocide against the indigenous people who populated the North American continent before the 1492 arrival of Columbus.
There is little argument among historians that the treatment of American Indians in this country’s formative years was horrendous.
Stolen land. Broken treaties. Deadly attacks. Decimation of various populations by disease and hardship, if not by gunfire.
And that is exactly why some of Churchill’s claims have so perplexed some of his critics.
« The history is bad enough, » said Russell Thornton, a professor at UCLA. « It doesn’t need to be embellished. »
For Thornton, Churchill is more than a passing curiosity.
Thornton is a member of the Cherokee Nation. He wrote the book, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492, which Churchill has repeatedly cited as the basis for his allegations about the U.S. Army and smallpox.
But a careful examination of Thornton’s book — and other source material cited by Churchill — reveals nothing to support his accusation that the U.S. Army shipped blankets from a St. Louis smallpox infirmary to Fort Clark, located in present-day North Dakota, in 1837.
The goal, Churchill charged, was to infect the Mandan tribe with smallpox as part of its larger campaign of genocide against American Indians.
Although there is no dispute that a smallpox epidemic ravaged the tribes of the Upper Missouri River Valley in 1837, Churchill takes a view not shared by the scholars he cites, pinning its origins on the Army.
Sources contradict story
In at least seven published works in the past 13 years, Churchill has told essentially the same story, with new details and characters emerging over time. In three of the works, he attributes the core of the story to Thornton. In two others, he cites the UCLA professor’s book for parts of the story.
But neither Thornton’s book nor the others cited by Churchill support his assertion.
In fact, each contradicts it, attributing the arrival of the disease to infected passengers on a steamboat, the St. Peters, which was operated by the American Fur Co.
Churchill mentions the boat in some versions of his story but has argued that it was used by the Army to ship the infested blankets. However, the authors of the original works, and others who have written about the smallpox, dismissed Churchill’s allegations involving the Army.
Lesley Wischmann, a Wyoming writer and author of the book Frontier Diplomats: The Life and Times of Alexander Culbertson and Natoyist-siksina, put it bluntly:
« The Army was not involved in the 1837 smallpox epidemic, » she said. « It was totally the responsibility of the American Fur Co. »
Wischmann, who has written extensively on historical topics, studied journals of fur traders and other historical documents while preparing the biography of Culbertson. Many of them dealt with the smallpox epidemic.
And Wischmann doubts that the trading company spread smallpox to the Indians on purpose.
« It just doesn’t make sense to me, » she said. « You know, the American Fur Co., you can blame them for a lot of things — but it just doesn’t make sense to me they would willingly and knowingly try to kill off their trading partners. Because that’s where they made their money. »
Thornton, who said that Churchill mischaracterized his work on several other occasions, said he had « never heard » of allegations that the Army was to blame.
He said his book is based on the « standard stuff » available on the subject, including journals from traders and trappers who were there. Placing the blame on an infected steamboat passenger is a standard interpretation, he said.
« If there is new information, why didn’t he cite it? » Thornton asked.
Churchill responded that he attributed to Thornton only the « demographics » of the epidemic — estimates of the numbers of various tribe members who died. When told that one of his books, Since Predator Came, attributed the entire story to Thornton, Churchill said that either his footnote was misread, or it was « incomplete. »
Says writing is his
The smallpox allegation is only one of the areas where the News discovered problems with Churchill’s work.
Churchill has claimed the writings of others as his own — more than once, the News found.
The CU investigation includes plagiarism charges that center on two versions of largely the same essay. The first was written by the Harvard-educated Canadian professor, Cohen, and then edited by Churchill. The second appeared in a 1992 book of essays compiled by Churchill’s then- wife, Jaimes.
Churchill told the News he rewrote Cohen’s work and added the work of others at Jaimes’ request.
Churchill stands accused of stealing Cohen’s work and words for his version.
Two experts who reviewed the essays at the request of the News reached the same conclusion, with one calling it a « textbook example » of plagiarism.
Cohen is a tenured professor at one of Canada’s top universities, Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her essay focused on Indian treaty fishing rights in the Northwest and Wisconsin.
Dalhousie attorneys have alleged that after Cohen denied Churchill permission to print it in the book he was working on, it was taken anyway and credited to his own research organization.
Both experts who read Cohen’s original piece and the Churchill-prepared version that appeared in the book said it constituted plagiarism.
« It’s plainly a clever rip-off, » said Peter Hoffer, a legal historian who helped write the national standards on plagiarism for the American Historical Association.
Churchill’s version appeared in the 1992 book The State of Native America under the credit line of the Institute for Natural Progress, a research organization that Churchill has said he co-founded 10 years earlier. In the contributors section of the book, Churchill is credited with taking the « lead role in preparing » the essay for publication.
But he denied to the News that he had done anything wrong, contending only that he edited it on behalf of Jaimes.
« I had a role in that, and it was to take what was handed to me by the authors, specifically by Jaimes, which may or may not mean she was the lead author, I don’t know, » he said.
He likened his role to that of a « rewrite man » at a newspaper — an editor who molds several different reporters’ work into a coherent piece.
That version of the essay appeared under the banner of the Institute for Natural Progress, which he said he co-founded with well-known Indian activist Winona LaDuke.
But LaDuke told the News that the institute was « mostly just an idea. »
Whether Churchill published the essay under his own name or that of his own institute, the responsibility lies with him, said Stuart Green, director of the Pugh Institute for Justice at Louisiana State University.
« It doesn’t matter . . . who published it, » Green said. « If it was substantially written by another scholar and she’s not attributed, that’s clearly plagiarism. »
In comparing the two essays, the News found that in addition to similarity in structure and wording throughout the two pieces, the version Churchill prepared repeats a mistake found in Cohen’s original essay, cites the wrong title and misspells Cohen’s name in an endnote reference to the original, and subtly twists the overall message.
As for an essay published under the name of former Arizona State University professor Rebecca Robbins, a paragraph of which Churchill later published under his own name, the News could not determine who actually wrote it.
The case is muddled. Churchill said he wrote the Robbins essay and allowed her to publish it under her name. Robbins did not return repeated messages left at her Montana home. And Jaimes has told the News that Churchill did not write the essay and that she saw an early draft written by Robbins, who was her doctoral thesis adviser.
Churchill also said he wrote the essay originally published under Jaimes’ name — a paragraph of which he later published under his own name.
Jaimes has denied that to the News, calling her former husband a « liar. »
Churchill said that anyone who compared his work to the Jaimes piece would conclude they were written by the same person.
« You tell me who’s writing this, » Churchill said. « We don’t need to get into forensics to do it. Anybody that’s competent in textual analysis in any way at all can pick this up. »
Churchill was asked why he would let others publish his work as their own.
« Why not? » he answered.
‘Blood quantum’ theory
The News found that Churchill’s treatment of the 1887 General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, is fraught with problems.
The act, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, called for tribal holdings to be divided into allotments for distribution to Indian families, who would then become farmers, like white homesteaders.
Dawes and his backers saw themselves as humanitarians, according to historians, thinking they were helping to blend Indians into the American melting pot.
In practice, much of the land distributed to Indians — and some that was supposed to have remained with the tribes — was quickly snapped up by white farmers and speculators.
But Churchill has said repeatedly that the Dawes Act contains an even more sinister provision.
« The act also imposed for the first time a formal eugenics code — dubbed ‘blood quantum’ — by which American Indian identity would be federally defined on racial grounds rather than by native nations themselves on the basis of group membership/citizenship, » Churchill wrote in a 1993 essay.
Eugenics code is the term used to describe the laws adopted by the Nazis to preserve the purity of the Aryan race. Comparisons between the U.S. and Nazi Germany have been a staple of Churchill’s writings and speeches.
Churchill charged that America’s racial code was designed to eliminate Indians, just as the Germans worked to eliminate Jews. Through intermarriage, future generations of Indians would have progressively less Indian blood, until the tribes disappeared, he wrote.
The theory had one problem: The plain wording of the Dawes Act contains no such provision, either directly or by reference to other portions of the law.
« You won’t find anything, » said Carole Goldberg, a UCLA law professor and an expert on federal Indian law. Tribes decide who is a member, she said.
Churchill makes reference to a blood-quantum provision of federal law at least 18 times, beginning in the mid-1980s, but never cites language in the law to back up the allegation.
In 1994, he charged that the blood code also appears in the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, a measure designed to outlaw bogus Indian art.
A key sponsor of the law was Colorado’s former U.S. congressman and senator, Ben Nighthorse Campbell.
That law, which is posted on the U.S. Interior Department Web site, says only that tribes determine who is an Indian.
« He’s been pretty much discredited, » Campbell said.
Churchill has used the blood-quantum theory to bash tribal governments. Because none of them recognize him as an Indian, it is illegal for him to market his paintings as Indian art. And because some tribes use blood quantum to define membership, Churchill derides them for rolling over for the federal government.
Churchill acknowledged that the phrase blood quantum doesn’t appear in the Dawes Act, but he said the law — and subsequent legislation — clearly required Indians to prove themselves in the eyes of the federal government. The blood-quantum requirement, he said, was « self-evident. »
He also said that he did nothing wrong. Asked why he didn’t spell out what is and isn’t in the law in his writings, Churchill replied:
« Because I didn’t write an essay on it. I wrote a paragraph in passing in a broader narrative. »
Tracking down ancestry
Churchill’s scholarship isn’t the only part of his life that has generated controversy.
At the core of the questions surrounding Churchill is this: Is he who he says he is?
He has repeatedly said that his mother and grandmother passed on to him the often-told story that there was Indian blood in the family. He’s believed it since he was 10, he has said.
In speeches Churchill has given this year, he has introduced himself this way: « I bring you greetings from the Elders of the Keetoowah band of Cherokee, my mother’s people. »
At times, he has suggested that he is 3/16ths Indian. That would be the equivalent of three of his 16 great-great grandparents having been 100 percent American Indian.
But from all indications in an extensive genealogical study by the News, there is no evidence of a single Indian ancestor in Churchill’s long family history in America.
Churchill isn’t the only member of his family who heard the same story.
Many of his wide array of relatives have been searching for more than 100 years, through records that go back before the Revolutionary War, seeking the elusive link that would confirm the family legend of Indian parentage somewhere along the line.
So far, they haven’t found that link.
Churchill points to an associate membership given to him 11 years ago by Oklahoma’s Keetoowah band of Cherokee, but the tribe has since said the membership was honorary and that Churchill didn’t show any proof of Indian ancestors.
Pressed on the question by the News, Churchill said his ancestry is a « slam-dunk made case » and that he would not discuss it further.
As the process of examining Churchill’s work and his ancestry continues, the professor presses on.
He walks the campus in his trademark blue jeans and wraparound sunglasses. He works at the computer in his basement office, where two walls are lined with books and videotapes. He lectures students — his most recent class, « Topical Issues/Native North America, » ended May 26.
He waits to see whether a student-voted teaching award, withheld while the investigation is ongoing, will be bestowed upon him.
And he spars with reporters and detractors alike, arguing that he did nothing wrong, saying that his practices are standard in the academic world.
All the while, the faculty committee works on.
It will answer the main questions before it: Did Churchill commit research misconduct and academic fraud, and did he misrepresent his heritage to gain a wider audience for his work?
If it finds that he did, it can recommend discipline — up to firing.
Only then will the university answer the bigger question that has been looming ever since Churchill’s name burst onto the scene a little more than four months ago:
What is Churchill’s future at the University of Colorado?
• Early years: Born in 1947 to Jack and Maralyn Churchill in central Illinois. Raised by mother and stepfather in Elmwood, near Peoria. Graduated from high school in 1965, drafted into Army, served nearly a year in Vietnam in 1967.
• Academic years: Earned bachelor’s degree in 1974 and a master’s degree in communications theory in 1975 from Sangamon State University in Springfield, Ill. First teaching job in 1975 was as an art instructor at Black Hills State College in Spearfish, S.D.
• Indian involvement: Developed a lasting relationship with American Indian Movement leader Russell Means around the time of the 1973 siege at Wounded Knee. Became his aide and speechwriter. Has engaged in long-running feud with national AIM leader Vernon Bellecourt; Suzan Shown Harjo, former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians; and others.
• Ethnicity claims: On 1978 CU application, checked box for « American Indian. » Two years later, his resume noted he was « Creek/Cherokee. » Bellecourt approached CU, questioning Churchill’s claim, in 1986 and again in 1994. CU declined to pursue in 1994. « Given the fact that equal opportunity is the law of the land and that positions in the public sector are to be awarded to all persons regardless of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, and based only on their ability to do the job, the university does not believe that any attempt to remove Mr. Churchill because of his ethnicity or race would be appropriate, » former CU-Boulder Chancellor James Corbridge wrote. « Further, it has always been university policy that a person’s race or ethnicity is self-proving. »
Churchill has said he is at least 1/16th Cherokee; also has said he’s Creek. Named an associate member of the Tahlequah, Okla.-based Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in 1994. Tribe has said membership was honorary.
• CU: Hired in 1978 as an administrative assistant in the American Indian Equal Opportunities Program, which counseled Indian students. Over the next 10 years, he also lectured on Indian topics.
• Tenure: Appointed associate professor in 1991 in the communications department. Received tenure in 1991 in same department after sociology and political science departments rejected him. Memo to communications faculty said that by adding Churchill, the department would be « making our contribution to increasing the cultural diversity on campus (Ward is native American). » CU skipped the traditional six-year period of writing, teaching and reviews by outside scholars at three and six years. Former Dean of Arts and Sciences Charles Middleton pushed for tenure, fearing Churchill would accept offer at California State University at Northridge. But no offer was made by Northridge because he lacked a doctorate and his writings contained more advocacy than scholarship, said George Wayne, a former Northridge official. Appointed full professor and his tenure transferred to ethnic studies department in 1997.
• Criticism: Work first came under attack by small academic journals and some American Indians in the early 1990s. Peter Spear, dean of arts and sciences from 1996 to 2001, says he doesn’t recall allegations. In 1996, University of New Mexico law professor John LaVelle published an essay accusing Churchill of misrepresenting portions of federal Indian law.
• Accolades: Named chairman of ethnic studies department in 2002. Resigned in January 2005 in wake of Sept. 11 essay controversy. Received raise to $92,000 in 2004. « We are pleased to recognize your outstanding contribution to scholarship and teaching in the area of Native American Studies, » Arts and Sciences Dean Todd Gleeson wrote. Ranked above-average on annual reviews. Won campus award for social science writing in 1992. Students voted him winner of Boulder Faculty Assembly teaching award in 1994.
• Plagiarism: Presenting another author’s work as your own. The American Historical Association says it’s not limited to using someone else’s words verbatim, but also includes using ideas, sources or notes « disguised in newly crafted sentences. » It also includes citing the plagiarized source in a footnote, then extensively copying from that source without further credit, and suggesting that you reviewed original documents and sources when you simply read about them in someone else’s work.
• Scholarship: The rigorous methods scholars use to find, analyze, interpret and share information in a trustworthy way to add to a body of knowledge.
• Endnote: Similar to a footnote, but appears at the end of a piece of scholarly writing to show the sources the author used or suggests reading for further inquiry.Source: American Historical Association, Wikipedia, Southhampton Institute Handbook
Standards of professional conduct
• « Although historians disagree with each other about many things, they do know what they trust and respect in each other’s work. All historians believe in honoring the integrity of the historical record. They do not fabricate evidence. Forgery and fraud violate the most basic foundations on which historians construct their interpretations of the past. An undetected counterfeit undermines not just the historical arguments of the forger, but all subsequent scholarship that relies on the forger’s work. Those who invent, alter, remove, or destroy evidence make it difficult for any serious historian ever wholly to trust their work again. »Source: American Historical Association’S Statement On Standards Of Professional Conduct
Charlie Brennan, Kevin Flynn, Laura Frank, Berny Morson and Kevin Vaughan wrote this article for the Rocky Mountain News.
Kevin Flynn / Rocky Mountain News
Front Page magazine
June 10, 2005
The case of the faux Indian.
The following is the fifth installment of a multi-article investigation launched by the Rocky Mountain News. This installment, written by reporter Kevin Flynn, focuses on allegations of Churchill’s misrepresentation of his Indian heritage. Click here to see an overview of the newspaper’s findings. Click here to see part one (dealing with the charge of fraud). Click here to see part two (the charge of plagiarism). Click here to see part three (Churchill’s mischaracterization of the Dawes Act). — The Editors.
The Charge of Misrepresentation
By Kevin Flynn, Rocky Mountain News
Eleven-year-old Joshua Tyner was hiding in a tree near his family’s backwoods Georgia home when marauding Indians shot him and he fell dead to the ground.
That’s how the old family legend goes.
So much for old family legends.
Searching for a link: Ken Tyner, 64, of San Diego, is a distant relative of Ward Churchill. Tyner underwent DNA testing last year and found that his ancestor Richard Tyner, who is Churchill’s fifth-great-grandfather, wasn’t Indian. Churchill’s belief in the Tyner family legend of Indian heritage is at the core of his disputed identity as an Indian.
Joshua Tyner didn’t die in that bloody raid sometime around 1778, although the Indians scalped his mother and kidnapped his two teenage sisters.
In fact, Joshua Tyner lived a long and fruitful life and produced many descendants – including University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, whose disputed claims of Indian ancestry are tied to yet another family legend:
The one that says Joshua Tyner was part Cherokee.
However, an extensive genealogical search by the Rocky Mountain News identified 142 direct forebears of Churchill and turned up no evidence of a single Indian ancestor among them – including Joshua.
The News also located two male descendants of Richard Tyner – Joshua Tyner’s father – who underwent DNA tests last year. The tests showed that the Tyner line goes back to northern European ancestry with no hint of male Indian blood.
For more than a century, descendants of Richard Tyner’s Georgia brood have conducted a fruitless search for proof of their rumored Indian roots, spurred on by a tantalizing story that Joshua Tyner may have spent the last years of his life living among Indians in Illinois, practicing herbal medicine.
In the 1890s, one of them pursued a case to the U.S. Supreme Court, demanding to be included in the formal allotment of land to Indians – and was rejected as a non-Indian.
In 1936, Illinois historian Nannie Gray Parks wrote to the National Archives seeking Revolutionary War pension information on Joshua Tyner, asserting the legend that he was the son of a Cherokee – a story Churchill has repeated.
Churchill has said he was 10 when his mother and grandmother passed on to him the family lore of Indian ancestry. Dan Debo, his younger half brother, backs that up.
« We were told when we were kids by our mom and grandma that we had Indian blood in us, » Debo, who lives in California, wrote to the News.
Today, many of the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-generation Tyner descendants believe the legend and continue to search for the elusive Indian link. Others simply ignore it.
Churchill, though, has fashioned his life and career around it.
That decision lies at the heart of an investigation by CU, which has charged its standing committee on research misconduct with ruling whether Churchill’s claim of Indian heritage has been a ruse by the professor to bolster his credibility as an Indian scholar.
Churchill has said that he is either 1/16th or 3/16ths Cherokee from his mother’s side, while also claiming Creek Indian heritage on his father’s side. But he has battled complaints for years – mostly from within the American Indian activist community – that he isn’t Indian at all.
In 1993, when a campus news article challenged Churchill on his ancestry claims, he responded by naming several people and implying that they proved his roots.
But the News has determined that the people he named either were not Indians or were not his relatives.
Churchill also told the article’s author that Joshua’s father was a Cherokee named Tushali.
Records on Tushali – whose name was spelled by whites as Tsali, Toochalee and other variants – show that he was a Cherokee brave who was executed about 1838, ostensibly for killing U.S. soldiers who were removing his family from their home as part of a forced Indian exodus that came to be called the Trail of Tears.
That’s the same year Joshua died at age 71.
Moreover, Tushali didn’t live in the same part of the country as Joshua’s family. Tushali lived near the North Carolina-Tennessee border, not in eastern North Carolina, where Joshua is believed to have been born in 1767.
Churchill’s claim also is undermined by written records showing Richard Tyner was in fact Joshua’s father.
Joshua is listed as a son in Richard Tyner’s 1824 will. Joshua referred to Richard Tyner’s farm as the home of « my father, » and noted Richard’s death in his family bible, calling him « my father. »
Churchill reported last month to the CU committee that he meets three of the four criteria for determining whether he is Indian.
Those three criteria are self-identification as an Indian, acceptance within the Indian community, and tribal affiliation – none of which require proof of Indian parentage.
The one test he didn’t cite: naming an actual Indian ancestor.
Churchill now declines to discuss his ancestry at all.
« What’s to address? » he said. « No, I’m not going to spend the rest of my life talking about my ancestry. That’s a slam-dunk made case. »
Tracing family lore
It might not be that easy.
The News’ genealogical research was conducted both in-house and in concert with several outside researchers.
Jim Paine, 51, of Hartsel, who heads several Internet database companies, maintains an anti-Churchill site at http://www.pirateballerina.com.
He worked with Bill Cullen, 35, a New Jersey police officer who plans to become a professional genealogist.
Jack Ott, 65, of Lakewood, a retired telecom planner, engineer and amateur genealogist, maintains an online Churchill tree at home.comcast.net/~jackott2/ahnentafel1.htm.
The investigation relied on census reports, colonial-era deeds, wills, veterans’ records, draft registrations, marriage licenses, several Indian censuses, applications for Indian inclusion in a settlement of treaty violations, and state records such as lists of entrants in giveaways of former Indian lands.
The analysis also tapped into extensive research already conducted by genealogists in other branches of the family, none of whom were aware that Churchill was one of their relatives.
Photo courtesy of Ken Tyner
Ties to a past: William Cullen Tyner, one of the Tyner men who share a common ancestor with Ward Churchill — namely, Richard Tyner, a homesteader in Georgia in the late 1700s.
While the News found a large clan of Tyners among the Cherokee, they aren’t related to the Joshua Tyner branch from which Churchill descends.
Dennis Ward, 65, a military career guidance specialist at Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla., and a registered Cherokee who is descended from the Indian Tyners, has tried for years to find any connection to Churchill’s Tyners.
« I have never seen any real documentation as it pertains to Joshua Tyner having Indian blood, » said Ward, one of the most active Tyner family researchers.
Ward, described by one Tyner genealogist as the most knowledgeable in the family, also had never heard of a link between Tushali and the Tyners.
On the other hand, the News’ examination found plenty of evidence that Joshua – who became an Indian fighter in Georgia after the raid that killed his mother – was white, as was the rest of his family.
The legend that he went off during the last few years of his life to live as an Indian has been in the family for more than a century, although the first known mention came decades after his death.
There is no evidence to support it, just the odd circumstance that his wife of 45 years, who died in 1842, four years after Joshua, is buried alone in Wilson Cemetery in Cambria, Ill.
The legend is that Joshua was buried in an Indian-style mound by the Big Muddy River in Blairsville, Ill. In 1930, a state highway crew building a new bridge there unearthed a suspected Indian burial site. But the remains were never identified. They were reburied in an unmarked grave that is lost to history.
A local Illinois history book written in 1876, within folks’ living memory of Joshua Tyner, referred to him and other pioneers as pure white with no Indian blood.
So where does the story originate?
« We’re not really sure, to be candid with you, » said Ken Tyner, 64, a retired Army sergeant living in San Diego who is a sixth-generation descendant of Richard Tyner. « Everybody’s always speculated about having Indian blood, but I don’t know where it comes from. »
Ken is descended from Joshua’s younger brother, Noah, and is Churchill’s fifth cousin once removed – a relationship he knew nothing about until contacted by the News.
Ken Tyner and his half brother underwent DNA testing last year as part of their own genealogical research, learning that Richard Tyner was of northern European descent, not Indian.
Some descendants believe Richard’s first wife – the woman killed and scalped during the Indian raid – might have been Indian herself. Still others pin their supposed heritage on Richard’s second wife, Agnes « Sookie » Dougherty, although the News found evidence that she, too, was white.
In any case, Churchill is descended from Richard and Richard’s first wife, variously called Eliza Jane, Elizabeth and Abigail on family trees, through their son Joshua.
Even if Joshua’s mother was a full-blooded Cherokee, something for which there is no supporting evidence, Churchill, as her fifth- great-grandson, would have only a tiny fraction – 1/128th – of Indian blood, not close to the 1/16th or 3/16ths he claims.
Impact on credibility
Despite the mounting evidence that Churchill isn’t Indian, academic experts differ on whether it would constitute misconduct for him to pass as one.
If Churchill’s work is authoritative, it shouldn’t lose its credibility if it is revealed that he isn’t an Indian, said ethics expert Kenneth Pimple at Indiana University.
« To some people, I have no doubt, Churchill’s work would still be considered highly valuable, » Pimple said. « To others, it might be fatally tainted by such a revelation.
« But should such a revelation have any impact on the assessment of his work? If his writings have any authority of their own, it should not. »
Photo courtesy of Ken Tyner
Ties to a past: Thomas Tyner, shown with wife Martha Kirk Tyner.
But Churchill gains credibility by claiming Indian status, countered scholar Russell Thornton, an enrolled Cherokee and a UCLA professor whose work Churchill is accused of misrepresenting.
« I don’t think the type of people who are his audience would give him near that much attention if he were not seen as an Indian, » he said.
There’s still another way to look at the question, according to Pimple, and that’s what Churchill truly believes about his background, regardless of the objective truth of it.
« If Churchill’s mother told him that he had Native American ancestry, it is reasonable for him to believe this to be true, » Pimple said. « Even if further research should show that his mother had been wrong, it would be difficult to make a case that Churchill intended to fool anyone by claiming Native American ancestry. »
Belief in the Tyner Indian legends is widespread among the descendants. The News found true believers in Illinois, California, Florida and Georgia.
« All the family believes, earnestly, they are descended from Indians, » said Charla Schroeder Murphy of the Williamson County, Ill., Historical Society.
« I don’t believe Mr. Churchill was trying to pass himself off as something he’s not, but something that generations of Tyners have embraced and believed. »
CU, however, could have cause for action if it found the legends are untrue and that Churchill knew it, Pimple said.
« I should think that in general, intentionally lying about one’s credentials, which in this case might reasonably include ancestry, would be considered academic misconduct, » Pimple said. « The key is demonstrating, by an appropriate standard of evidence, intent to deceive. »
Putting claims to the test
In his response to CU’s investigation, Churchill said he qualifies as an Indian under three of the four methods his attorney said are commonly used for determining Indian heritage.
• One, Churchill calls himself an Indian, although experts say such self-identification is the least meaningful. CU, however, said in 1994, in response to a complaint about Churchill’s claimed ethnicity, that it recognizes self-identification.
• The second test is whether a person is regarded within the greater Indian community as a member, although this acceptance doesn’t need to be based on demonstrated Indian bloodlines, either. Churchill’s acceptance primarily comes from a confederation of Indian rights activists who support his writings and teachings. One of them is noted Indian activist Russell Means.
« Ward is my brother, » Means has said. « Ward has followed the ways of indigenous people worldwide. »
• The third test is whether someone is enrolled in a tribe. Churchill says that his May 1994 associate membership in the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma fulfills this requirement. But as the Keetoowah noted during a war of words with Churchill last month, the associate membership was not an actual tribal enrollment, but more of an honorary membership « because he could not prove any Cherokee ancestry. »
« Mr. Churchill was never enrolled as a member, » the Keetoowah said, making a distinction between tribal enrollment and the associate status that didn’t require proof of Indian ancestry.
The tribe voted a month after granting Churchill’s associate membership to stop giving them out, and said it erased all of the existing ones.
Churchill said the tribe is free to revoke his 1994 associate membership, but not to deny giving it.
« What it does not have a right to do is falsify history at its own convenience, » he said.
Churchill obtained his Keetoowah membership shortly after being involved in a run-in with a rival faction of the American Indian Movement led by Vernon Bellecourt, who accused Churchill of masquerading as an Indian.
• The final method for determining Indian heritage is to identify an Indian ancestor – the only method Churchill didn’t use in his 50-page report to the university’s investigating committee, according to a description of the confidential response by Churchill’s attorney, David Lane.
For Churchill’s claims of 1/16th or 3/16ths Cherokee blood to be true, between one and three of his 16 great- great-grandparents would have to be full-blooded Indians, or six of his 32 third-great-grandparents and so on.
If it all came from his mother, as he has sometimes said, she would have to be nearly half Indian herself.
But all of Churchill’s 16 great- great-grandparents are known. Not a single one was a full-blooded Indian, nor is there evidence any were part Indian. All but two are listed as white on census records from the 19th century. For those two, who could not be located on a census, their children were listed as white.
‘I met my father one time’
Churchill has said he derives Creek Indian heritage from his father, the late Jack Churchill.
But in a 1993 interview with the CU student who wrote the campus newspaper article questioning his heritage, Churchill said he knew nothing about his father’s ancestry.
His father and mother divorced when Churchill was an infant. Jack Churchill became a high school teacher in Petersburg, Ill., dying in 1989 at the age of 65.
« I met my father one time, » Churchill told then-CU student Jodi Rave. « I didn’t ask him too many family questions or other questions, and I really never tried to pursue it, or never really pursued him, because it seemed kind of bad for him. »
Yet the next year, when he was up for associate membership with the Keetoowah, Churchill told the tribe that his father had Creek Indian heritage. The Creek Indians inhabited the area that became the southeast U.S., bordering Cherokee lands. They frequently warred with the Cherokee.
« I was asked if I wanted to try to document my father’s side of things, » Churchill said in a July 1994 statement published in an Indian newspaper after the Keetoowah meeting, « because he was at least as much Indian as mom. But he’s dead now. I never knew him, and I don’t know my relatives on that side. So I just let it go. »
The News’ genealogical search, however, found that his father’s ancestors came not from Creek Indian territory, but from New England, Virginia, Tennessee, Iowa, Canada, Ireland, Scotland and England.
Great-great-grandmother Jane McNeeley, for instance, told an 1880 census taker in Illinois that her father was born in Scotland and her mother in Ireland. She was born in Canada.
McNeeley’s husband, Nicholas Gorsuch, came from parents born in Maryland, census records state, and the family hailed from England.
Photo courtesy of Ken Tyner
Ties to a past: Brothers Felix and Jesse Tyner .
The Churchills themselves go back to 1600s Connecticut.
His father’s father, also named Ward Churchill, is listed as white in the 1920 census, His draft card listed him as « Caucasian. » He and his wife, Ethel Janes, were restaurant keepers in Rushville, Ill., where he later served several terms as city clerk.
In the 1930 census, they were still in Rushville, as was their 5-year-old son, Jack Churchill, who became Ward’s father 17 years later. Jack is listed as white.
Churchill, in his 1993 interview with Rave, also was mistaken about the record for Joshua Tyner.
Churchill moved Joshua up at least one generation, misplaced him in Indian lands and said that Joshua was moved from Tennessee in the mid-1830s, implying that he was part of the forced removal of Cherokees along the Trail of Tears.
« Now on my mother’s side, their people coming up north, well, they got moved, they didn’t just come north out of southern Tennessee, » he told Rave. « Beginning about 1835, to around 1845, that’s when they shifted. »
That’s not what the record shows.
Tracking down family roots
Joshua and his brother, Noah, married sisters Winifred and Priscilla Teasley. Together they left Georgia between 1800 and the fall of 1801, according to family historians, moving to Tennessee’s northern border with Kentucky – not the Cherokee lands of southern Tennessee as Churchill said. The area where Joshua and Noah went had been settled by whites 20 years earlier.
Contrary to what Churchill told Rave, Joshua wasn’t moved out of Tennessee in the 1830s, but left with his family about 1816 and is recorded as being one of the first white settlers in what soon would become Franklin County, Ill.
By the mid-1830s, when the government forced Cherokees, half Cherokees and white spouses of Indians from Georgia, Joshua was actually at the end of his pioneer life in Illinois.
Facts surrounding the infamous U.S. Indian Removal Act of 1830 give more indication that the Georgia Tyners were not part-Indian.
Descendants of Richard Tyner and both his wives remained in northeast Georgia rather than being rounded up and sent to Oklahoma.
Joshua Tyner was 71 when he died near Blairsville, Ill., on the day after Christmas in 1838, leaving behind his wife and numerous children who went on to have families of their own in the area.
One of those descendants, Maralyn Allen, married Jack Churchill and gave birth to their son, Ward, in 1947.
Analyzing the DNA
While some family speculation has centered on Joshua’s mother – the unfortunate woman scalped by Indians – the scant history on her indicates she was white.
The most prevalent version of the legend is that Joshua’s mother was kidnapped as a girl by Cherokees in South Carolina and forced to marry a Cherokee chief. She bore him a son, said to be Joshua, and when he was 3, the girl’s father tracked them down and rescued them.
This account is improbable. Joshua’s mother was not a girl at the time he was born; she had at least three older children and had been married in North Carolina to Richard Tyner.
Photo courtesy of Ken Tyner
Ties to a past: Felix Tyner, shown with wife Cora.
But could she have been Cherokee, as some think?
That’s unlikely, too. A baby born to a Cherokee mother and white father in late 1700s Georgia would have been raised as Indian, according to Indian scholar John Finger, a retired University of Tennessee historian. All of the Tyner children, including Joshua, were raised as white.
Last year’s DNA testing on Richard Tyner’s male descendants is silent on whether Joshua’s mother was or wasn’t Indian. That would require a different test.
The DNA test on a male descendant can only trace the male’s Y chromosome to one of the 18 major groupings of human ethnicity, according to Bennett Greenspan of Family Tree DNA, the organization that did the Tyner testing.
DNA mutations can mar efforts to link male lines, cautioned Ranajit Chakraborty, professor and director of the Center for Genome Information at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine.
But the male Tyner DNA test matched northern European markers, Ken Tyner said.
Even if Churchill tested his own DNA, it couldn’t show Indian heritage from the Tyners. That’s because there are four female ancestors in the line of seven people from Joshua to Churchill.
To find out if Joshua’s mother was part Indian, Greenspan said, the mitochondrial DNA of a direct female descendant must be tested.
Ken Tyner said that is a dead end for now.
« I know of no direct female descendants, » he said.
With the DNA trail to Richard Tyner showing that he was white, turning to the paper trail indicates much the same.
Richard Tyner was a slave owner. While some Cherokees owned slaves as time went on, that would have been rare in the late 1700s.
« It would be unusual for Cherokees to hold slaves that early, » historian Finger said.
There is also evidence that the legend of Richard Tyner’s second wife being part Cherokee is untrue. Old Georgia records list several of « Sookie » Dougherty’s offspring as white. Richard Tyner Jr. is listed with his father as an entrant in the 1807 Georgia Land Lottery. That giveaway of land that the state acquired from Creek Indians was restricted to free white males or their widows.
Marriage records from the early 1800s show the Tyner sons and daughters listed in the pages of « whites » rather than « coloreds. »
And in another lottery in 1827 to parcel out former Cherokee lands – also restricted to whites – three Tyner descendants were eligible.
While these are strong indications that there was no Indian blood in the Tyner family, it is not clear and final proof.
But of all the records that make a racial distinction, not a single one says Indian.
Considering ‘cultural’ facts
What complicates the written record is the « cultural » fact that in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there were instances of mixed- blood Indians passing for white.
Finger, the Tennessee historian, said it is possible that backwoods whites who had children with Indian women could pass them off as white.
« In a frontier area, there may be more acceptance of a person of mixed blood being perceived as white, » he said.
Still, none of the documentation that Joshua Tyner left indicates that he considered himself part Indian.
Joshua identified himself as white to census takers in both the 1820 and 1830 Illinois censuses. He later wrote an account of fighting Indians in Georgia as part of the Revolutionary War army.
On Sept. 3, 1832, shortly after his 65th birthday, Joshua applied for a federal pension based on his military service. In court testimony, Joshua said he was a private and enlisted as a spy, « ranging the frontier against the hostile Indians. »
Joshua received his pension, $71.66 annually.
In an 1876 history of Williamson County, Ill. – which was formed from the part of Franklin County that Joshua Tyner homesteaded – author Milo Erwin minced no words in his praise for the area’s pioneers, Joshua included, who he said settled on the Eight Mile Prairie in 1816.
They were all pure-blooded white men, Erwin avowed. « They were poor, but of unmixed blood. There were no half-breeds, neither of Indians nor other obnoxious races. »
Fauxcahontas and the melting pot
Have you dated a composite woman? They’re America’s hottest new demographic. As with all the really cool stuff, Barack Obama was doing it years before the rest of us. In « Dreams from My Father, » the world’s all-time most-unread bestseller, he spills the inside dope on his composite white girlfriend:
« When we got back to the car she started crying. She couldn’t be black, she said. She would if she could, but she couldn’t. She could only be herself, and wasn’t that enough… »
But being yourself is never going to be enough in the new composite America. Last week, in an election campaign ad, Barack revealed his latest composite girlfriend – « Julia. » She’s worse than the old New York girlfriend. She can’t even be herself. In fact, she can’t be anything without massive assistance from Barack every step of the way, from his « Head Start » program at age 3 through to his Social Security benefits at the age of 67. Everything good in her life she owes to him. When she writes her memoir, it will be thanks to a subvention from the Federal Publishing Assistance Program for Chronically Dependent Women but you’ll love it: Sweet Dreams From My Sugar Daddy. She’s what the lawyers would call « non composite mentis. » She’s not competent to do a single thing for herself – and, from Barack’s point of view, that’s exactly what he’s looking for in a woman, if only for a one-night stand on a Tuesday in early November.
90 cartoons by Nate Beeler, Cagle Cartoons and by Mike Smith, Las Vegas Sun
Then there’s « Elizabeth, » a 62-year-old Democratic Senate candidate from Massachusetts. Like Barack’s white girlfriend, she couldn’t be black. She would if she could, but she couldn’t. But she could be a composite – a white woman and an Indian woman, all mixed up in one! Not Indian in the sense of Ashton Kutcher putting on brownface makeup and a fake-Indian accent in his amusing new commercial for the hip lo-fat snack Popchips. But Indian in the sense of checking the « Are you Native American? » box on the Association of American Law Schools form, which Elizabeth Warren did for much of her adult life. According to her, she’s part Cherokee and part Delaware. Not in the Joe Biden sense, I hasten to add, but Delaware in the sense of the Indian tribe named in honor of the home state of Big F—kin’ Chief Dances With Plugs.
How does she know she’s a Cherokee maiden? Well, she cites her grandfather’s « high cheekbones, » and says the Indian stuff is part of her family « lore. » Which was evidently good enough for Harvard Lore School when they were looking to rack up a few affirmative-action credits. The former Obama Special Advisor to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and former Chairperson of the Congressional Oversight Panel now says that « I listed myself in the directory in the hopes that it might mean that I would be invited to a luncheon, a group, something that might happen with people who are like I am, » and certainly not for personal career advancement or anything like that. Like everyone else, she was shocked, shocked to discover that, as The Boston Herald reported, « Harvard Law School officials listed Warren as Native American in the ’90s, when the school was under fierce fire for their faculty’s lack of diversity. »
So did the University of Texas, and the University of Pennsylvania. With the impertinent jackanapes of the press querying the bona fides of Harvard Lore School’s first Native American female professor, the Warren campaign got to work and eventually turned up a great-great-great-grandmother designated as Cherokee in the online transcription of a marriage application of 1894.
Hallelujah! In the old racist America, we had quadroons and octoroons. But in the new post-racial America, we have – hang on, let me get out my calculator – duoettrigintaroons! Martin Luther King dreamed of a day when men would be judged not on the color of their skin but on the content of their great-great-great-grandmother’s wedding license application. And now it’s here! You can read all about it in Elizabeth Warren’s memoir of her struggles to come to terms with her racial identity, Dreams From My Great-Great-Great-Grandmother.
Alas, the actual original marriage license does not list Great-Great-Great-Gran’ma as Cherokee, but let’s cut Elizabeth Fauxcahontas Crockagawea Warren some slack here. She couldn’t be black. She would if she could, but she couldn’t. But she could be 1/32nd Cherokee, and maybe get invited to a luncheon with others of her kind – « people who are like I am, » 31/32nds white – and they can all sit around celebrating their diversity together. She is a testament to America’s melting pot, composite pot, composting pot, whatever.
Just in case you’re having difficulty keeping up with all these Composite-Americans, George Zimmerman, the son of a Peruvian mestiza, is the embodiment of endemic white racism and the reincarnation of Bull Connor, but Elizabeth Warren, the great-great-great-granddaughter of someone who might possibly have been listed as Cherokee on an application for a marriage license, is a heartwarming testimony to how minorities are shattering the glass ceiling in Harvard Yard. George Zimmerman, redneck; Elizabeth Warren, redskin. Under the Third Reich’s Nuremberg Laws, Ms. Warren would have been classified as Aryan and Mr. Zimmerman as non-Aryan. Now it’s the other way round. Progress!
Coincidentally, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission last week issued an « Enforcement Guidance » limiting the rights of employers to take into account the criminal convictions and arrest records of job applicants because of the « disparate impact » the consideration of such matters might have on minorities. That’s great news, isn’t it? So Harvard Law School can’t ask Elizabeth Warren if she’s ever held up a liquor store because, if they did, the faculty might be even less Cherokee than it is.
My colleague Jonah Goldberg wrote the other day about Chris Mooney, author of « The Republican Brain, » and other scientific chaps who argue that conservatives suffer from a genetic cognitive impairment that causes us to favor small government. In other words, we’re born stupid. So, thanks to gene sequencing, we now know why conservatives aren’t as smart as, say, Pete Stark, the nigh-on-half-a-century Democrat congressman who believes that Solyndra, which is based in his district, is an automobile manufacturer: « I wish I had a big enough expense allowance to get one of those new ‘S’s’ that Solyndra’s going to make down there, the electric car, » he told The San Francisco Chronicle this week. « My 10-year-old is after me. He no longer wants a Porsche. He wants Dad to have an ‘S’ sedan. » Pete sounds so out of it, you have to wonder if maybe he’s 1/32nd Republican on his great-great-great-grandmother’s side.
But, if conservatives are simply born that way, shouldn’t they be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission?
Aw, don’t waste your time. Elizabeth Warren will be ahead of you checking the « right-wing madman » box on the grounds that she gets her high cheekbones and minimal facial hair from Genghis Khan. And « Julia » will be saying she was born conservative but thanks to Obama’s new Headcase Start program was able to get ideological reassignment surgery. And Barack’s imaginary girlfriend will be telling him that she’d be left if she could, but she’s right so she can’t, but she’d love to be left. So he left her.
Good thing the smart guys are running the joint.