Sacheen Littlefeather and the Question of Native Identity

Two days after the death of Sacheen Littlefeather, her estranged sister was angrily scrolling Twitter.

She was livid, she mentioned in an interview this week, on the outpouring of reward for Littlefeather, the actress and activist who turned well-known when Marlon Brando sent her to the 1973 Oscars to refuse his best actor award and denounce Hollywood’s remedy of Native Individuals.

“I used to be studying what all these individuals had been saying: ‘Oh, relaxation in peace and he or she was a saint, and he or she sacrificed herself,’” the sister, Rozalind Cruz, mentioned. The sisters had been estranged for about 13 years for a wide range of causes, Cruz mentioned, however at that time she nonetheless believed her household had Indian ancestry.

Then she noticed tweets by the author Jacqueline Keeler, a citizen of Navajo Nation who has stirred controversy together with her efforts to show what she calls “pretendians.” Keeler was disputing Littlefeather’s claims that her father was White Mountain Apache and Yaqui.

Cruz replied to Keeler that her grandmother was of “Yaqui and Spanish” descent. Cruz herself had tried to enroll within the White Mountain Apache Tribe. However over the subsequent few weeks Keeler confirmed Cruz genealogical analysis that traced her father’s household again to Mexico in 1850 and mentioned there was no proof of Native ancestry.

Cruz and the center sister of the household, Trudy Orlandi, had been each persuaded by the analysis. On Saturday, lower than a month after their sister’s demise at age 75, The San Francisco Chronicle printed an opinion column by Keeler underneath the headline, “Sacheen Littlefeather was a Native American icon. Her sisters say she was an ethnic fraud.”

The column unleashed an intense response in Native American circles on social media.

Some condemned Littlefeather, saying she had fabricated an identification to advertise her Hollywood profession. However others strongly objected to Keeler’s investigation, saying it ignored the sophisticated methods Native identification could be shaped, notably for many who don’t meet the formal standards for tribal membership. Enrollment usually requires proof of tribal ties, usually described by way of one’s share of “Indian blood,” or “blood quantum.”

“What many individuals don’t perceive about Native existence is that some Natives aren’t enrolled,” Laura Clark, a journalist who’s Muscogee and Cherokee, wrote in Variety in response to Keeler’s column.

“Some Natives are reconnecting with their tribes,” Clark wrote. “Some Natives don’t have sufficient ‘Indian blood’ to register due to blood quantum minimums. And a few Natives have had their tribes almost erased to the purpose that organized citizenship data merely don’t exist.”

The Shoshone poet nila northsun, a pal of Littlefeather’s from their school days within the Nineteen Seventies, mentioned this week that she was not shocked that Keeler had failed to search out tribal affiliations in household data.

Native Individuals, she mentioned, may need hidden their backgrounds to keep away from discrimination or had been misidentified.

“It’s what you’re feeling in your coronary heart, and what your perception system is,” mentioned northsun, who lowercases her identify. “Simply because she’s not enrolled or can’t be recognized in data doesn’t imply she’s not Indigenous.”

In an interview on Wednesday, Keeler rejected such assertions, saying she and volunteer researchers had reviewed data for lots of of Littlefeather’s kin. None recognized as Native American, nor did they reside with or marry members of any Apache tribe or anybody figuring out as Yaqui, in keeping with a summary of the research she published on Substack.

“May their household have some distant drop of Indigenous blood from lots of of years in the past?” she wrote within the column. “It’s attainable; many individuals of Mexican descent do. However Indigenous identification is extra sophisticated than that. A U.S. citizen of distant French descent doesn’t get to say French citizenship. And it could be absurd for that particular person to put on a beret on stage on the Oscars and communicate on behalf of the nation of France.”

It was not identified if Littlefeather had ever tried to enroll in a tribe. The Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Arizona mentioned in a press release that Littlefeather was not an enrolled member of the tribe, and neither had been her mother and father.

“Nonetheless,” the tribe mentioned, “that doesn’t imply that we might independently affirm that she shouldn’t be of Yaqui ancestry typically, from Mexico or the Southwestern United States.”

The White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona didn’t instantly launch a press release.

Littlefeather was born Marie Cruz in 1946 and mentioned in interviews through the years that her father, Manuel Ybarra Cruz, was White Mountain Apache and Yaqui and had abused her and her mom, Geroldine Cruz, who was of French, German and Dutch lineage.

Rozalind Cruz, 65, of Massive Arm, Mont., and Orlandi, 72, of San Anselmo, Calif., have strongly disputed their sister’s accounts of their father’s alcoholism and abuse. He died in 1966 at age 44, when Littlefeather was 19.

By age 26, Littlefeather was absolutely figuring out as Native American when she protested on the Oscars, carrying a buckskin gown, moccasins and hair ties. She spent the subsequent 5 many years as an activist within the Native American group and was married to Charles Johnston, a member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Oklahoma, who died last year.

She turned a revered determine for some. In August, the Academy of Movement Image Arts and Sciences introduced that it had apologized to Littlefeather, calling her remedy on the Oscars, the place she was booed, “unwarranted and unjustified.”

In a press release on Thursday, the Academy Museum, which hosted an event honoring Littlefeather in September, mentioned that it was conscious of claims going again many years about her background however that “the Academy acknowledges self-identification.”

Cruz mentioned that her father, who was deaf and communicated with signal language or a chalkboard, had by no means instructed her about Native American kin.

She mentioned she had grown up realizing she had Spanish and Mexican heritage but additionally believed for many of her life that she was “most likely a few quarter” Native American due to her older sister’s professed identification.

Cruz mentioned she had even utilized final November to turn out to be a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe however was denied as a result of the tribe couldn’t discover data to assist her declare. However that every one modified after her sister’s demise. She recalled telling Keeler on the telephone: “You’re proper. She’s a fraud. She’s a phony.”

Some students agree, saying Keeler’s analysis was persuasive.

“Keeler proves Littlefeather was a troubled girl who made the tales of others her personal,” mentioned Liza Black, an affiliate professor of historical past and Native American and Indigenous research at Indiana College, and a citizen of Cherokee Nation.

She mentioned that many Native individuals perceive the complexity of identification due to a number of tribal affiliations, blood quantum restrictions and adoptions, however that “Littlefeather doesn’t fall into any of those true, actual and complicated Native identities.”

Keeler’s analysis to show that persons are faking Indian identities has prompted blowback from critics who mentioned that her work casts a cloud of suspicion over all Indigenous individuals.

It means that “Native individuals must create a system the place they should show who they are saying they’re,” mentioned Andrew Jolivétte, the director of Native American and Indigenous research on the College of California San Diego, who’s Creole of Opelousa, Atakapa Ishak, French, African, Irish, Italian and Spanish descent.

“Why do American Indians have to do this and never different individuals?” he added.

For Keeler, to be Native American or American Indian is to be a part of a clearly outlined political group that existed earlier than European colonial contact.

“We’re not simply an identification,” she mentioned. “We are literally a political class. We’re residents of countries. We’re sovereign.” Her objective, she mentioned, is to cease non-Indians from profiting off false claims of being Native American.

“We wish actual change and we would like actual justice, and that’s not going to occur when all of it comes right down to actors taking part in us,” she mentioned.

For her half, Cruz mentioned she had no regrets.

“All I did was, I put a pebble on the market,” she mentioned. “And I let the water rip.”

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