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Fake Indians

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Stereotype? Authenticity? Or both?

Stereotype? Authenticity? Or both?

Native American Cultural Appropriation

We are surrounded by cultural appropriation. Often it’s subtle and slips by unnoticed in a form that’s called cultural exchange. Europeans doing yoga or tai chi might be examples. Sometimes, it’s more obvious and offensive to people whose cultural icons have been borrowed.

Native North Americans suffer when stereotypes about them are used in Halloween costumes along with the wearers doing war whoops and brandishing plastic tomahawks or when sports teams adopt imagery and names that dishonour their heritage. And there have been lots of examples of people pretending to be Indians.

The Crying Indian: Iron Eyes Cody

Iron Eyes Cody fashioned a biography for himself that claimed descent from a Cherokee father and a Cree mother. He said his birth name was Little Eagle and he developed a deep knowledge of Native lore while travelling in a wild west show with his father, Thomas Long Plume.

He spent half a century portraying the “noble Indian” in movies. He had roles in Fighting Caravans (1931) with Gary Cooper, The Ivory-Handled Gun (1935) with Buck Jones, The Dude Goes West (1948) with Eddie Albert, and the Great Sioux Massacre (1965) with Joseph Cotton, among scores of other films.

His movie and television career spanned half a century, and he was even called upon as a cultural expert on the rare occasions when a Hollywood producer wanted an authentic portrayal of Indian culture. When Joni Mitchell needed some Indian chanting for her 1988 song "Lakota" on the album Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, Iron Eyes Cody stepped up to the microphone.

His most famous exploit was the Crying Indian public service ad of 1971 (see above). The commercial showed how pollution was ruining the environment and ended with a tear rolling down the cheek of Iron Eyes. Ad Age magazine named the spot one of the top ads of the 20th century.

It was another 20 years before his true identity was unmasked. Iron Eyes Cody had been born in rural Louisiana in 1904 to newly arrived immigrants from Sicily, Antonio de Corti and Francesca Salpietra. His given name was Espera Oscar de Corti, and he never acknowledged the truth of his family background. Until his death in 1999 at the age of 94, he wore his braided wig, buckskins, and moccasins.

Grey Owl

One of Canada’s early and most famous conservationists claimed to be the child of a Scottish father and an Apache woman. Grey Owl fought in France in World War I and suffered wounds that plagued him for the rest of his life.

In the 1920s, he tried his hand at fur trapping but made the transition to protector of wild animals. In the 1930s, he worked for the Dominion Park Service of Canada (now Parks Canada) making films and writing books stressing the need to protect wildlife.

His three bestselling books brought him international fame as did his films about his pet beavers, Rawhide and Jelly Roll. In 1935, he was invited to go on a lecture tour of England. This proved so popular that he was invited back in 1937. But the grueling schedule took a toll on his fragile health and he died in 1938 at the age of 49.

It wasn’t until after his death that his non-Aboriginal status was revealed. He had been born Archibald Belaney in 1888 in Hastings, England, and emigrated to Canada in 1906 where he fabricated an entirely new ancestry for himself.

Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance

Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance

Indian Writer Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance

In March 1932, The Calgary Herald reported that “‘Chief’ Buffalo Child Long Lance, full blood Cherokee Indian, and former football star, war veteran, aviator, author, and newspaperman, committed suicide at the Los Angeles home of Miss Anita Baldwin, California millionaire, by shooting himself through the heart with a .33 calibre revolver.” This was the final exclamation point to a remarkable career.

In 1928, he wrote his autobiography in which he described his childhood as a Blackfoot Indian. He wrote about memories of the last buffalo hunts in the Western plains. The book led to a movie career and widespread fame.

In 1904, at the age of 13, he joined a wild west show, chummed around with Indian performers, and learned to speak Cherokee. His language proficiency got him into the famed Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. He was a top student, but adventure called.

World War I was raging and he wanted to fight, but America was not in the conflict, so he went to Canada and enlisted. After discharge because of a serious wound, he stayed in Canada and got writing jobs with several newspapers.

It wasn’t until 50 years after his death that the truth came out. Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance had been born in 1890 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Sylvester Long was the child of black parents. In the early 1930s, it seems rumours were spreading that Long Lance might not be who he said he was, and he decided to end it all.

Hollywood Indians

Jay Silverheels (real name Harold Smith) was the real deal. The faithful Indian companion of the Lone Ranger was a Mohawk born on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada. His character, Tonto, had to be changed to Toto for Spanish audiences; in Spanish “tonto” means stupid.

Silverheels spoke with a regular North American accent. Hollywood gave his Tonto character a stilted pidgin English accent.

Whitewashing in the Movies

However, Hollywood has turned to many non-First Nations people to portray Indians, a process known in the trade as “whitewashing.” The 1950s were the heyday.

  • Rock Hudson played Young Bull in Winchester ’73 (1950). He was decked out in face paint, feathers, and pigtails. He was, of course, bare-chested.
  • Chief Scar was scripted as a murderous savage in The Searchers (1953). Who better to play the part than Henry Brandon (born Heinrich von Kleinbach in Germany)? By now the stereotype was established so movie-goers wanted their Indians shirtless, with pigtails, war paint, and feathers. Henry Brandon obliged.
  • In 1954, a bare-chested Burt Lancaster showed up as an Indian warrior, Massai, in Apache.
  • Fast forward to 2013, and here’s Johnny Depp, festooned in extravagant bling and face paint, and playing the role of Tonto. The movie is The Lone Ranger, and guess what, Johnny Depp is bare-chested.

Bonus Factoids

  • Manitonquat also went by the name Medicine Story and said he was a spiritual elder of an Indian tribe. He had a lecture retreat gig in New Age philosophy based on a claimed connection to the Wampanoag Nation. The U.S. government did not recognize this association. Manitonquat’s Massachusetts birth certificate of 1929 had him registered as Francis Story Talbot.
  • The Education of Little Tree hit The New York Times bestseller list in 1990. It told the story of Forrest Carter and his childhood in the backwoods of Tennessee where he was raised by his Cherokee grandparents. It was a salute to environmentalism and respect for nature. It was also phony and so was its author. Forrest Carter was really Asa Carter a white supremacist from Alabama, who wrote some of Governor George Wallace’s more inflammatory speeches.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor