I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
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.
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 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) and made films and wrote 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 gruelling 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.
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.
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-goes 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.
- 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 claimed 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.
- “The True Story of ‘The Crying Indian.’ ” Zachary Crockett, Pricenomics, undated.
- “Englishman Archie Belaney Portrayed Himself as Indigenous Author ‘Grey Owl.’ ” Historica Canada, undated.
- “Grey Owl, White Indian.” Canadian Icon, undated.
- “Colourful Character, ‘Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance’ Died Mar 21 1932.” Calgary Herald, March 21, 2012.
- “Long Lance, Buffalo Child.” Donald B. Smith, NCPedia, 1991.
- “A Brief History of White Actors Playing Native Americans.” Lauren Duca, Huffington Post, March 13, 2014.
- “The Real Education of Little Tree.” Dana Rubin, Texas Monthly, February 1992.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
birth status on March 19, 2017:
This article doesn't support its thesis or the contemporary views on acting outside of one's race/ethnicity/gender, but it is an interesting survey of non-Native Americans posing as American Indians.
(Now add Rachel Dolezal and girls with brown eyes who wear blue contacts.)
Lyn from England on February 12, 2017:
simplehappylife on January 19, 2017:
Wow. Great article, immensely interesting. Touching on Forrest Carter's background was a nice POW at the end!