Phony Indians

RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA — Rapid City, South Dakota.--All the traditional people of the Cherokee Nation were mortified the night Harley "Swift Deer" Reagan made his Home Box Office television debut in a program titled "Real Sex." The tribe denounced Mr. Reagan, saying he had disgraced the Cherokee Nation, and demanded an on-air apology from HBO. Of course, this never happened.

The Harley Reagan segment was aired as part of the national "Real Sex" series. His presentation consisted of naked men and women engaged in various forms of embracing and touching, which "Swift Deer" claimed were ancient Cherokee sex rituals.


"Swift Deer" was quickly exposed as a fraud by the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller. She said the Cherokee Nation was embarrassed by the whole episode and would attempt to stop such inaccurate portrayals of the Cherokee people. The television producers of this show, Sheila Nevins and Patti Caplenn, did not bother to check out the tribal affiliation of Mr. Reagan. They simply took him at his word.

This is not an isolated case. Men and women in many areas of the United States are using Indian spirituality for fun and games and, worse than that, for profit. They form small groups and call themselves Bear Clan, Red Hawk Clan and other descriptive names intended to mislead.


They have names like Buck Ghost Horse, Peter Bear Walks, Art Horn, Douglas "Medicine Hawk" Wilbourne and Barbara Pequot. These are some of the more authentic sounding names. Harley Reagan's Deer Tribe has such members as Mary Flaming Crystal Mirror, Karen Laughing Otter Woman, Gael Crystal Light Warrior, Jan Soaring Fire Bird and Liz "Sun Dolphin" Chandra. Creative names for imaginative people.

Once California-based, this "tribe" has been trying to open shop in Phoenix, despite the loud protest of the true Indian people there. I suppose these false Indians have been around for many years, but it seems that since the movie "Dances With Wolves" they have begun to proliferate. Certain "New Age" followers have also discovered Indian-ness and include many supposed Indian rituals in their ceremonies.

Several years ago, a gentleman calling himself Jamake Highwater began to make a name for himself as a great Indian scholar and teacher. He did a show for National Public Television and wrote several books without having his authenticity checked out. The now-defunct Indian newspaper Awkesasne Notes exposed him as a fraud.

My purpose in writing this column is to alert the general population and the national media that there are a lot of people out there claiming to be Indian who are not. These would-be Indians get jobs at universities, television stations and newspapers or set up their own spirituality-for-profit scam, all by virtue of claiming to be Indian. Most universities do not bother to check out their stories, nor do television station managers or newspaper publishers.

It is very simple to check out their credentials. Ask them what tribe they belong to and then call that tribe's enrollment office to see if they are indeed an enrolled member. If a person is enrolled, it means he or she has met all of the eligibility requirements of the tribe. It means they can vote, run for office and avail themselves of other entitlements as enrolled members of an Indian tribe. Non-members are not entitled to these things.

One favorite ploy is to claim Metis blood. Metis are those people of mixed blood living in Canada. Most of the wannabes know they can hide under the veil of their claims as Metis because it is very difficult to check them out. One professional Indian, who at one time claimed Cherokee, later Choctaw and finally Lakota blood, eventually settled on Metis and is now pretty well accepted on the lecture circuit.

It is not so much that some people make these claims -- although it makes one wonder what it is about their own race they cannot abide -- but it is troubling to most traditional Indians that these false shamans, writers and educators are pretending to be something they are not for career advancement or profit. Not knowing the true culture, history, traditions and spirituality of the people they pretend to be can be very damaging to those being ripped off.

What is worse, the messages they give and the lessons they teach are often misguided and erroneous. The only people damaged by this intrusiveness are the true or real American Indians.


Tim Giago is editor-in-chief and publisher of Indian Country Today, formerly the Lakota Times, which he founded in 1981.