Playing Pretendian : Code Switch People lie about being Native American all the time – on college applications, on job applications, in casual conversation. But how do "Pretendians" hurt real Indigenous people and communities? And what does all that mean for people who aren't quite sure if they're claiming or reclaiming?

Playing Pretendian

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I'm Sequoia Carrillo, and you're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. You might have heard my voice on the show before. I'm an assistant editor for the NPR Education Team, and I'm going to be guest hosting this episode while Gene's away. Today, we're also joined by CODE SWITCH's Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. Hey, Sam.


Hey, Sequoia. So is this the first time it's just been Native folks on CODE SWITCH?

CARRILLO: I feel like it must be.

KESLER: Yeah. It's like Land Back, but we're just starting with this one show.

CARRILLO: Baby steps. You got to start somewhere (laughter). So what's up? What are we talking about today?

KESLER: Well, I want to begin by introducing you to Joey Clift.

JOEY CLIFT: Do you want to include tribal affiliation in there?

KESLER: If you want to. I'm - you don't have to.

CLIFT: OK. Well, I'm going to do it anyway. Just try to stop me (laughter).

KESLER: For sure.

CLIFT: Hey, everyone. My name is Joey Clift. I'm a comedian, TV writer and enrolled member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe.

KESLER: He was telling me about a time he was writing for a sketch comedy showcase for a TV network back in 2014, and he learns that there's a Native actor on that showcase who he hasn't met yet.

CLIFT: The first day of rehearsal - walked up to him and was just, you know, excited to talk to another Native person. And I asked him what tribe he was, and he said, oh, I don't know. My aunt just, like, told me that we're part-Native last year. So I just started checking that box, and now I'm doing this diversity showcase.

CARRILLO: Oh, boy. I am betting that this is not the first time that this sort of thing has happened to Joey.

KESLER: You'd be correct. He told me about another time a few years ago at one of the big comedy theaters in Los Angeles.

CLIFT: One of the people in charge of the diversity scholarship program - which is, you know, in charge of giving free classes to marginalized students - told all of their, like, straight white friends to just say they're Native because everyone's a little Native. And, you know, meanwhile, these comedy theaters don't have a single actual Native actor or performer on their stages or writing for their teams.

CARRILLO: Wow. That is, like, a little surprising to me, just how cavalier they're being about this. I feel like you and I both know that this is also not just confined to Hollywood.

KESLER: Definitely not. And it's interesting to me because, like, you know, say you got a DNA test telling you that you're Native or you have an Indigenous ancestor that your aunt told you about. Is it cool, then, to turn around and say that you speak for all Indigenous people?

So this was on Joey's mind as well, and he end up making, of all things, a short film about it.

CARRILLO: Let me pull it up, actually. I want to watch this. I haven't watched it yet.


JASON GRASI: Telling people you're Native American when you're not Native is a lot like telling a bear you're a bear when you're not a bear. If you tell a bear you're a bear when you're not a bear, you will get mauled by that bear.

DAVID KANTROWITZ: (Imitating bear growling).


GRASI: If you wear the traditional clothing of a bear when telling a bear that you are also a bear, you'll get mauled by that bear.

KANTROWITZ: (Imitating bear growling).


GRASI: If you tell a bear you're one-sixteenth bear but you don't know what kind of bear and you've never bothered to research your bear culture and yet you think you have more right to an opinion about...

CARRILLO: The way that I have met a man in exactly this outfit that is being mauled by the bear is insane (laughter).

KESLER: With the same haircut and everything.

CARRILLO: With the same haircut.

KESLER: (Laughter).


GRASI: Billion dollars off of it and the bear has clearly said they don't like it, and you don't give any of the money you've earned to bears in need until you're guilted into it decades after you started doing it, you and that bear are fine. Just kidding. You're going to get mauled by that bear.

KANTROWITZ: (Imitating bear growling).


CARRILLO: Wow. I feel like I want to watch everything Joey's ever done. That was, like, really fun and straight to the point.

KESLER: Yeah (laughter). And what our listeners are missing out on here is just this white dude getting mauled by this bear over and over again (laughter).

CARRILLO: I feel like there's a lot to unpack here. So is this kind of what we're talking about today?

KESLER: Yeah. So we're going to be talking about people pretending to be Native American when they're not Native American, otherwise known as - and let's say it together.


KESLER: Aka wannabes, race shifters or, maybe my favorite, Indigenophilopath.

CARRILLO: Oh, what was that last one again?

LOUISE ERDRICH: Indigenophilopath.

KESLER: So that is the voice of the incredible Louise Erdrich, Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Indigenophilopath is what she called them when we spoke for a previous episode of the podcast. And she sent me a voice memo after the fact deconstructing what that word meant.

ERDRICH: Indigenophilopath. So that word adds to Indigenous philo, which is Latin for love, and patho, as in pathos or pathology, which indicates a disease or suffering. That says that the love of Indigenous people becomes a pathology when a white person assumes a Native identity, tries to get inside another person's skin.

CARRILLO AND KESLER: Indigenophilopath.

KESLER: Indigenophilopath.

CARRILLO: Indigenophilopath.

KESLER: So once you put a - Indigenophilopath.


KESLER: So once you put a name to it, you can start to see Indigenophilopaths everywhere. I'm talking about politics with Elizabeth Warren. I'm talking about academia with Andrea Smith, who The New York Times did a whole story on, about her allegedly false claims to tribal affiliation. And I'm also talking about literature with Joseph Boyden, a Canadian novelist with similar allegedly false claims. And those last two, by the way, dispute these allegations.

CARRILLO: And that's not even getting into movies and television with non-Native people playing Indians on screen, like Johnny Depp in the role of Tonto.


JOHNNY DEPP: (As Tonto) Prisoner on the train, the way coyote stalks buffalo. After hunting 26 years, I had my prey, until you interfere.

CARRILLO: And even as far back as that famous crying Indian commercial about littering.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And some people don't.

KESLER: You're telling me they couldn't get a real Native for that?

CARRILLO: Yeah. The actor on that, Iron Eyes Cody, claimed to be Indian but was, in reality, Sicilian. And the tear is fake, too.

KESLER: How deep does this rabbit hole go? And, of course, a whole lot of people in everyday life will make up a tribal identity, too, you know, on job applications, college applications. And I feel like most Native people have met someone who, upon introducing themselves, will be like, oh, I'm one-sixteenth Cherokee or something like that.

So I saw Joey's short film, thought it was hilarious, and I called him up, and we talked about it.

CLIFT: A friend of mine was posting on Facebook about a protest against the Washington, D.C., NFL team a few years ago. And somebody commented on the post saying something to the effect of, like, I just got my DNA test in the mail, and it turns out I'm one-sixteenth Indian, and I think the team name is fine, so everybody lay off.

KESLER: So basically, you made a short film just to rebut this one guy on Twitter.

CLIFT: Yes. Like most of my work, I made the short film out of spite.


KESLER: How's that Lizzo song go again, Sequoia? I just got my DNA test - turns out I'm 2% Native American, and I think the football team name isn't offensive.

CARRILLO: (Laughter) Yeah, this is what our colleague Gene Demby would call sticky because DNA is not all it takes to be Native American, but it's also not like there's a written exam, either, you know?

KESLER: Yeah, I really like how Joey put it. He describes it kind of like a spectrum, where on one end you have people who are indisputably Indian, you know, enrolled members of tribes whose whole family is Native. You know, they grew up on a reservation their whole life. You know, no one would question them.


KESLER: And then there's people who are definitely lying.


CLIFT: But then there's definitely, like, a gray area in the middle of people who, you know, maybe are involved in the culture, are Native biologically but are not an enrolled member of a tribe for various reasons. Maybe there are people who are Native but don't speak their tribal language, like myself. You know, there are people of all different skin tones that are authentically Native.

CARRILLO: Yes. Indigeneity is so complicated. And to hear about people who lie about it - first of all, it just hurts. But it also makes the waters that much muddier for everyone else.

KESLER: Yeah, and if I can extend that metaphor, those muddy waters just make it harder for others to navigate, especially when you have an ambiguous connection to a tribe. I think we should start by taking a look at the history here because despite my thinking initially that this was a very 21st century issue, it's actually been an issue going back centuries, specifically as early as December 16, 1773.

CARRILLO: Oh, I was a history major in college. I know that is the date of the Boston Tea Party.

KESLER: Really getting good use out of your (laughter) degree.

CARRILLO: I know. Finally.


KESLER: So if you'll remember, when the colonists were throwing tea into the Boston Harbor, they did so dressed as Native Americans, although to be honest, they probably looked more like Chief Wahoo than any actual Native American ever.

CARRILLO: Yeah, not exactly very accurate costumes back then. Like, they didn't have a diversity consultant on set.

KESLER: Yeah (laughter). So I spoke with Philip Deloria, a historian who wrote a book about the subject of people dressing up as Indian throughout history called "Playing Indian."

PHILIP DELORIA: And for me, sort of reading about the costumes that weren't actually Indian in any way necessarily points you right back to older European kinds of traditions of what they call misrule, of stepping outside of the social order in order to sort of both question it and to kind of be contained - right? - in your sort of acts of rebellion. And this goes to all kinds of long - centuries-long history.

CARRILLO: So explain that a little bit, this idea of misrule.

KESLER: Yeah. So in other words, by dressing up like Native Americans, it was their way of, you know, donning a costume to escape their identities as colonists and doing so as a big middle finger to the British.

DELORIA: You stand on the shores - right? - of this new world, and you look out, and you see savages. And why do you see savages? 'Cause you're looking back over your shoulder, and you're saying, I'm civilized, like everybody back in England. At the same time, you're looking back over your shoulder in England and you're saying, I'm not like those people.

KESLER: So that's how you get things like the Boston Tea Party. Or maybe you get people associating themselves with Pocahontas or the Lenni-Lenape Chief Tamanend. And that's the sort of thing that Philip Deloria refers to as the settler colonial conundrum.

DELORIA: So they're both fascinated by and willing to appropriate and to imagine Indigenous people while, at the same time, they're engaged in dispossession, oftentimes outright genocide, acts of violence. And that - in my mind, that creates a sort of instability.


CARRILLO: And to bring that back to the 21st century, how does that relate to what we deal with now with people pretending to be Indian for a job or college?

KESLER: Well, how I think about it is we no longer have an issue of Americans trying to set themselves apart from Britain. We've thoroughly severed that tie.


KESLER: But we still have people wanting to associate themselves with Native Americans. You know, this is something that has really become a larger phenomenon in the past half-century. You know, according to the census, the Native American population in the U.S. has grown from 552,000 in 1960 to 9.7 million in 2020.

CARRILLO: Wow, that's, like, a huge increase. That's, like, over 1,600%.

KESLER: Yeah, exactly. So that kind of explosion simply cannot be chalked up to birth rates or immigration. More likely, it's people adopting a Native American identity that they did not claim previously.

So I spoke with Circe Sturm. She's a professor of anthropology at UT Austin. And she actually coined the term race shifters to broadly describe people changing how they identify.


CIRCE STURM: I talk about it in terms of racial shifting because that was the thing that I was specifically trying to understand - that move from whiteness to Indianness.

KESLER: Circe's book "Becoming Indian" is about how Native culture and Cherokee culture in particular has seen this boom in appropriation. And Circe lays out a few possible reasons that this is happening. One possibility that's not so sinister is that Native people who once felt pressured to pass as white don't feel that anymore, and the census reflects that.

STURM: There's less overt racial discrimination. There's more opportunities in terms of economic opportunities, affirmative action, those kinds of things. And there's a period of just increased ethnic pride during the 1970s.

CARRILLO: So I'm thinking about the fact that residential boarding schools, which we haven't really talked about yet, for much of the 20th century pushed against that, telling Indigenous children to hide their heritage. Or there were entire generations of Native kids adopted off reservations into non-Native homes, which was why the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed to curb that problem.

KESLER: Yeah, you're exactly right that all those things kind of throw Native identity into disarray for a lot of people. But we also have to consider that there are people who are playing up things, like that flimsy DNA test that tells them they're Native, who will also check that box on the census. And Circe dealt with that in her book by having conversations with these race shifters.

STURM: I never ran into anyone where I felt like they were overtly lying, you know, and fabricating this in order to get something, right? It doesn't seem to be that instrumental. I think that that really - that kind of read of things misses the boat. I think that most of the people who are engaged in this process of claiming think that they are reclaiming.

CARRILLO: You know what I've been thinking about the whole time, Sam? Why do non-Native people want to be Native so much? What is so attractive about this specific identity?

KESLER: I mean, besides just looking at how cool we are and wanting to...

CARRILLO: Obviously.


KESLER: ...And wanting to be a part of that. But, I mean, Circe is asking the same question. You know, what is the value that is attached to indigeneity?

STURM: Part of it is that, you know, there are values - at least with the people that I conducted research with, they talked about spirituality. So there's a certain sense of spiritual connectedness and spiritual insight and even, I would say, a kind of sense of sacred power that's attached to Indianness, so it provides that almost like a kind of religious core. And there's also a sense of community.


STURM: So everything that they associate with, you know, white life is being, like, modern and alienated and not having culture - right? - these things that are associated with whiteness. The opposite is what they're finding in indigeneity, which is that it's culturally rich, and it's being part of a community, and there's a spiritual foundation to it.


CARRILLO: Sam, would you say you have a strong spiritual foundation?

KESLER: I got to say I must take after my white side because modern and alienated are all pretty good identifiers for myself.

CARRILLO: But I do see what she's saying. Like, if you're white with one-sixteenth Indian ancestry, you might be compelled to play that up because it means that you're related to the people who are on the right side of history.

KIM TALLBEAR: I think there is a deep desire to disown complicity in the settler project.

KESLER: So this is Kim TallBear. She's the author of the book "Native American DNA" and a professor at the University of Alberta.

CARRILLO: And a friend of the show. She's been on before.

TALLBEAR: I think people don't want to feel the historical guilt for living on stolen land. And I'm not saying they are obviously or explicitly thinking these things. I think a lot of this stuff is subconscious.

KESLER: She says there's something else going on here, too, which echoes what Sturm was saying.

TALLBEAR: I also think there is a - there's this kind of romanticization of Native people - right? - a romanticization of that history.

CARRILLO: So she was on the show last to talk about the rise of at-home DNA tests, which have been changing the landscape of racial identity. Suddenly, people can get, like, hyperspecific about their background, for better or, oftentimes, worse.

KESLER: And what we really dug into in that episode with her is that racial identity is also about your cultural ties, your connection to a community. And that goes especially for Native Americans. Like, does your tribe claim you? Here's how Kim put it when she spoke with Shereen Marisol Meraji back in 2018.


TALLBEAR: I haven't actually done a full array of DNA testing on myself, but if I did and I found that I had - hey, I have 8% sub-Saharan African ancestry, that would be really interesting. But how could I even begin to make any claims around that? I'm - was raised a Native girl in rural South Dakota, you know?

KESLER: I think Kim was really the person that crystallized for me what's at stake here when we talk about Pretendians, I mean, the first issue being that people falsely claiming Indigenous identity by doing so take up resources that are set aside for Indigenous people, like scholarships or like the diversity showcases Joey mentioned. So that's No. 1.

TALLBEAR: No. 2 - when we have too many people who have no lived experience as Native people, when they rise through the ranks as professors, as artists, as thought leaders, as spokespeople for Indigenous issues in history without having lived those lives, they theorize in ways that do not protect our communities. They produce knowledge and artwork, you know, films - whatever field they're in - that are not actually coming from out of Indigenous lives and standpoints, and they're not asking questions from out of those lives.

CARRILLO: So the question here is how can people claiming to represent Native American communities really do so when they themselves do not have that authentic lived experience? But my next question would immediately be, like...

KESLER: What even counts as authentic lived experience?

CARRILLO: Exactly. It's an impossible question.

KESLER: Yeah. And also, Kim says that this is really an issue because, aside from the effects that these individual actions can have and the way that individuals identify, it's also a weakening of tribal identity and sovereignty.

TALLBEAR: They stole our children. They stole our land. Now they have stolen our representations, cultural artifacts. They stole Indigenous bones and blood to do scientific research on them. All of these things are entangled.


CARRILLO: So, Sam, we've got a lot more to unpack here. We're going to head to a break soon, but what's on the other side?

KESLER: Well, I think in reporting this out, it raised so many questions for me personally about what it means to be Native American because, as you know, Sequoia, I'm Navajo on my mom's side, and I didn't grow up on the res. I don't speak the language. And people often mistake me for white or can't really tell I'm Native. So that leaves me wondering, you know, does that make me a Pretendian?

CARRILLO: I think about this a lot. It's something personal to me. My dad is also Native, and he grew up knowing that. I grew up knowing that. But a lot of the other details are pretty murky. He was adopted into a non-Native family in 1952 - during the boarding school era, actually, when people were trying to erase Native heritage in a lot of ways. So he reconnected when he got older and worked on reservations and in Native issues. But he's still unaffiliated with any tribe. And this is not an isolated experience. Family trees are super messy, and sometimes branches just aren't there.

KESLER: Yeah. So when we come back, we're going to meet a guy, Justin Brake, who was in his 20s before he ever had any idea he might be connected with Native culture. And he struggled with the same problem we've been talking about.

JUSTIN BRAKE: I mean, I was encouraged to embrace it. Nobody told me to, you know, maybe take five, 10 years to ask questions and explore and kind of observe.


KESLER: Coming up after the break.


CARRILLO: Sequoia.




CARRILLO: So, Sam, we were just talking about how deep and difficult the struggle to find your place in Native culture and your own identity is and that you met a guy who actually went through this process himself.

KESLER: Yeah, he actually wrote an essay about his identity for this magazine called Maisonneuve. Let's let him introduce himself.

BRAKE: My name is Justin Brake, and I am a journalist based currently in Ottawa on unceded Algonquin Territory, originally from Newfoundland, which is the unceded territory of the Beothuk and the Mi'kmaq.

KESLER: So around the time Justin was in his mid-20s, the Mi'kmaq nation were trying to get full recognition from the Canadian government, and it sparked a lot of interest among the population in finding out if they had any Native ancestry.

BRAKE: There was never any mention that we had First Nations ancestry, specifically Mi'kmaw ancestry. It wasn't until my mid-20s that I first began to hear family members and relatives talking about that.

KESLER: You know, growing up, Justin had spent time with his grandparents in Newfoundland doing the sort of activities that people associate with Mi'kmaw culture like fishing, picking blueberries, snaring rabbits.

BRAKE: But it was not clear to me at all growing up, and even when I found out that I had Mi'kmaw ancestry, that anything that I had been exposed to as a child and even as a young adult had anything to do with my Indigenous ancestors, perhaps passing things on.

CARRILLO: So you mentioned there was a push by the Mi'kmaq people to be recognized by the Canadian government.

KESLER: Yeah. So as Justin explains it, certain bands of the Mi'kmaq had never been recognized by the Canadian government, and in 1969, the prime minister at the time proposed this article called the White Paper, which would essentially erase any previous treaties with First Nations and assimilate them into the Canadian population. That article would also revoke any privileges and benefits they had as First Nations citizens.

BRAKE: And First Nations, in particular, right across the country pushed back really, really hard on that. But at that time, a lot of people who - a lot of Indigenous people who hadn't been really politically engaged in the past, you know, saw something that they had perhaps never seen in their lifetime, which was the potential to be a part of something huge and push for radical change.

KESLER: So there was a mass mobilization, protests all over the country. And after those protests, they got the recognition they wanted. But the Mi'kmaq never got any land assigned to them, so they were the sort of landless First Nation, called the Qalipu First Nation.

CARRILLO: OK, so where does Justin come in?

KESLER: Well, when the Mi'kmaq got that recognition, they opened up applications to become a part of the Qalipu, and Justin's family wrote in. Now, the group who was pushing for recognition had around 10,000 members at the time, so they expected a similar number of people to apply.

CARRILLO: Oh, boy. I feel like I know where this is going. But how many applications did they get?

BRAKE: In the few years that followed, they received over 100,000 applications.

CARRILLO: Wow, OK, so 10 times the applications that they expected.

KESLER: Yeah, which kind of calls into question how many of those applications are legitimate.


KESLER: Like, maybe some of these people saw an opportunity to receive some of those privileges I mentioned. And since they don't have to technically live anywhere in particular in order to qualify, you can just submit an application and see if you become a member.

CARRILLO: What does an application like this look like anyway?

KESLER: Yeah, it actually sounds kind of wild by Justin's description because you have to prove that you're Indigenous through paper documents that show you travel to reserves, and they accepted really surprising things.

BRAKE: Plane tickets, receipts from plane tickets to show that they had traveled - they could submit pictures of themselves at a powwow or a picture of yourself picking blueberries as evidence that you were Indigenous.

CARRILLO: And this is the early 2010s? It feels like not the most rigorous criteria.

KESLER: Yeah. And so a lot of people were skeptical about that process, of course. But nevertheless, Justin's family applied, and they got in. He describes it like one day he just got his acceptance letter in the mail.

BRAKE: I mean, I thought it was cool. I had no idea what it meant, but it seemed cool. It's embarrassing for me to say now that I had no frame of reference, no understanding of the significance - politically, culturally, historically - of what was happening and what I was bound up in. However, I guess I was thinking critically or skeptically enough to say that I'm not 100% comfortable with this.

KESLER: So once that letter was received, the next step in the process for recipients is to complete another form for your Indian status card. And in Canada, that's what you need in order to claim any benefits like certain tax exemptions under the Indian Act or education programs. You got to have the card in order to make use of those.

BRAKE: I never sent off for that card. I just kept my letter welcoming me into the band. And I really realized, OK, this is real, and this is something that I need to understand better.

KESLER: So around that time, he started slowly learning about Mi'kmaw culture and history and was trying to figure out where he stands in relation to all that.

BRAKE: I started going to powwows, other cultural events, and I started building friendships and connections and meeting lots of wonderful people, and many of them were on the same sort of journey.


CARRILLO: So he was clearly trying. But what did his own, like, internal personal journey look like?

KESLER: Well, that's actually when his journalist hat got some use because as he became more interested in exploring his identity and heritage, he reached out to spiritual leaders and elders to talk and attended powwows to get more of a sense of the culture that he wanted to be a part of.

BRAKE: And I was met with acceptance and warmth and kindness all along the way and had actually connected with an elder who was the oldest living Mi'kmaw elder on the island, who was a good friend of my grandfather's. And that elder - his name was John Nick Jeddore - he met me at the powwow, and we got in his pickup truck and took a drive around Conne River, his community, and he told me about times he had spent with my grandfather. He used to stay with my grandfather and my grandmother when he'd come up to Gander for a visit. I asked him, I said, did my pop ever tell you that we had Mi'kmaq ancestors? And Mr. Jeddore said no.

CARRILLO: So he took it seriously, obviously. He's trying to reconnect. But that tie there to his ancestry - it sounds like it's buried pretty deep.

KESLER: Yeah, and you can see he's trying his best to reconstitute that with the support of the Mi'kmaq. And it's difficult, you know? At the same time, there's these big news stories of people claiming to be Native, who couldn't back that up. So these questions about what it means to call yourself Indigenous are swirling around Justin's head and changing how he initially thought about this when he first received that letter.

BRAKE: I mean, I was encouraged to embrace it. Nobody told me to, you know, maybe take five, 10 years to ask questions and explore and kind of observe. I started to think a little bit more critically and hear different perspectives, and it made me start to feel more uncomfortable, more unsettled. And - but I accepted. I think I quickly realized that's how I should be feeling.

KESLER: So I guess I want to pause here and say - if I can make a judgment call - Justin is doing everything right. You know, he's thinking about what it means to claim a certain identity and speaking with people about indigeneity.

CARRILLO: Totally. And this path looks different for everyone. Not everyone has access to elders to speak with or Justin's privileges as a journalist to be embedded in discussions about race and Indigenous communities. And also, it sounds like his family had a particular tie to his Indigenous ancestors. Like I said, everyone's family tree is messy and complicated and not always cut and dried.

KESLER: Exactly. And so he's kind of taking all of this into account - his discussions with elders, with new friends, with family - and thinking about his own feelings of responsibility and how he identifies. And he came to this conclusion.

BRAKE: But at some point I had to accept that if I'm being 100% honest with myself, if I'm really looking for answers here, I have to accept the possibility that I'm going to land on, no, I'm not Mi'kmaw, and, no, I don't have a right to claim a Mi'kmaw identity.


CARRILLO: So after all that, he decided he couldn't call himself Mi'kmaw.

KESLER: Yeah. And I guess that's why his story stood out to me because I think most people, you know, who have a legitimate claim to the heritage, you know, already have citizenship in a First Nation and having been accepted into the community - they would have done otherwise.

CARRILLO: How did that decision sit with him, especially after having spent all this time thinking about it?

KESLER: Well, he told me he doesn't regret taking the time to get to know this community better. He says he's made some friends along the way. But he also believes this isn't an open-and-shut sort of story. He's leaving with some things unanswered.

BRAKE: I think that the experience of fundamentally questioning who you are, you know, not just in terms of ancestry and Indigenous identity - but this has prompted, like, an even deeper, ongoing reflection. And the journey is nowhere near over.


KESLER: I guess in talking through this with people, I realize there will never be any sort of crystal-clear method to determine whether someone is Indigenous or Pretendian or not. But I think I learned that identity can be about genetics, heritage and relations just as much as it can be about your experience and your truth. It's all these things and none of them.

CARRILLO: Right. And we've been nodding to the fact that colonialism is really what introduced a lot of these issues, whether it's stuff like the Dawes Act and blood quantum, which we've talked about on the show before, or Indian boarding schools, which deliberately stripped generations of Native Americans of their culture. The burden shouldn't fall on the individual.

KESLER: And what Justin's story really proves, I think, is that in order to be a part of a community, you don't necessarily have to be a part of the tribe. There's other ways to appreciate and engage with Native culture without necessarily claiming an identity that it's not your own.

Here's how he put it.

BRAKE: The individual identity is not what's important. The collective well-being is what's important. And so it is the epitome, I think, of white privilege to be able to get your hands on documents that show that you have an Indigenous ancestor and suddenly say, that makes me Indigenous. That's very dangerous. And it's not something that I'm interested in being a part of. And - but I do have compassion because every family and every community story is different. And I know that there are a lot of people like me who never want to do any harm and who are bound up in the exact same struggle and journey of questioning.


CARRILLO: And that's our show. You can find more on our website,

KESLER: And we want to hear your honest feedback on our podcast. So go to to fill out an anonymous survey.

CARRILLO: We promise we don't take any of your personal information. It just takes a few minutes, and it really helps us out. Check out the link in our episode notes as well.

KESLER: This episode was produced by yours truly, Sam Yellowhorse Kesler, and edited by Steve Drummond and Leah Donnella.

CARRILLO: Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fan - Karen Grigsby Bates, Christina Cala, Kumari Devarajan, Jess Kung, Alyssa Jeong Perry and Summer Thomad. Our art director is LA Johnson. Our intern is Nathan Pugh. We also had help from our previous intern, Carmen Molina Acosta. And special thanks to Christine Trudeau.

KESLER: And shoutout as well to the people we spoke to for this story - Justin Brake, Joey Clift, Philip J. Deloria, Kevin Noble Maillard, Circe Sturm and Kim TallBear. You can find Justin's original essay about his story in the summer 2021 edition of Maisonneuve. We'll include a link in our show notes.

CARRILLO: I'm Sequoia Carrillo.

KESLER: And I'm Sam Yellowhorse Kesler.

CARRILLO: Bye, y'all.

KESLER: Take it easy.


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