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Misappropriation of Indian culture escalating

Alarming assertions from an unexpected threat

Book cover showing Olmec carving on right, and actual area Indian on left.

RAPID CITY— Fake Indians are nothing new. Englishman Archibald Belaney became famous early in the 20th Century, pretending to be a Canadian First Nations conservationist named Grey Owl. Some decades later, Espera Oscar de Corti, became even more famous than Belaney, playing Indian roles in the movies and on TV, as Iron Eyes Cody, and claiming to be from whatever tribe made his fraudulent assertion the most convincing at the time.

Australian actor Michael Pate, an iconic face familiar to most Americans, also played an Indian for most of his career. The difference is he never claimed to be an Indian. Belaney and de Corti could have done same, but to maximize their reputation, or line their pocketbook, they chose to cross that line, and become frauds.

Many Americans claim to have Indian blood, the stereotypic claim being descent from a “Cherokee princess,” but the current popularity of DNA testing has dashed a lot of romanticized misimpressions— many were genuinely shocked to discover they had no Indian blood, especially Black Americans, as when prominent Black writer and historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., told PBS: “African-Americans all think that they’re a descendant from a Native American. And the average African-American has less than 1 percent Native American ancestry, but they have 24 percent European ancestry. So where does that come from? It comes from slavery.”

Those last four words— “It comes from slavery…”— are elemental in a relatively new movement, just started a few decades back, but rooted in an older, academically legitimate Afrocentrist movement. The assertions of this new movement are simple, but brazen: Blacks did not arrive in the Americas in slave ships. They were already here when Columbus landed at San Salvador. The tribes considered Indian are actually “Mongoloid” invaders from Asia. History has been distorted to cover up this shocking truth.

Traditional cultural appropriation in the Americas has come from New Age motivated Whites, the majority of whom want a closer connection with the romanticized ideal of Indian spirituality, groups like the Rainbows, one of their number writing in a recent letter to Indian Country Today: “I see how cultural and spiritual appropriation is disrespectful and harmful but I also see how the actual practices heal and rebalance everyone.”

However legitimate or misguided that assertion is, the intent is to immerse themselves in the Indian identity, inappropriately sharing in that identity, not so much as stealing it. To steal an identity, you have to claim you are the identity, and also claim those currently possessing that identity, are imposters. This intent escalates cultural appropriation to a distinctly different and threatening level.

The roots of this identity theft started out principled enough. Kenneth Onwuka Dike and Cheikh Antop Diop were African intellectuals and academics. Dike merely wanted to interpret African history independent of distortion through a Eurocentrist prism. But that opened the door for contemporary Diop to take it one step further and critics saw this change in Diop as pseudohistorical revisionism. Diop began to divide not only the nature, but the principle, of European and African culture into diametric models, the European model chiseled down to the most unflatteringly negative interpretation possible:

Southern Cradle-Egyptian Model: 

  1. Abundance of vital resources.
  2. Sedentary-agricultural.
  3. Gentle, idealistic, peaceful nature with a spirit of justice.
  4. Matriarchal family.
  5. Emancipation of women in domestic life.
  6. Territorial state.
  7. Xenophilia
  8. Cosmopolitanism
  9. Social collectivism.
  10. Material solidarity – alleviating moral or material misery
  11. Idea of peace, justice, goodness and optimism.
  12. Literature emphasizes novel tales, fables and comedy.

Northern Cradle-Greek Model: 

  1. Bareness of resources.
  2. Nomadic-hunting (piracy)
  3. Ferocious, warlike nature with spirit of survival.
  4. Patriarchal family.
  5. Debasement/enslavement of women.
  6. City state (fort)
  7. Xenophilia
  8. Parochialism
  9. Individualism
  10. Moral solitude.
  11. Disgust for existence, pessimism.
  12. Literature favors tragedy.

Let us take the number 11 diametric as an example: there is no doubt many African cultures espouse the “idea of peace, justice, goodness and optimism,” and that an aspect of European culture is “disgust for existence, pessimism.” But there is no evidence that either of these diametric assertions are definitive, because if Europeans do not espouse “peace, justice, goodness and optimism,” then why do they have these words in their languages, and why are they so often cited and touted?

Diop laid the foundation for the cultural appropriation, the identity theft, to come. From the online Skeptic’s Dictionary (on Afrocentrism): “One of the more important Afrocentric texts is the pseudo-historical Stolen Legacy (1954) by George G. M. James. Mr. James claims, among other things, that Greek philosophy and the mystery religions of Greece and Rome were stolen from Egypt; that the ancient Greeks did not have the native ability to develop philosophy; and that the Egyptians from whom the Greeks stole their philosophy were black Africans. Many of James’ ideas were taken from Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), who thought that white accomplishment is due to teaching children they are superior. If blacks are to succeed, he said, they would have to teach their children that they are superior.”

Diop’s cradle models are a clear attempt to establish a foundational and operational superiority for a dozen key culturally identifying factors. The first culture the Afrocentrists attempted to steal was ancient Egypt. They claim the Egyptians were Black, but DNA tests of mummies and ancient human remains indicate they were mostly related to the people of the Levant, not sub-Saharan Black Africa. Also, James mistook a 1731 work of fiction as an actual history of ancient Egypt. According to the Skeptic’s Dictionary, the author of that fiction, Abbe Jean Terrason (died 1750): “constructed an imaginary Egyptian religion based upon sources which described Greek and Latin rites as if they were Egyptian (Lefkowitz).”

This is how pseudohistory is written, based on suspect, misunderstood, and misrepresented sources.

Ironically, the white culture that many Indians deem highly suspect and threatening, including white history and science, are the best defense Indians have of countering Afrocentrist identity theft assertions.

Ivan Van Sertima, who died in 2009, was an associate professor of African Studies at Rutgers University. His was the first serious attempt to directly assert African presence in the new World, not only predating Columbus, but the source of all the great Mesoamerican civilizations of Central and South America. He claimed a statue carved by the Olmecs had African features, strong evidence they had carved that statue. In 1997, the Journal of Current Anthropology dismissed his 1976 book They Came Before Columbus, deeming it without foundation, and pointed out that “no genuine African artifact had been found in a controlled archaeological excavation in the New World.”

With the advent of social media, especially Facebook, Van Sertima’s ideas have attracted millions of true believer followers, who not only flood the internet with photoshopped memes depicting Blacks as Indians, but show up at pow wows and ceremonial gatherings across the country, decked out in traditional garments, proven in most cases to have been purchased online from Hong Kong. They argue with actual enrolled tribal members that they are the real Indians, and that they were always here and did not arrive in slave ships. During one Facebook argument,  a young Black woman countered the argument her ancestors arrived in slave ships with, “If we came here in slave ships, then where are the slave ships?”

Attempts to establish legitimate scholarship supporting van Sertima’s theories persist. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, by Martin Bernal, still relies on mythology as evidence, has no supporting archeological evidence the Egyptians were the founders of Greek Culture, on top of not having any evidence the Egyptians were a Black culture. In effect, Bernal is stealing Egyptian culture, in order to steal Greek culture.

The reason millions of Blacks want to steal Indian culture is something that can’t be determined for certain. Clearly, the negative imagery of being Black has had to weigh on the Black psyche. Hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination must have taken a toll. The depths of white racism can be seen in this quote from Lyndon Johnson, a man who was raised a racist, but became a champion against racism: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

One argument goes like this: the white man looks down on the Black man. He won’t even name his sports teams after anything Black, even though most of the players are Black. But, he has no problem naming his sports teams after anything Indian, because the Indian has honor, a romantic appeal, he wants to steal for himself, and the Black man, does not.

Given that, Black intellectuals have struggled for over a century to establish Black pride, and yet, when Black Barbie Dolls were first introduced sixty years ago, Black girls preferred the White Barbie Doll, and Good Morning America revisited those finding in 2009, to find Black girls still preferred the white Barbie Doll.  Whether they are stealing Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek, or Indian identity, culture theft is growing in depth and scope among Black Americans. The need for a positive cultural identity steeped in a flattering history appears to be very powerful.

This doesn’t mean that serious Black intellectuals have not strived to increase awareness and pride in actual Black history. Hubert Henry Harrison (died 1927), and his biographer, John Glover Jackson (died 1993), are both examples of highly influential and ethical intellectuals that strove to enlighten all people about the deep and rich cultural history of Black America.

As far as tribes are concerned, there are almost a quarter million Black people that are legitimate members of some tribe or another. Basketball superstar Kyrie Irving can trace his family back to Standing Rock. Chief Little Wound had an adopted Black son, Alexander Baxter. He has many descendants who still call the Pine Ridge reservation home.

It remains to be seen if the attempt to steal tribal identity by Blacks from Indians will continue to grow or fade from history. Eventually tribes will have to deal with this movement directly, eventually this movement will probably begin asserting its claims in the mainstream media and at mainstream gatherings and festivities. On a positive note, rapper Omeretta the Great, when called out on social media for posting pix of herself as an Indian princess, apologized on Twitter, to any person she might have offended.

(James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He can be reached at


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