Rachel Dolezal and Oli London are just a couple of examples from the concerning amount of white people who have recently cosplayed people of color for clout. The latest appears to be Kay LeClaire, a leader of a Wisconsin-based queer Indigenous artists collective who has been accused of faking their heritage.
The self-proclaimed Native American activist — who also identifies as “two-spirit,” a term for possessing both a masculine and a feminine spirit — has played a prominent role in Wisconsin’s Indigenous community. LeClaire recently spearheaded a petition for a white-owned bar, The Winnebago, to change its Indigenous-derived name. In the past, they have claimed to be of Métis, Oneida, Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee heritage, according to a report Tuesday by Madison365. Their purported ethnicity has also helped them secure financial gains, the outlet said.
LeClaire was first accused of faking their Indigenous identity by an anonymous user on a message board who raised questions about their claims. Among them were allegations that LeClaire’s parents were of German and Swedish descent, as well as suggestions that LeClaire used their Ojibwe name in an inconsistent way.
Since then, LeClaire has reportedly apologized. “Moving forward, my efforts will be towards reducing harm by following the directions provided by Native community members and community-specified proxies,” they wrote in an email to Madison365. “Any culturally related items I hold are being redistributed back in community, either to the original makers and gift-givers when possible or elsewhere as determined by community members.”
Whatever lies LeClaire may have fabricated about their identity, this incident points to the more widespread problem of “Pretendians,” a term describing those who falsely claim to be of Indigenous descent. It’s a phenomenon that’s been especially prevalent in academic spaces throughout the U.S. and Canada recently, according to The New York Times.
Native American communities are particularly vulnerable to cultural appropriation. After the mass murder of Indigenous people throughout the continent severed communities from their cultures, many have sought to preserve what is left by declining to measure tribal membership by appearance or blood quantum, which is often considered a colonial construct based on eugenics. Instead, tribal membership is typically determined by lineage and other factors that are easier to falsely claim.
Perhaps the best-known example of an accused Pretendian was Sacheen Littlefeather, an iconic figure of the Native American movement who called out Hollywood for its mistreatment of Indigenous people at the 1973 Oscars. After her death last year, Littlefeather’s sisters told the San Francisco Chronicle that neither one of their parents was actually Native American and that Littlefeather had lied. But advocates have also refuted those claims, since proving Indigenous lineage can be complicated.
The bottom line is that Pretendians are deeply dangerous to those who actually have ties to Native communities but don’t look stereotypically Indigenous. They undermine people who actually need a platform, and they ultimately hurt the legitimacy of all Indigenous movements. Members of the Native American community have been silenced since this country’s inception, and they still are — but this time, by people who claim to be them.