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What is “race-shifting?”

The term “race-shifting” was coined by anthropologist Circe Sturm to describe “individuals who have changed their racial self-identification on the U.S. census from non-Indian to Indian.” It has been taken up by many Indigenous communities and scholars to talk about settlers identifying as Indigenous.

There is a long, widespread history of white settlers assuming Indigenous identity.

Before there was race-shifting there was “Playing Indian.”

Phillip Deloria (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe) is an acclaimed scholar of Native American and Environmental history. He illustrates that white settlers “playing Indian” is as old as the United States itself: from the Boston Tea party to the Boy Scouts.

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Excerpts from the book Playing Indian by Phillip J. Deloria (1998):

The Boston Tea Party:

A chorus of Indian war whoops sounded outside the hall, and a party of what looked like Indian men sprinted down the street to the wharves. Boarding the Dartmouth and two other tea ships, the Eleanor and the Beaver, the Indians “overpowered” the sympathetic guards and dumped tea into Boston harbor for the next three hours. No one tried to stop the tea party, least of all the crowd of spectators gathered on the well-lit wharf. When they had finished, the raiders cleaned up the ships, apologized to the guards for a broken lock and went home to wash off their war paint (p.2). 

20th century Scouts: 

In 1901, Seton, by then a well-known illustrator, author, and naturalist, created a youth development organization he called the Woodcraft Indians. Seeking to tame a group of local vandals, he invited them to camp out at his estate. After regaling the boys with Indian tales, he organized them into a make-believe tribe, the Sinaways, led them through nature study games, and put them to work making Indian costumes (p. 96)… In 1910 the two leaders [Baden-Powell and Seton] brought their programs into the nascent American boy scouting movement… Given the title Chief Scout, Seton took on the task of writing the first scouting manual… When the Boy Scouts launched their own magazine, Boys’ Life, Seton became a regular contributor and consistently filled his column with Indian and nature studies” (p. 109-110). For a long time, the Boy Scouts’ twin organization for girls was not the like-named Girl Scouts, but rather the Camp Fire Girls, who played Indian with… zeal(p. 111).

Mid-century hobbyists and actors: 

One group, bearing the informal label of object hobbyists, favored the replication of old Indian artifacts and costumes… Another faction—people hobbyists—enjoyed the intercultural contact and boundary crossing the found at contemporary powwows (p.135). The Smokis of Prescott, Arizona, for example, emerged yearly from their kiva to perform a version of the Hopi Snake Dance. Founded in 1921 by the town’s Chamber of Commerce, the Smokis performed their annual ritual for seventy years, until pressure from Hopi people caused them to stop (p. 136).

In 2011, Circe Sturm coined the term “race-shifting.”

Excerpts from Becoming Indian: The struggle over Cherokee Indentity in the Twenty-first Century by Circe Sturm:

Sturm defines “race shifters” as “individuals who have changed their racial self-identification on the U.S. census from non-Indian to Indian in recent years” (p. 5). 

She begins to document them in a variety of places: “ethnographic and archival data collected over the past fourteen years with racial shifters in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Texas, and Alabama” (p. 8).

Darryl Leroux has documented French-Canadians race-shifting in Eastern Canada and the US.

From his website

The actual Métis are a western-based Indigenous people whose culture grew out of kinship relations with the Plains Cree, Saulteaux, Assiniboine, and Dene. The so-called “Eastern Metis” are instead an example of what is referred to as race-shifting or self-indigenization, a process that, in the case of this research project, involves white French-descendants inventing and claiming an “Indigenous” identity, often in opposition to actual Indigenous peoples.

Kim Tallbear (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate), one of the preeminent scholars of Indigenous racial politics in science, describes the potential for harm in her article titled:

Native “Identity” Fraud is not Distraction, but the Final Indian Bounty

The following excerpts are from TallBear’s notes for a talk she gave on March 17, 2022, at the Unsettling Genealogies Conference. The full talk can be viewed to the right.

“When race-shifters take leadership and accompanying economic opportunities, leadership capacity-building and resources are not going back to Indigenous individuals, families, and communities.

Kim TallBear
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A question I am always asked by reporters who investigate race-shifting cases, and by members of the public, and even sometimes by Indigenous community members, is, “What are the actual harms done by race-shifters? Isn’t this just a distraction from the more serious issues facing Native people?”

I’ve gathered some good responses to that question.

  • Non-Indigenous people with non-Indigenous community standpoints who pose as Indigenous and who rise through the professional ranks falsely represent our voices.
  • When race-shifters steal Indigenous people’s stories, they may make it harder for actual Indigenous people to reconnect to their communities.
  • Race-shifters theft of our stories and histories makes a mockery of our history and trauma.
  • When race-shifters take leadership and accompanying economic opportunities, leadership capacity-building and resources are not going back to Indigenous individuals, families, and communities.

See the full list on Kim TallBear’s Substack

Unsettling Genealogies Conference: Unmasking Pseudo Indians (2022)
George Cornell, Ben Barnes, Kim TallBear

In the News

Indigenous identity theft must stop (2022)

Like the appropriation of land, resources, lives, and careers, it is deployed to explain their own White histories and their right to speak over—and for—Native people. Some may insist their respective work with Indigenous peoples has been positive. But does that an Indian make?

Audra Simpson

Pretendians or Reconnecting Natives? What’s the Difference? (2022)

Mi’kmaq, Mohawk, Navajo, and Cherokee are nations. We are legal, political, cultural peoples with kinship ties in specific territories. We are not biological races.

Pam Palmater

We are not your dead ancestors: Playing Indian and white possession (2021)

And suddenly ethnic identity becomes in part a matter of choice.

Kim TallBear

How the Native American population in the US increased 87% says more about whiteness than about demographics (2021)

Native Americans and their governments face thousands of race-shifters seeking to join their ranks. And as more and more people reject whiteness in favor of indigeneity, they do so at the expense of tribal sovereignty.

Circe Sturm

Playing Indian Constitutes a Structural Form of Colonial Theft, and It Must be Tackled (2021)

Whites and those who are white-adjacent can rise through institutional ranks more easily because they’re visually and then potentially more socially simpatico with that structure… This is a reason that Pretendians take up such disproportionate Indigenous space. 

Kim TallBear

Contemplating the Consequences of Colonial Cosplay (2021)

This episode of Media Indigena explores contemporary issues of “Pretendians” in Canada.

Rick Harp, Kim TallBear, Candis Callison

Elizabeth Warren’s claim to Cherokee ancestry is a form of violence (2019)

This is the legacy that Elizabeth Warren inherits and champions. In the years since her claims to being Cherokee, she has ignored Cherokee requests to meet and rectify her assertions—a clear illustration of her lack of integrity, commitment or relation to the very people she claims to have descended from. Instead of kinship, she has chosen colonialism.

Kim TallBear