By Joel D. Montgrand
I’m sure you’ve heard the term “pretendian” used to refer to someone who lies about their ancestry in order to identify as a First Nations person. As funny as the wordplay is, the matter really isn’t amusing to us actual Indigenous people.
For some reason, there are folks (usually, but not exclusively, white) who adopt an artificial story about themselves, where they come from, who their parents are, who their grandparents were, or perhaps, a tale they heard—great, great, great grandpappy had an eagle feather in his home, and when he danced it would rain, so that’s gotta mean something, right? All this in order to identify as an “Indian” (not as in from India—that’s not really the seasonal look for those who dip in and out of the cultural closet) but as in the incorrect term historically and widely used to label First Nations people here on Turtle Island.
Why do they do it? There are many reasons (other than us being real deadly, of course). Some do it perhaps to add some flavor to a white, colonial existence; some to pursue fame by adding an air of mystique about themselves, thereby getting an edge not many have; some to gain access to telling our stories with false legitimacy; some to help with an Indigenous arts grant, or qualify for a business loan; some because it was the ‘60s or ‘70s and they told a little white (or should I say brown?) lie at the Tuesday night dreamcatcher workshop and it just kept snowballing; and some people just lie, for reasons none of us will likely ever know or understand.
The thing is, the revelations keep happening. Every year, you’ll hear of another person being exposed as a fraud. After they deny wrongdoing, claim ignorance, and protest it was an innocent mistake, their roars are eventually shown to be hollow, and their feet of clay laid bare for all to see.
They usually just fade away from the public spotlight and live in the shame of their reality with few real-world repercussions. Defenders who refuse to accept the news slowly abandon them when the proof is undeniable, and we, as a people, are left wondering, “Why?” with our hearts broken. When these idols crumble to the ground, we’re the ones most crushed in the debris.
It’s not our fault—those feelings we had of pride and joy when we celebrated these people were legitimate. We love to see our people succeed. After all, we’re just trying to find our paths and flourish in our own careers. But we keep being overshadowed by people who have a strange fetish for our cultures.
This is wrong.
Why do non-Natives get to be the most talked about Natives? They hog the spotlight and give the false impression that successful “pretendians” outnumber actual successful Native people who are out there in the world, kicking some butt, showing the world what’s ours, and breaking down doors that were previously inaccessible.
I am a Cree actor, and there are many Native actors I look up to—from those who are up and coming to veterans of the screen, including Kali Reis, and elders like Wes Studi and Tantoo Cardinal. Watching frauds take away the spotlight from legitimate storytellers and creators was one of the reasons I went looking for a podcast of interviews with some of these people I admired. I couldn’t find what I was looking for, so I decided I would have to be the person to make it happen.
Actors and Ancestors premieres on November 26 on all major podcast players. As the show’s host and creator, I’m going to take the time to let our people tell their stories the way they want to be heard.
We’re resilient, intelligent, hilarious people. We have to be in order to survive. Our voices can and should raise above the noise.
Joel D. Montgrand is a Rocky Cree actor and the host, creator, and producer of Actors and Ancestors.