Sacheen Littlefeather’s Native American identity is at the center of a convoluted controversy

Sacheen Littlefeather's sisters refute claims of Native ancestry
Sacheen Littlefeather's sisters refute claims of Native ancestry

Sacheen Littlefeather

Shortly after the death of Sacheen Littlefeather, the activist best known for declining the Academy Award for Best Actor on behalf of Malon Brando in 1973, family members have come forward to contradict Littlefeather’s claims about her heritage. In a new opinion piece for the San Francisco Chronicle, journalist Jacqueline Keeler interviews Littlefeather’s sisters Rosalind Cruz and Trudy Orlandi, who say their family does not have Native heritage.

Indigenous identity and genealogy are not the forte of this particular (white) entertainment writer, but let’s parse the sequence of events here. Keeler writes that “The sisters reached out to tell me their story because, for some time, I have been compiling a public list of alleged ‘Pretendians,’” a term referencing someone who falsely claims Native American heritage. This is a real phenomenon that has been widely covered, from Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign to a recent episode of Rutherford Falls. However, Keeler has become controversial for her methods; she has reportedly mistakenly included true Native Americans on the list, questioned the heritage of at least one figure legitimately enrolled in a federally recognized tribe, and has included information on the list that resembles doxxing, per

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Further, factual evidence of indigenous heritage can be a murky area, as journalist Laura Clark writes in Variety. For one thing, “citizenship requirements vary from tribe to tribe,” and not all people with Native ancestry are enrolled in a tribe. For another, the brutal effects of colonialism in many cases mean the destruction and obfuscation of family trees (in both a literal sense and the records thereof).

Returning to Littlefeather, who was born Marie Louise Cruz, Keeler writes in the Chronicle that her research concluded that the activist has Mexican family and ancestry and ultimately no ties to the Apache or Yaqui tribes as she claimed. Keeler says the sisters, who were estranged from Littlefeather in life and reportedly not invited to her funeral, told her that “their family never claimed this heritage growing up.” They also refuted claims about Littlefeather’s upbringing regarding poverty and abuse.

Some social media users have raised alarms about Keeler’s reporting, pointing to Rosalind Cruz’s Twitter account as a factor in their disbelief. (Cruz’s account is unverified, but Keeler’s account—also unverified—has retweeted and responded to its posts.) In some posts, Cruz seemingly admits that she believed Littlefeather’s claims about their heritage until Keeler told them otherwise. An apparent history of bad blood between the sisters also seems to cast doubt upon their claims.

Unfortunately, Littlefeather cannot answer these accusations because her sisters and Keeler waited until after she had passed away in order to publicize them. And since it is difficult to “verify” Native ancestry one way or another, this has certainly cast doubt upon Littlefeather’s legacy. However, given the circumstances surrounding these new claims, we should proceed with caution before casting judgment.

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