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Sacheen Littlefeather and the Question of Native Identity

Two days after the death of Sacheen Littlefeather, her estranged sister was angrily scrolling Twitter.

She was furious, she said in an interview this week, at the outpouring of praise for Littlefeather, the actress and activist who became famous when Marlon Brando sent her to the 1973 Oscars to refuse his best actor award and denounce Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans.

“I was reading what all these people were saying: ‘Oh, rest in peace and she was a saint, and she sacrificed herself,’” the sister, Rozalind Cruz, said.

Then she saw tweets by the writer Jacqueline Keeler, a citizen of Navajo Nation who has stirred controversy with her efforts to expose what she calls “pretendians.” Keeler was disputing Littlefeather’s claims that her father was White Mountain Apache and Yaqui.

Cruz replied to Keeler that her grandmother was of “Yaqui and Spanish” descent. Cruz herself had tried to enroll in the White Mountain Apache Tribe. But over the next few weeks Keeler showed Cruz genealogical research that traced her father’s family back to Mexico in 1850 and said there was no evidence of Native ancestry.

Cruz and the middle sister of the family, Trudy Orlandi, were both persuaded. On Saturday, less than a month after their sister’s death at age 75, The San Francisco Chronicle published an opinion column by Keeler under the headline, “Sacheen Littlefeather was a Native American icon. Her sisters say she was an ethnic fraud.”

The column unleashed an intense response in Native American circles on social media.

Some condemned Littlefeather, saying she had fabricated an identity to promote her Hollywood career. But others strongly objected to Keeler’s investigation, saying it ignored the complicated ways Native identity can be formed, particularly for those who do not meet the formal criteria for tribal membership. Enrollment typically requires proof of tribal ties, often described in terms of one’s percentage of “Indian blood,” or “blood quantum.”

“What many people don’t understand about Native existence is that some Natives aren’t enrolled,” Laura Clark, a journalist who is Muscogee and Cherokee, wrote in Variety in response to Keeler’s column.

“Some Natives are reconnecting with their tribes,” Clark wrote. “Some Natives don’t have enough ‘Indian blood’ to register because of blood quantum minimums. And some Natives have had their tribes nearly erased to the point that organized citizenship records simply don’t exist.”

The Shoshone poet nila northsun, a friend of Littlefeather’s from their college days in the 1970s, said this week that she was not surprised that Keeler had failed to find tribal affiliations in family records.

Native Americans, she said, might have hidden their backgrounds to avoid discrimination or were misidentified.

“It’s what you feel in your heart, and what your belief system is,” said northsun, who lowercases her name. “Just because she’s not enrolled or can’t…

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