Grey Owl Indian Craft Co.: Perceptions of Color and “Fake Indians” in 20th-Century America

Friday, January 3, 2020: 4:10 PM
Beekman Room (New York Hilton)
Kevin Young, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Kevin Young traces the history of the hoax as a peculiarly American phenomenon—the legacy of P. T. Barnum’s “humbug” culminating with the currency of Donald J. Trump’s “fake news.” Young then turns to the hoaxing of history and the ways that forgers, plagiarists, and frauds invent backstories and falsehoods to sell us lies about themselves and about the world in our own time, from pretend Native Americans Grey Owl and Nasdijj to the deadly imposture of Clark Rockefeller, from the made-up memoirs of James Frey to the identity theft of Rachel Dolezal. Disturbingly, Young finds that fakery is woven from stereotype and suspicion, with race being the most insidious American hoax of all.

His paper will concentrate on the historical phenomenon of “fake Indians” in the early twentieth century—hoaxers who erased those their story purported to represent. Late 19th and early 20th century Americans understood the ‘authentic’ Indian through dime novels and Wild West shows, images that portrayed Native Americans as part of a dying past on the verge of extinction. Their cultural place let those who could pull of the hoax to claim an authority to speak to a growing American focus on the wilderness. Grey Owl, born Archibald Belaney in Britain and raised on dime novels, an Apache – or sometimes Ojibwe – heritage to give the weight of authenticity to his writings about the wild. He spoke of the West as a “last frontier,” himself a vestige of a disappearing way of life, and kept his hair and skin died to conform to a “half-breed” background. But when he was exposed his causes and his story became tainted by the same brush. Because there’s always a “cause” behind the hoax, a message that the fake messenger fails to realize his fraud actually testifies to.

See more of: A History of Authenticity
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