Heid E. Erdrich On Pretendians In Poetry

Without an ‘Indian’-sounding name, would you recognize Native American poetry when you read it?
— Heid E. Erdrich

Heid E. Erdrich writes in the North American Review about the common practice of non-Native poets using Indian pen names to sell their work or establish a “career.” What has been annoying to many Indians when a “Pretendian” falsly identifies him/herself as Indian also serves to devalue the real work released by Native poets. Erdrich brings up some interesting thoughts about Native poets. What are the main characteristics of Native poetry? How exactly could we tell if a poet is Native or not? Presumably, those of us with ties to Indian Country or an understanding of Native life could pick out authentic instances of poets, whether it be through their name or what they write about. Erdrich notes one easy way to pick out a “Pretendian” is to find those Native poets who go by one Indian-sounding name but don’t have a first name. For example, being suspicious of a poet who solely goes by “Red Hawk” and not so suspicious of a poet who goes by the name Trevino L. Brings Plenty. Most Native poetry would also presumably forego many instances of romanticism or Natives as myth.

An excerpt from Erdrich’s article:

It is time to state that actual Native American authors, such as Alexie—who tried to expose famous faker Nasdijj—have long endured writers who pretend they are “Indian” or Pretendians, as some call them. Amongst ourselves, we complain of writers who use pen names and personas to suggest they are Native American, but often our tone is resigned. Fake “Indians” have published for centuries. We’ve objected for decades. Now a conversation on appropriation is in the wind and perhaps the context has changed so that this assertion will be heard: Assumption of “Indian” identity through pen names harms indigenous writers.