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'Pretendians' podcast explores Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt's Cherokee identity

Canadaland’s podcast Pretendians hit feeds in May, exposing people across different industries, who have falsely claimed Indigenous ancestry. The third episode in the series, ‘Make Native America Great Again,’ focused on Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s identity as a Cherokee citizen and the surprising clashes he has had with tribal leaders in the state — including the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

KOSU’s Sarah Liese sat down with Pretendians co-host and Mvskoke Media Director Angel Ellis (Muscogee) to learn more about the podcast and why they dedicated an episode to peeling back the layers of Stitt’s identity.


Sarah Liese, KOSU Indigenous Affairs Reporter: So, Angel, can you tell me what a Pretendian is?

Angel Ellis, Director of Mvskoke Media and co-host of Pretendians: Yeah, a pretendian is a person who pretends to be Indian, pretends to be Native American, pretends to be an Indigenous person. And they kind of walk around presenting themselves as such to the world when they're actually not. And so that's just the basis of it. And then there's another component for the podcast that we're doing. We're looking at those pretendians, who are really impactful and affect Natives in a big way. But they're not actually of the Native community, which is weird. Like, you would think that if people are out in the world doing things that affect Natives, at least the Natives would be consulted in this. For our purposes, we're picking out the people who represent themselves as Native falsely and that they are impacting the Native community in a large and impactful way.

Liese: In a recent episode, you and co-host Robert Jago discuss Governor Kevin Stitt's identity as a Cherokee citizen. Why did you want to explore that topic?

Ellis: That one I wanted to explore because I feel like he has this really insane potential to impact a lot of Natives. Well, we know that he's impacting a lot of Natives in Oklahoma right now. And now he's in his last term as governor. And I'm seeing him get into the headlines nationally for things that have nothing to do with Oklahoma. And I see him gearing up for some kind of federal leap. We know that this is coming. And it'd be nice if he would just like come out and say what his intentions are. So, if he makes this federal jump, he has the potential to impact even more Natives. And I think we've seen his policy locally and how harmful it is. So, in my mind, he's pretendian number one right now… like potentially one of the most impactful Indians in the country.

Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks at the 2024 Governor's Arts Awards.
Kriea Arie
Legislative Service Bureau
Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks at the 2024 Governor's Arts Awards.

Liese: So, what did Governor Stitt have to say about this episode? Do you know? Has he said anything?

Ellis: OK, so it's really hard to contact Governor Stitt. You have to go through the website and you put in the request, and I heard nothing back. In fact, the whole time I've been a journalist, I've never been able to get this guy on the record. I've heard — and other Natives have discussed this —Native journos discuss how the governor's office is not very inclusive of Native journos. And so, I definitely felt that was the case here with this one. But he has addressed his identity before. He has spoken on it. And we presented what he had to say about it, and he thinks that the research done on his identities is false, and he thinks it's offensive. But so do some folks when they see his fliers claiming to be a good friend to the Natives and Cherokees. And so we just kind of put those side by side and let people look at that.

Liese: Yeah, so I'm curious. Since I'm new to Oklahoma, is it a common thing to see pretendians here? Like, are there a lot in the state?

Ellis: I don't think that many people are talking about it in Oklahoma. It's a much bigger thing in Canada, a much more talked about thing. But the pretendians are actually everywhere, like, in some shape or form, whether it's like the college girls who put on the offensive Halloween costume, and people have been taking that even further and claiming that they're Native in Oklahoma. So, I think that it's a widespread phenomenon. But I don't know if everyone in Oklahoma is like, hip to it yet. But I know that there are some really savvy Natives in Oklahoma who talk about it on Native Twitter and stuff. So, it's not foreign to Oklahoma at all.

Liese: From your research doing this podcast and just living here, how long has this pretendian issue been going on?

Ellis: Ever since some people dressed up like Natives and through tea in the harbor. Basically, those were the first part Indians, right? Like the Boston Tea Party was the first pretendians. It's always been a thing, I think, and we just called it different things. You know, like, back in the day when I was in school, it was the ‘wannabes.’ Things like that. Language shifts, but the premise has not.

Liese: Yeah, I remember growing up, my grandma used to say that, like, ‘Oh, they're a member of the wannabe tribe.’ And I'd be like, ‘Grandma!’ (chuckles) I don't want to spoil anything, but can you provide details about your favorite discovery while working on the podcast?

Ellis: So my favorite discovery, especially this episode about Governor Stitt, was that he was this door-to-door salesman in college, selling educational material. And we had a lot of fun talking about the dynamics of that and how just that job alone is so not an Indigenous person's job. Like, how many Natives do you know who in college would go into a gated community and sell things door to door? Like that is not a job that you would see a Native do. I'm afraid that they would be arrested, or the cops would be called on them just for walking around an affluent neighborhood. So that one was a really fun one to discover. I also discovered that Canada is not that peaceful, polite place that we think it is. Those stereotypes are completely dashed in other episodes, where you learn that they have biker wars, basically, in their country where the Hells Angels are feuding with other gangs. Then I learned, too, that systematic Indigenous problems are basically the same north and south of the border. Self-identification leads to really bad data, and there's this concept of, ‘Oh, the government will implement policy without really consulting the Natives.’ I'm coming to understand that it's not just here in America. It's not just Canada. This is probably something that every Indigenous person, everywhere, has faced where that dominant culture is just making things that affect your life every day, or collecting data. And I think that it really speaks to the need for data sovereignty in our communities where we are involved in that collection of data, and we hold that data in a place where we know we can access it because it's kind of like we're just being counted without input on that. And then they're using this data to make policy or to shape public perception, and that's really dangerous to Natives. So, I kind of like learning how heavy and broad that problem is by working on this podcast. And so it's a little daunting.

Liese: Yeah. And I could see also the reason why people might be pretendians also being broad. Like, some of it might be ignorance, and then others could be personal gain.

Ellis: We have an episode that hasn't come out yet about some of the media's role in birthing, pretendians, really. And we're going to take a big look at Hollywood and see how those standards have taken an idea of a Native, and then they spread it large and far. And, by the time Natives could ever get a voice in that room, a whole idealism had been established of what Natives are. And we've never had any skin in the game to prove otherwise. So I really enjoy that one. I'm hoping that's a lighter episode than some of the other investigations because it broadly examines the media's role in fostering pretendiansm, and we take a look at some fun characters.

Liese: So, what is your hope for those tuning into the Pretendians podcast?

Ellis: I really hope that people who are listening to Pretendians are understanding how dangerous it is to just kind of take on something that doesn't first belong to them, and then how they can actually have an impact in doing better how they can kind of consciously within themselves, appreciate a culture without appropriating a culture. That's my greatest hope is to educate an audience that doesn't know a lot about it. Because I think that more and more Natives are really becoming more familiar with the ways that appropriation of culture is harmful. But I don't think that we've really penetrated the dominant society's minds on that concept yet. I hope that there's at least one instance where someone goes, ‘A-ha, this is how the power needs to shift and how I can help in this way.’ So that's my overall goal. And then just to have fun with it because so many of the topics in Indian Country are very heavy. But I think that Pretendians is one that we have stepped back and laughed at for a really long time. And so I hope that that kind of comes through I hope that people can see some Native joy and how Natives actually process trauma through storytelling, really. So that's kind of the deep cut of what I hope.

Liese: Does it look like there will be another season? What is next for you and Robert in your quest to reveal fraudsters?

Ellis: Right now, we're still kind of doing little things here and there to promote it. I don't know that we're set for another season. But I will say there are gobs and oodles of content and instances for us to investigate. We have gotten six episodes in, and it's just like unfolding and unfolding. And even if we stick to the strategy that Roberts framed out in the most impactful or the most harmful cases of pretendianism, I think we could be busy for a very long time.

Liese: I'm just blown away by the content and, and the way that you guys are able to tell the story — like it's a serious subject, but the way that you guys tell it is super digestible, and fun to listen to.

Ellis: I feel like I'm kind of, at this stage in my career, I'm coming to the spot where I'm recognizing that I have this nice gift of taking something really big and crunching it down into bite-sized joke. And so like Robert brings this highly intellectual side, very formal, and following all the like, you know, rules and then I kind of current it all down into a little joke in so I get to play that role in delivering information. And it feels nice to be able to contribute in that way. Because I think we learn in that, or I know some of us do that. We can read facts all day long. But when you can crunch it down, have a laugh about it. Something sticks. You know, one of my former colleagues used to describe it as giving you the broccoli and then a bite of ice cream.

Liese: Is there anything else you want to add?

Ellis: I just want to add that Pretendians can be found wherever you listen to podcasts. Subscribe, like us. The feedback helps. You know, share it, please get that sacred algorithm working in our favor.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

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Sarah Liese reports on Indigenous Affairs for KOSU.
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