Fake “American Indians” Feature Prominently at New Haven DAPL Protest

by Kodi Alvord (Diné)

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) currently under construction in North Dakota is the site of extreme contention among indigenous activists and community members. Standing Rock Sioux tribal members are protesting, calling for an end to environmental destruction and the exploitation of Native people, land, and water. Pipeline construction has already destroyed a Lakota burial site. An oil leak would contaminate the Missouri River, and consequently the water supply for thousands of Americans. While protestors have remained peaceful, Energy Transfer Inc. (the company responsible for the pipeline’s construction) recently deployed harsh intimidation tactics including pepper spray and attack dogs to deter protesters. In the past few weeks, thousands of Native peoples throughout the country have travelled to Standing Rock in a show of intertribal solidarity.

On Wednesday, September 7, New Haven community activists and Yale students gathered outside TD Bank on 994 Chapel Street to protest the bank’s funding of the DAPL.

Independent journalist Melinda Tuhus organized the protest, titled ““New Haven Solidarity with Indigenous Defenders in North Dakota” on Facebook. “TD Bank [has] contributed $365 million to the $3.8 billion project […] there’s like 30 different institutions that are funding it,” she said. Picketers lined the sidewalk with signs and small percussion instruments, chanting, “Water is life”. Protesters accompanied Tuhus into the bank lobby, where she delivered a letter to the bank staff explaining her motivations for protesting.

Tuhus had reached out to Yale student organization Fossil Free Yale, which in turn invited members of the Association of Native Americans at Yale to participate in the protest. Katie McCleary ’18 (Chippewa-Cree/Apsáalooke) and Bobby Pourier ’20 (Oglala Lakhota) were scheduled to deliver short speeches, and Blue Feather Drum Group planned to sing the “Idle No More” song in support.

Upon arrival, students were shocked to find that in addition to the small percussion instruments, a large and unusual-looking powwow drum was being used to lead the procession. White protestors were gathered around the drum, beating it irregularly while chanting “water is life” with the other demonstrators. Adorned with fake drum-beaters, rattles, feathers, and a hatchet, the drummers did not resemble a powwow drum group.

When students asked Tuhus about the drum group, she replied that she did not know them, nor had she invited them. McCleary then informed Tuhus that the drumming was inauthentic and making students uncomfortable, and decided not to speak at the event. Pourier Jr. and Blue Feather Drum Group promptly canceled their demonstrations as well. Native students in attendance left the protest and returned to the Yale Native American Cultural Center (NACC) to process the experience.

Tuhus’ reporting prominently featured the drum group, identified by other reporters as the “Sacred Sorrow Singers.” The group’s website claims that Sacred Sorrow Singers is “a group dedicated to enriching the lives of both children and adults though empowering song-chant, indigenous drums, and rhythmic dance.” Joseph Medicinehorse, the group’s founder and leader, is a graduate of Oregon’s National College of Naturopathic Medicine and an adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport, where he teaches “Nutrition, Oncology and the Philosophy of Healing.” A search for “Medicinehorse” in the National College of Naturopathic Medicine alumni directory yields no results. A search for “Joseph” reveals “Dr. Joe’s” real last name: DelGrosso. Under his actual name, DelGrosso’s personal website advertises naturopathic medical treatment, but makes no mention of Sacred Sorrow Singers.

When discussing issues relevant to Native peoples, it is important to elevate Native voices. Sacred Sorrow Singers is not a real powwow drum group, and Joseph DelGrosso is not American Indian. Powwow groups don’t chant, they sing. “I know the protestors outside TD Bank had good intentions,” said Chase Warren ’20 (Standing Rock Sioux), “but because they were trying too hard to act Native, I felt uneasy.”

“There’s a right way to honor the ancestors,” commented Pourier. “The right way to do that,” he added, “would be to learn from elders and make sure that you’re doing things in a right way. The wrong way is to show up to protests out of nowhere and wear tie-dye t-shirts with beads on them in a headdress.”

According to Kelly Fayard (Poarch Band of Creek Indians), Director of the NACC, culturally appropriative displays from groups like the Sacred Sorrow Singers—though well intentioned—are harmful. “While there has always been a fascination with Native culture, and Plains Native culture in particular,” she explained, “it feeds into stereotypes that are perpetuated against Native peoples each and every day.”

“It is so important that Natives themselves get to dictate their own stories,” Fayard concluded.