When Canadian pop singer Justin Bieber revealed in Rolling Stone that he believes he’s part Native, he wasn’t breaking new ground for a celebrity—believing or claiming to have Native ancestry is nearly as much as a celebrity-interview cliche as “…but what I really want to do is direct.” However, throwing in the comment that he thinks he could get “free gas” because of his heritage turned a perhaps-interesting detail about him into a confession of ignorance.
Many celebrities with no documented Tribal affiliation have said they’re part Native—and there’s usually little reason to doubt the sincerity of their beliefs. But there’s a difference between having an Indian ancestor and actually knowing anything about Indians. It may seem like obvious advice, but perhaps it should be the first lesson a publicist drills into a client: If you don’t know what you’re talking about, best keep your mouth shut. Here are some celebrities who have managed to discuss the Native roots they believe they possess—without pulling a Bieber.
The list of celebrities who’ve said they have Native heritage is extremely long, and often the detail finds its way into the biography without a clear statement from the star. Such is the case with Channing Tatum, star of Magic Mike, who may be as much as a quarter Native American. In a cover feature in GQmagazine from 2009, the writer described Tatum thusly: “He’s 29. A part Native American son of a roofer who fell through a roof, broke his back, and ended up a traveling salesman, and of a mother who never doubted him.” Did Tatum say he’s Native? Presumably he did, and presumably GQ fact-checks its articles. Still, we don’t have a direct quote, much less a specific Tribal heritage.
In a 2006 interview, High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens was asked about her ethnicity; she answered “Gosh, I’m everything. Pretty much I’m Filipino and Caucasian but within that, I’m Spain Spanish, Chinese, American Indian, Irish. ”
The lead singer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers is said to be of Mohican ancestry on his mother’s side. In 2007, after the birth of his son, Everly Bear, he told People that the name had some Native significance to him: “The mama came up with Bear. … That made sense to me because he’s from me and I feel like I’m part of the bear clan, and I think it’s nice to have a little bit of earth in your name.”
In 2010, Megan Fox said that she’d really like to play the Apache superhero Rainmaker if the Gen 13comic book were ever made into a movie. In slightly defensive remarks, she said she wouldn’t want “people” (presumably Indians) to “protest” if she were in the role: “She’s a Native American and I have a little bit of that blood in me. … It would be a bit of a stretch—but if Jake Gyllenhaal can be the Prince of Persia, I think that I can do that.”
The actor playing Tonto in the movie version of The Lone Ranger (coming 2013) has been asked about his Native heritage, and answered at length for an Entertainment Weekly article: “I guess I have some Native American somewhere down the line,” he says. “My great grandmother was quite a bit of Native American, she grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian. Makes sense in terms of coming from Kentucky, which is rife with Cherokee and Creek.” He also added some speculation which, had he not cited his sources, might have come off as Bieber-esque: “The interesting thing … if you find out you’ve got Native American blood, which a lot of people do, is you think about where it comes from and go back and read the great books, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee or [John Ehle’s] Trail of Tears, you have to think, somewhere along the line, I’m the product of some horrific rape. You just have that little sliver in your chemical makeup.”
It’s been well documented that many supporting actors who play Quileute Indians in the Twilight movies—Chaske Spencer, Gil Birmingham and Julia Jones, to name a few—are of Native heritage. But what about Taylor Lautner, one of the leads, who plays Quileute Jacob Black? In an interview from 2008 Comic Con, he answers the question very simply: “I have some Native American in my distant background.”
The Jonas Brothers
Following her rise to prominence in American Pie, actress Shannon Elizabeth (born Shannon Elizabeth Fadal) mentioned Cherokee as one of several components of her mother’s heritage. “My father is half-Syrian, my mother a mix of English, Irish, German and Cherokee,” Elizabeth said in 2000, as quoted in the Orlando Sentinel. “I guess you could say she’s a mutt, but she’s the best mom in the world.”
Tommy Lee Jones
The Oscar-winning Hollywood actor took ownership of his Indian roots as few seeming Caucasians do; in statements that ran in Cowboys & Indians magazine, he said that what he’d achieved in his life was, “Not bad for a little Indian boy. Not bad.” Jones’ claim is on his grandmother’s side; when the writer asked him what tribe she was from, Jones replied: “It’s not a tribe. It’s a nation. … The Cherokee Nation.”