Indianz.Com > News > ‘Not a tribal citizen’: Prominent Hollywood figure Heather Rae lacks connection to Cherokee Nation
From left: Amber Midthunder, Jhane Myers, Heather Rae and Crystal Echo Hawk pose at an event hosted by the Illuminative organization during the Indian Market art festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on August 20, 2022. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
‘Not a tribal citizen’
Prominent Hollywood figure Heather Rae has claimed Cherokee for decades
Monday, March 27, 2023
By Acee Agoyo
The Cherokee Nation is distancing itself from a prominent Hollywood filmmaker, confirming Heather Rae isn’t a tribal citizen and hasn’t benefited from film incentives offered on the reservation.
In a statement on Sunday, the tribe’s business arm said it provided funding in support of Fancy Dance. The project, in fact, was the first recipient of incentives provided through a $1 million program at the Cherokee Nation Film Office.
“The Cherokee Nation Film Office provided funding in support of ‘Fancy Dance’ based on its production expenses while filming within the Cherokee Nation Reservation, as well as the film’s more than 200 background actors, cast and crew who provided CDIB verification of citizenship in a federally recognized tribe,” Brandon Scott, the vice president of enterprise communications for Cherokee Nation Businesses, said in the statement.
But Scott said Rae did not benefit from the incentive program, which is the first of its kind in Indian Country. The distinction is significant because Rae — unlike most of the cast and crew — lacks ties to a tribal nation, so she wouldn’t qualify for one of the main requirements of the initiative.
“Heather Rae is not a citizen of the Cherokee Nation,” Scott said in the statement. “She has no affiliation with Cherokee Nation Film Office and was not included in any funding it provided to
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Rae, however, has claimed to be Cherokee since the early days of her decades-long career, one in which she has emerged as a key player in the film and television industry, where American Indian and Alaska Native voices are all but invisible. When asked 17 years ago about being “part Native American,” she had a quick answer.
“What tribe?” the host of the Idaho Public Television show inquired in March 2006.
“Cherokee,” said Rae, who was raised in Idaho and who nodded repeatedly when asked about her heritage.
While asserting to be Cherokee, Rae has centered herself as a creator of Native stories, the kind that rarely get told in Hollywood. She ran the “Indigenous” program at the Sundance Institute, which organizes the largest independent film festival in the United States, before going on to write, direct and produce a series of projects with Native themes, including the Oscar-nominated Frozen River.
Her hometown newspaper, The Idaho Statesman in Boise, where she resided at the time, touted “Heather Rae’s Cherokee heritage” in a story about the dress she wore to the Oscars award ceremony in February 2009. A year later, the paper reported her to be the “daughter of a Cherokee mother and a father who was a fifth-generation Idahoan.”
The headline of the April 2010 story: “Heather Rae snags big Hollywood deal.”
Heather Rae, far left, leads a discussion about Native representation in film with actress Amber Midthunder, center, and producer Jhane Myers during the Indian Market art festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on August 20, 2022. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Rae, whose husband and daughter are also part of the film and television industry, has definitely won big in the time since the local coverage. She joined The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2016 — the same year the organization that produces the Oscars made a concerted push to invite more women and people of color to diversify what has historically been a White and male-dominated institution.
With another Hollywood development deal on the books and more producing credits to her name,
Rae is furthering her Native-related efforts as part of The Academy’s Indigenous Alliance. Her role has taken on major significance in helping the organization confront its self-admitted problematic past.
Just last June, The Academy in a “Statement of Reconciliation” said the guidance provided by Rae’s group has ensured that the Oscars “are firm in our commitment to ensuring indigenous voices—the original storytellers—are visible, respected contributors to the global film community.”
But the statement, which was presented as an apology to Sacheen Littlefeather for her treatment at the Oscars ceremony in 1973, has led to a gradual unraveling of the Hollywood narrative as one of more fiction than fact — with Rae at the center of controversies in which the industry continues to fall short in recognizing tribal self-determination and sovereignty despite it being enshrined in law and policy across the land.
A June 28, 2022, “Statement of Reconciliation” signed by David Rubin, then serving as President of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
In fact, when questioned about Littlefeather’s lack of ties to the two tribal nations she claimed for decades, The Academy refused to speak on the record with Indianz.Com despite reaching out and asking for coverage of the September 2022 event where Rae’s “input and wisdom” were praised from the stage by the organization’s current and immediate past leadership.
A month prior, Indianz.Com sent a detailed list of questions, inquiring whether The Academy contacted the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and the White Mountain Apache Tribe, consulted them or included them in planning for the event. The inquiry also asked specifically whether The Academy accepts “self-identification” of tribal identity.
In materials for the celebration, Littlefeather was labeled as “(Apache/Yaqui/AZ)” — with “AZ” denoting the state of Arizona, where the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and the White Mountain Apache Tribe are headquartered. Still, a spokesperson for The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, California, where the program with Littlefeather took place, said answers to questions about tribal inclusion weren’t pertinent to an event that was presented as “healing” for the way Native people have been treated in Hollywood.
“Off the record, as a majority of your questions do not pertain to the museum’s September 17 program, we are not able to participate in your story,” Stephanie Sykes, the director of communication for the museum, wrote in an August 29, 2022, email.
Sykes had not asked Indianz.Com beforehand for agreement on whether to go off the record in any of her communications. She also did not respond when Indianz.Com had offered to speak via phone about the detailed questions during initial contact with The Academy on August 15.
From left: Heather Rae, Calina Lawrence, Sacheen Littlefeather (Maria Louise Cruz) and Bird Runningwater are seen at The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, California, on September 17, 2022. The photo was shared on social media by Runningwater, who thanked his “Academy peers and colleagues” for hosting an event in honor of Littlefeather.
But after Littlefeather’s lack of ties to her claimed tribal nations became the subject of widespread mainstream media coverage following the publication of Native journalist Jacqueline Keeler’s expose in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Academy indeed confirmed that “self-identification” is employed by the organization. A statement traced the organization’s standard to Rae’s group.
“With the support of its Indigenous Alliance — an Academy member affinity group — the Academy recognizes self-identification,” the organization told news media after Littlefeather, whose real name was Maria Louise Cruz, passed away on October 2, 2022.
Rae and N. Bird Runningwater, who hails from the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes and the Mescalero Apache Tribe, and is widely said to be the “co-chair” of the Indigenous Alliance are featured prominently in photographs with Littlefeather from the September event, which a slew of Native industry figures, including directors, writers, producers and actors, also attended.
Just two weeks later, Rae and Runningwater, who joined The Academy in 2019, attended a public memorial for Littlefeather that took place at a Catholic Church in the Bay Area of California, where Cruz was born and raised. One of
Cruz’s two surviving sisters spoke at the event and confirmed that her family was not part of any tribe before the priest who led the service approached her in an apparent attempt to get her to stop talking.
But as outlined in the statement from Cherokee Nation Businesses, “self-identification” alone is not sufficient for one of the two largest federally-recognized tribes in the U.S. In announcing the film incentive program last year, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said “Native American citizens” and “Native-owned businesses” are the intended beneficiaries.
“Together, we are changing the narrative about Native peoples and culture,” Hoskin said in an opinion published on Indianz.Com. “We are correcting many years of misrepresentation and harmful stereotypes. We are bringing diversity and accurate representations of Native identity to the film industry, and we are giving Native writers, directors, actors and other creative talent the chance to share our stories with the world.”
The “self-identification” standard, though, boosts people like Rae, who lacks ties to the Cherokee Nation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians or the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes. Together, the three tribes have long sought to address fraudulent Cherokee claims, whether from individuals or groups, including those that benefit financially from assertions of their status.
Yet going forward, The Academy’s embrace of “self-identification” will be taking on even greater significance. With the 96th Oscars next year, eligibility in the Best Picture category will be based on a set of representation and inclusion standards — notably whether anyone who claims to be “Indigenous/Native American/Alaskan Native” is seen in front of the camera, worked behind the scenes, or was involved in audience development.
Littlefeather, ironically, delivered remarks at the 45th Oscars on behalf of the late actor Marlon Brando, who won an Oscar for Best Actor in The Godfather, which won Best Picture.
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Besides her development deals and her work with The Academy, Rae has been employed since 2018 as a Narrative Change Strategist by Illuminative, which was established, in part, to ensure accurate depictions of Native peoples in media. On behalf of the organization, she led a discussion about Native representation in film and television during the annual Santa Fe Indian Market in New Mexico last year.
In a story published by The New York Post on Sunday, the paper said a “source close to IllumiNative” attempted to connect the concept of blood quantum to Rae’s claims about her tribal identity. Notably, the Cherokee Nation does not base citizenship on blood quantum.
The story also highlighted research conducted the “FakeIndians” blog which said Rae was born to Vernon Ray Bybee and to Barbara Jane Means. According to numerous records posted by the site, no one from Rae’s paternal or maternal family can be connected to any of the three Cherokee tribes.
Publicly available records reviewed by Indianz.Com show Vernon and Barbara were married in Las Vegas, Nevada, in March 1966. Both of their residences at the time were listed as being in Pocatello, in the southern part of Idaho.
A birth record shows Heather Rae Bybee as being born in California in October 1966. Other publicly available documents, including high school yearbook listings and photos, show a person with the same name later living in Meridian, a city near Boise, also in southern Idaho.
After Rae’s parents divorced, her father remarried and later resided in Salmon, in the central part of the state. The locations coincide with the April 2010 Idaho Statesman story which reported where Rae grew up after being born to a “Cherokee mother.”
Fancy Dance was directed, co-written and co-produced by Erica Tremblay, a citizen of the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe. Runningwater was an executive producer on the film, which is screening at the Sun Valley Film Festival in Idaho later this week.