Jamake Highwater

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Jamake Highwater
Jackie Marks

13 February 1931
Los Angeles, California, US
DiedJune 1, 2001(2001-06-01) (aged 70)[1]
Los Angeles, California, US
AwardsNewbery Honor

Jamake Highwater, born as Jackie Marks, and also known as Jay or J Marks (14 February 1931–June 3, 2001), was an American writer and journalist of eastern European Jewish ancestry.[1] From the late 1960s he claimed to be of Native American ancestry, specifically Cherokee. In that period, he published extensively under the name of Jamake Highwater. One version of his shifting story was that he had been adopted as a child and taken from his Indian home in Montana to grow up in a Greek or Armenian family in Los Angeles, California.

Highwater later lived in San Francisco, where he formed a dance company for a time, before moving to New York City in the late 1960s. It was a time of increasing Native American activism in the United States. After this move, about 1969 Highwater assumed a false American Indian identity as Cherokee, using the name "Jamake Highwater" for his writings. He never said that he was enrolled in the tribe, but that he had "recovered" his Native identity.[2]

As Highwater, he wrote and published more than 30 fiction and non-fiction books of music, art, poetry and history. His children's novel Anpao: An American Indian Odyssey (1973) received a Newbery Honor. His book The Primal Mind: Vision and Reality in Indian America (1981) was the basis of a PBS film documentary about Native American culture. He also made other documentaries for PBS.

His fabrications were exposed in 1984 by activist Hank Adams (Sioux-Assiniboine) and reporter Jack Anderson in separate publications. Highwater had already received more than $800,000 in grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from 1982 to 1983, based on his claims to be Native American.[1] Despite this documentation by Adams and Anderson, Highwater continued to be widely perceived as Native American.

He was invited to speak and participate as such in cultural activities, although he received no more federal grants on Native American topics. His claims about his year and place of birth, and the circumstances of his adoption, were reported as part of his obituaries in 2001 in mainstream press such as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Hank Adams wrote an Open Letter to the Editor in response, rejecting again Highwater's claims. In 2015 Indian Country Today reported additional findings about Highwater's elaborate pose. It published a copy of his 1931 birth certificate as Jackie Marks from Los Angeles, and a photograph of his father's military gravestone, marked with the Jewish symbol, a Star of David.[1]

Early life, education and career[edit]

After Highwater died in 2001, researchers found his correct Social Security Number, and thereafter his California birth certificate. This upended his misrepresentations about his parents, birthplace and birth day, and early life. He was born on 13 February 1931 in Los Angeles as Jackie Marks to parents Martha (Turetz) Marks, then 27, and Alexander Marks, then 49; they were born in Philadelphia and New York City, respectively.[1] His parents were found by researchers to each have immigrant grandparents of Eastern European Jewish ancestry; his father's family had likely anglicized their name to Marks. His father's Jewish identification was affirmed by his family requesting a Star of David for his military gravestone. Alexander Marks was a veteran of World War I.[1]

While living in San Francisco, Highwater started a small dance company, the San Francisco Contemporary Dancers. He was the principal director and choreographer from 1954 to 1967. In the late 1960s, he moved to New York City around 1969. He also started publishing professionally as J. Marks. In New York, he started using the name Jamake Highwater and claiming to be Cherokee and Native American.[3] At various times he said his father was Eastern Cherokee and his mother, whom he called Marcia Highwater, was Blackfoot/French.[4] Native American intellectual Gerald Vizenor (Anishinaabe) described individuals such as Highwater, who took on identities as Native American, as "varionatives" in his 2000 book Fugitive Poses.[4]

Following his move to New York in 1969, Highwater claimed his new identity: he said that he had been adopted as an Indian child from Montana by a Greek-American family and raised in Los Angeles (another version said the family was Armenian). He at one time said that the Marks family had adopted him as a child.[5][2] In yet another version he said both his parents were Cherokee.[1] He reportedly graduated from North Hollywood High School. He said he attended college in Los Angeles and gained a PhD degree by the age of 20; this was never documented.[1]

Highwater claimed not to know the year or place of his birth. A Los Angeles Times obituary gave a birthdate of February 14, 1942 in Montana as one possibility.[6] Other sources claimed he was born as early as the 1920s.[3]


Highwater wrote and published more than 30 fiction and non-fiction books, including children's books, and works about music, art, poetry and history. His pseudonym "Jamake Highwater" appeared on Anpao: An American Indian Odyssey (1973), a children's book; and The Sun, He Dies: A Novel About the End of the Aztec World (1980).[7]

In 1981 Highwater published a non-fiction book, The Primal Mind: Vision and Reality in Indian America.[7] By this time, he had made many connections in the media world. PBS adapted this book as the basis of a documentary about Native American culture, The Primal Mind (1984). Highwater served as the host of the documentary.[7] He established the Primal Mind Foundation to support studies of Native American spirituality.

Highwater "gained wide public exposure"[7] through making several documentaries on Native American culture for PBS television, and serving as host.[6] In the 1980s he was known nationally as a Native American figure. In 1993 Highwater was a consultant on the TV series Star Trek: Voyager for the character Chakotay.[1] The character was broadly defined within the show as being Native American.

Highwater also wrote for the New Grove Dictionary of American Music and the Los Angeles Free Press.[8][7]

False ancestry claims[edit]

As noted, by the early 1960s, Highwater was using the name J. Marks when writing professionally. In 1969 he moved to New York City and started using the name Jamake Highwater,[3] claiming he was of American Indian ancestry, particularly Cherokee. He gave conflicting accounts of his background.[2]

Highwater's false claims to American Indian ancestry were explored and documented by Hank Adams (Assiniboine) in a 1984 Akwesasne Notes article. He identified Highwater's inconsistencies about birthplace and date, parents, college, and other biographical details.[2] Between 1982 and 1983 Highwater and his Primal Mind Foundation had received more than $825,000 in federal grant money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), based on his claimed identification as Native American.[2] His claims of Native ancestry were strongly disputed by American Indian activists and intellectuals,[2] who argued that his works were inauthentic and stereotypical. They said that he had illegally received the grant money by misrepresenting material facts about his life.[9]

Investigative journalist Jack Anderson followed up on Highwater in 1984, revealing the inconsistencies in the writer's biography and ultimately, his pose. His column, "A Fabricated Indian?", was published in The Washington Post.[9] Following the major exposé by Anderson, Highwater stopped claiming Cherokee heritage in his promotional literature. But he continued to take advantage of having become publicly established as an "Indian" figure.[2] When questioned by Anderson about why he had assumed a Cherokee identity, Highwater said that he had thought he could not break into the writing world otherwise.[4]

Two years after Anderson's expose, Highwater published Shadow Show: An Autobiographical Insinuation (1986), in which he wrote: "the greatest mystery of my life is my own identity."[4] Vizenor commented on this that the "impostor" was an artist, and his "insinuations are clever simulations, but surely not a great mystery."[4]

Highwater returned to the West Coast, living in Los Angeles in his later years. He died of a heart attack at home on June 3, 2001. Mainstream press such as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times carried obituaries that repeated his false claims about his alleged Native American background.[6][7] Through his attorney, Highwater had blocked access to his papers for at least 50 years.[1]

In response to the published mainstream obituaries, activist Hank Adams (Assiniboine) published an open letter in 2001 that detailed Highwater's many falsehoods:

This man was the Golden Indian … he made gold, he made money. It's about stolen voices … he blocked millions of dollars in funding to real Indian writers. We ended his federal funding and TV contracts, but he's still an Indian author, he sold more books than Vine Deloria, his work is still taught in schools and universities to Native and non-Native students. He died an Indian, his lawyer handles his estate and all its Indian royalties. At least this ends it for sure … it finishes his career as an Indian and an Indian expert. He's Jack Marks…not Jamake Highwater. Remember that. He's Jack Marks … not Jamake Highwater. There never was a Jamake Highwater.[1]

Honors and legacy[edit]

  • His children's novel Anpao: An American Indian Odyssey (1973) received a Newbery Honor.[7]
  • His children's books received "a half-dozen Best Book for Young Adults awards from the American Library Association and School Library Journal."[7]
  • His book The Primal Mind: Vision and Reality in Indian America (1981) was the basis of a PBS documentary, The Primal Mind (1984).[7]

Representations in other media[edit]

  • According to Alex Jacobs, Gerald Vizenor (Anishinaabe) in his 1988 novel, The Trickster of Liberty, based his character Homer Yellow Snow on Jamake Highwater. Jacobs notes that Yellow Snow says to his Native audience:

If you knew who you were, why did you find it so easy to believe in me? … because you want to be white, and no matter what you say in public, you trust whites more than you trust Indians, which is to say, you trust pretend Indians more than real ones.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Alex Jacobs, "Fool’s Gold: The Story of Jamake Highwater, the Fake Indian Who Won’t Die", Indian Country Today, 19 June 2015
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Shanley, Kathryn (December 1, 2001). "The Indians America Loves". In Bataille, Gretchen M. (ed.). Native American Representations. University of Nebraska Press. pp. 32–33. ISBN 9780803200036. Retrieved 2 November 2014.
  3. ^ a b c Chavers, Dean (2009). Racism in Indian Country. Peter Lang. p. 42. ISBN 9781433103933. Retrieved November 3, 2014.
  4. ^ a b c d e Gerald Robert Vizenor, Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence, University of Nebraska Press, 2000, pp. 67-69
  5. ^ http://archives.nypl.org/mss/1395
  6. ^ a b c Myrna, Oliver (June 9, 2001). "Jamake Highwater; Wrote About Native American Culture, History". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 2, 2014.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Associated Press, "Jamake Highwater, American Indian Author", The New York Times, 16 June 2001
  8. ^ Russell, Steve (July 1, 2015). "Rachel Dolezal Outs Andrea Smith Again; Will Anybody Listen This Time?". Indian Country Today Media Network. Retrieved 5 July 2015.
  9. ^ a b Anderson, Jack (February 16, 1984). "A Fabricated Indian?". Washington Post.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]