Jack Marks Is Dead,
Oh Well

Jack Marks died on June 3, 2001, in Los Angeles. At least, Jack Marks seems to have been his most likely name. For twenty-five years, he conned white American intelligentsia — including PBS, the American Library Association, Joseph Campbell, the New York Public Library, and Oxford University Press — into believing he was an American Indian intellectual. His Indian identity, fluid as mercury, was named Jamake Highwater.

It was as J Marks (one version of his biography claims "he never had a first name," apparently one of the poignant indignities of being an orphan) that he published his first two books, pieces of shock journalism called, respectively, Rock and Other Four Letter Words and Mick Jagger.
Dancing Badger
The latter was distinguished mainly for its arch implication that the author had confirmed Jagger's bisexual tastes through first-hand experience.

...for about ten years, he parlayed a glib tongue and sociopathic shamelessness into a major career as that "freak of nature," an Indian intellectual.

But in the mid-seventies, being homosexual wasn't quite the publicity generator that being Indian was, so Marks dropped his gay dancer/rock journalist persona for an Indian heritage as dubious as it was profitable.

In 1975, as "Blackfoot/Cherokee" Jamake Highwater, he wrote the Fodor Guide to Indian America. Then, for about ten years, he parlayed a glib tongue and sociopathic shamelessness into a major career as that freak of nature, an Indian intellectual. I use "freak of nature" with some irony, please. Part of his schtick was that "his own people" couldn't appreciate him because he was an intellectual. And part of his appeal to white folks was that he satisfied their idea of what an Indian intellectual should be. White folks have always had a bit of trouble understanding that they are not the crown of creation and sum of human evolution.
Real Indian Writers
Simon J. Ortiz
Somehow for them, a dirty old shaman living in a trailer home just doesn't seem like an "intellectual." But Highwater, the Debra Paget of white American academe's Indian dreams, was made for prime time.

He was gorgeous. He read Joseph Campbell and agreed with him. He appreciated Anais Nin and Karlheinz Stockhausen. He spoke English. Never mind that his writing was a pastiche of other peoples' work including, if some charges are true, blatant plagiarism. He dealt glibly with the clichés and generalizations that littered the unexamined closets of American ideas about Indians, not giving us new insights but reinforcing common knowledge and accepted wisdom. He told white intellectuals what they wanted to hear, a refined version of the misinformation and steroetypes the less-educated American commoners knew about the native peoples of America, and he lived and behaved like a white man. No nasty Sundance scars, no criminal record, no beat-up one-eyed Fords, no public intoxication. A breath of white air.

Exposed in 1984

In 1984, Indian rights activist Hank Adams wrote an exposé for Akwesasne Notes that tracked the lies, inconsistencies, and legal records of Highwater's life back to the conclusion that he was actually a Greek dancer named Markopoulos, nearly fifteen years older than he claimed to be, and no more Indian than he was Martian. Highwater protested and resisted, and went back to "more general themes," as the biographical note at the New York Public Library puts it. In fact, he went back to the rather specific theme of "queer genius" schtick, writing about homosexuals, who were a bit more popular than in the previous decade, and didn't have nasty attitudes about imposters. (And, after all, his homosexual credentials were not elaborate fictions.)

He died surrounded by his advocates, including Ashley Montagu, who defended him in public remarks that, once I read them, destroyed my respect for this pioneering anthropologist (regarding attacks on Highwater's ethics, Montagu told a reporter, "I don't see a point in it even if he murdered four people and crucified 35 others." Philadelphia Daily News, Monday, Nov. 4, 1991).
Real Indian Writers
Leslie Silko
Whether he really was Gregory Markopoulos is uncertain. Though Adams has made a persuasive case, Highwater's publicity machine produced evidence that Markopoulos was dead. If not Markopoulos, he was definitely Jack Marks, and he certainly was not Jamake Highwater.

I interviewed Highwater in January of 1978, when he came to Denver to speak at the new Colorado Historical Museum and to promote his new book on American Indian art. I told my wife later that he looked like "an Indian Robert Redford." I was taken in, but even then I felt he looked more Turkish than American Indian. His Indianness was too studied to be quite believeable. And yet, he knew his material and he knew the "right things" to say. (A tragedy of the man's life was that he was an intelligent, accomplished researcher and gifted writer, and did not need to lie to have a place in the literary scene.) I accepted his claims and wrote a positive, if not glowing piece on him, identifying him as a potential popularizer of a more informed view of native America.

However, I was working at the same time on an essay about powwows. I had used his Fodor Guide as an essential resource, but I was also relying on local contacts. A key contact was an elderly Sioux woman (Lakota, I think, but it's been twenty years), a BIA official and prime mover in the National Congress of American Indians. I mentioned him to her, and she told me that he had upset the local Indians. He had asked to be allowed to sit in on a meeting of the executive committee of the White Buffalo Council, and when they agreed, he added to his curriculum vitae that he had "been invited to join the White Buffalo Council."

Highwater turned up a few months later as a Canadian Blackfoot, and soon he was pestering an elder of the Blood reserve to give him a tribal name.

Sure enough, his novel Anpao, then recently published, mentions on the dustjacket that he was a member of the White Buffalo Council.

Helen was not a woman to cross. When she became suspicious, she used her BIA connections and determined, as she told me, that the name "Highwater" does not appear on any tribal rolls. No Cherokees; no Blackfeet.
Real Indian Writers
Joseph Marshall
The BIA records only covered U.S. tribes, of course. Highwater turned up a few months after this investigation, coincidentally, as a Canadian Blackfoot, and soon he was pestering an elder of the Blood reserve to give him a tribal name. I did a bit of investigation on my own after talking to Helen, and I discovered that Highwater's illustrator, Asa Battles, was indeed from Oklahoma but not, as Highwater called him, "Indian." I contacted Battles directly (he lived in Denver, not far from my own home). When I asked about Highwater's identifying him as an Indian artist, he said simply, "Where did he get that idea?" We might well ask.

The Ageless Indian

Highwater's age was as nebulous as his heritage. When I met him, I was 33 and he looked older than I. I've always been terrible with age estimates more precise than younger/older. I would have guessed ten years older, but he had that "preserved" look of the vain and wealthy, so his real age was hard to determine. J Marks' bio on the back of Mick Jagger says he was born in 1942 and graduated from high school at 13 (i.e., 1955). That would make him three years older than I was. In fact, he was more than ten years older, nearly fifteen. In 1978 he was between 45 and 50 years old.

In 1991 he told an interviewer that North Hollywood schoolmate Susan Sontag was "4 or 5 years older than me." If either Sontag or Marks was "5 years older," they wouldn't have been high school contemporaries unless one of them was advanced or held back. Of course, Highwater claimed to have been advanced nearly four years, to graduate at thirteen. He also told the interviewer that he read Anais Nin's A Spy in the House of Love when he was 11, before he met her. Spy was published in 1954. If he was eleven, he was born in 1943.

"Mom, am I eight, or twenty?"

As it turned out, he was more on the order of 24 when it was published.

Pressed to explain the contradictions in his own story, Highwater fell back on his status as an "adopted" child, claiming that he couldn't be sure when he was born. The NYPL archivist recorded Highwater's own explanation for the confusion about his age. He was adopted, supposedly, when he was "seven," and therefore always lived uncertain about his age. (This also accounts for the "lack" of a first name.
Real Indian Writers
Ray Young Bear
Apparently his adoptive parents didn't care enough about him to name him.) One imagines the day when, sitting at his adopted family's table, he turned to his new mother and said, "Mom, am I eight, or twenty?" And she, of course, was uncertain. Depending on which versions you buy, he was adopted when he was somewhere between six and eighteen. A few years of vagueness is believeable. A dozen?

Looking back on the tissue of lies with which he invested his life, one wonders how he could have been so vain as to believe he could get away with them. Some are so outrageous they defy reality. Adams found pictures of him in the yearbook of his high school, showing him graduating, looking a bit older than his classmates, in 1950. When, if he was born in 1942, he was eight. The shaving of time off his age was an obsession, clearly. But the New York Public Library comes closer to the truth with its estimate that he was born in 1930-33, making him the right age to graduate in 1950.
Real Indian Writers
Louise Erdrich
It fails to note where Highwater got the "Ph.D." he claimed to have secured by the time he was twenty (cover bio on Mick Jagger in 1973). Highwater's self-publicizing Native Land Foundation site also fails to mention anything about his formal education in a lengthy resumé.

When I interviewed him in 1978, Highwater shocked me with his attitude — wry humor — when he told me that his father had been a Blackfoot and John Wayne's stunt double, and had died while doing a horse stunt dead drunk. It wasn't a story I found amusing or even ironic, and I chose not to repeat it. Six months later, in another interview, he mentioned that his father had died in an automobile accident. Los Angeles Indians have trouble distinguishing cars from horses, apparently.

Deserted by His "Many Indian Friends"

When Hank Adams went after Highwater, the latter was, according to the NYPL archivist, "disappointed by the failure of many Indian friends and associates to support him against the attacks."
Real Indian Writers
James Welch
One wonders, in hindsight, who these "Indian friends" might have been. He had his share of "associates," but it is notable that in all his self-published endorsements (at the web site of his "foundation", for example) only two are by Indians — Scott Momaday's praise of Anpao and a sentence of generalized approval from LaDonna Harris. The attitude of Joe DeLaCruz, the 1984 President of National Congress of American Indians, was more typical of real Indians. DeLaCruz had this to say when he booted Highwater out of the NCAI:

"This person is not an Indian, has no personal or professional experience or academic expertise regarding Indians, has falsely held himself forth as an Indian and an Indian expert, has claimed academic credentials he does not possess and has published under his own name extremely derivative materials from the works of others. Importantly, this person has invented and repeated stereotypic and biased information about Indians."

That about sums it up. But it carried no weight with Oxford University Press, PBS, or the arts funding organizations.

There is a box in the NYPL archives rather poignantly labeled, apparently by Highwater, "Letters From Famous People."
Real Indian Writers
D'Arcy McNickle
In it are six letters from slightly famous Indian Leslie Silko. The rest of Highwater's autograph collection is famous non-Indian people. And nothing from Silko's letters was turned public by Highwater's massive publicity machine, so one doubts that those were fan mail. His "Indian friends" were silent, anonymous, and apparently non-famous, unlike his Indian critics, who included somewhat famous historian and social critic Vine Deloria, Jr.

Not that anyone was all that interested in what Indians had to say about him. Why was he disliked? Jealousy? Envy? That's his story. But no, Joe DeLaCruz hits the nail on the head. He might have been forgiven for stealing grant money that should have gone to real Indians like Jim Welch, Hanay Geiogamah, Leslie Silko, Tomson Highway, Ray Young Bear. Grant money going to fake Indians? There was nothing new about that. He might have been forgiven a trumped up Cherokee grandmother (a "princess," of course). He might have been forgiven the fact that for all his noisy Indian sympathies, he gave nothing back to the people he exploited. (His "Native Land Foundation," despite its promising name, promoted "world art," not American Indians.

The autobiography that Highwater invented for himself... is a pernicious, vicious farrago of stereotypes and racism.

And it was, as a visit to its web site will demonstrate, little more than a tax dodge for the entrepreneurial Highwater.)

The Real Reason for Animosity

The real reason for the animosity and contempt that dogged Highwater was the slant of the Indian autobiography Highwater invented for himself. It is a pernicious, vicious farrago of stereotypes and racism, starting from the drunken clown of a father, including his variously-named Cherokee mother who was supposedly "very anti-white and very, very racist," supposedly because her parents had died of starvation. It included the "anti-white gangs" he "led" as a young boy (less than seven years old?) on some imaginary Blackfoot reservation, apparently in Canada, where he lived with his Cherokee mother while his Blackfoot father sopped up rotgut in LA. (Interestingly, Highwater got it backwards in the 1991 interview. For a brief period, it was his mother who was Blackfoot and his father Cherokee. Children of adoption apparently suffer from unique memory lapses.) Even the white teacher, Alta Black, who, according to Highwater, "learned Blackfoot" to help his people, recognized his genius early in his youth, and encouraged him to rise from the squalor of his heritage to the heights of literary fame, contributes to the stereotype. (And it turns out that Mrs. Black taught exclusively in Los Angeles from 1924 until her death,
Real Indian Writers
Charles Eastman
so her Blackfoot linguistic skills must have been of use only in the Blackfoot neighborhoods of LA.)

Highwater's novel, Kill Hole, renders his invented autobiography as a revelatory and self-serving allegory. Here is the Kirkus Review synopsis:

Highwater offers a dark, elegiac modern myth about a young Native American who, as a little boy, is torn from his roots and his true identity; this doomed and lonely protagonist later loses his cultured urban life and his identity as an artist because he falls into the murderous hands of a mysterious and ignorant people. (Quoted from Amazon.com)

"A mysterious and ignorant people"? With friends like this, Indians don't need enemies. He smiled pretty, and he was an evil man. Miss him? Not for a minute.

Here is the text of Hank Adams' response to the news of Highwater's death. I can't vouch for the truth of the details, but then, in the world of Jamake Highwater, truth never counted for much.

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