Among the persistently small number of people in the Indigenous film community who are known in the larger Hollywood ecosystem, Heather Rae has been a mainstay. The independent film producer formerly ran the Sundance Institute’s Native Program (now known as the Indigenous Program), she serves on the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ Indigenous Alliance and her credits, which often feature Native American characters and culture, include 2005 documentary Trudell, 2008 Oscar-nominated Frozen River and 2023 family drama Fancy Dance, which premiered at Sundance in January.
Over the decades, the Idaho-raised Rae, 56, described her heritage as Cherokee on her mother’s side, an identification that has been repeated in references to her in the media. But on Sunday, the New York Post published a story about a watchdog group accusing her of falsely claiming Native identity. An organization called Tribal Alliance Against Frauds, whose website says its mission is to research and expose individuals and groups who misrepresent themselves as American Indian for profit or fame, posted genealogical documents on its blog indicating that both sides of Rae’s family – at least patrilineally – were identified as white going back at least six generations, despite one branch of the clan long maintaining that it has ties to the Cherokee people.
Now, Rae speaks exclusively to The Hollywood Reporter about the exploration of her roots that she quietly has been undertaking in recent years, with the knowledge and support of her friends and colleagues. “I began to really look into my family’s history in a deeper way,” says Rae, who has employed the services of a professional genealogist. “I’m still in that process, so for several years I have identified as an ally.”
The news may come as a surprise to those not closely involved with the tightknit Indigenous creative community, but “there’s no gotcha there,” says one source familiar with the situation. “A lot of people grow up with stories [about having some Native ancestry], and she’s been upfront with me that she needed to go on this journey.”
Rae tells THR that she was raised by her mother’s side of the family, who hailed from northern Oklahoma and southern Missouri and taught her that they were of Cherokee descent. “When my mother was a child, she and my grandmother and great-grandmother were participating in cultural and community events and felt a sense of belonging and identity, so my mother always carried that with her,” she says. “It really informed my growing up. There were important conversations as I was becoming a young adult that I had with my grandparents and my great-grandmothers that were a call to action to make a difference for Native people.”
She carried that mandate with her as she entered the film business and soon established a place for herself and a reputation in the indie film community as a leader and champion for Native artists. “[Identifying as a Native woman filmmaker] influenced the way in which I engaged with the industry, specifically around systemic change,” she says. “I was always working in the capacity of trying to create space for Native filmmakers and Native storytellers.” When asked whether she felt like she encountered obstacles — or opportunities — as a direct result of identifying as a producer from a marginalized background, she replies: “I think that independent producing is always difficult. In maybe the last 24 months we’ve seen the rise of so many wonderful Native and Indigenous voices, but through the course of my career it was incredibly challenging to get those stories told.”
Echoes a longtime colleague of Rae’s, “Another falsity of the accusation coming to her is that she’s stealing all of these big, high-paying opportunities for qualified Native people. I want to see what those opportunities are! They don’t exist. Native stories are really the stepchild of our industry. So much of our work has been not for profit.”
A little more than five years ago, Rae says someone from Cherokee Nation whom she’d known for a long time reached out and asked her point blank: “Do you know what your ties are in terms of your family?”
“I stopped and thought, ‘I don’t fully understand what my ties are,’” Rae says of her reaction. “I know my family’s story and the strong sense of connection they feel, but it was important for me at that point to lean in and really begin to interrogate my family’s story, to pause and get really responsible to how I identify myself and doing work so that I can represent myself authentically and accurately.”
Although Rae did not publicize what she calls the “reframing” of her identity until now, she says that she stopped describing herself as having Cherokee heritage in biographical information submitted by her and her team since beginning her search. A review of public mentions since 2020 that include Rae-provided materials use language such as “her settler and Indigenous heritage” or elide any mention of personal Native affiliation for her altogether, such as last fall’s press releases describing her involvement in the Academy’s apology to and subsequent celebration of the late Sacheen Littlefeather (who, shortly after her death in October, was herself accused of faking a Native identity).
“Secondarily, when things would come to me that perhaps somebody was identifying me [as Indigenous], being able to promptly make the course correction and send them in the direction to where they could find the person they were looking for or make a connection with someone from a specific community,” adds Rae in response to a question about how proactively she sought to make sure she was no longer being identified as Native.
Both the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance and the social justice organization IllumiNative, for which Rae works as a narrative change strategist, have never explicitly identified her as either Native or an ally, while the Sundance Institute has a longstanding policy of self-identification for its global community of filmmakers. As one source notes, the U.S. and Canada are the only countries in the world that require official documentation when it comes to Indigenous status. “The Sundance Institute Indigenous Program honors and upholds the inherent Sovereignty of Tribal Nations and Indigenous Peoples,” program director Adam Piron wrote in 2021 as part of the program’s values statement. “We respect and uphold that Sovereignty and the nuances of Indigenous cultures, kinship and community, and their right to determine belonging and citizenship … For Indigenous Peoples, community comes in many forms and we recognize the shifting nature of community due to colonization and genocide that has impacted Indigenous peoples across the U.S. and around the world in different ways.”
Authenticity of Native identity has long been a contested, complicated and nuanced issue. Tribal enrollment is in part a political designation for the 574 tribes recognized by the U.S. federal government — which doesn’t, for instance, include Tongva peoples indigenous to the land now known as Los Angeles. “Tribal enrollment numbers, it’s a prison number,” Yellowstone actor Mo Brings Plenty told THR in an interview last month, “because we are born prisoners of war due to the treaties that were implemented back in the 1800s.”
The U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs says it leaves criteria for membership up to each tribe; common metrics of eligibility include blood quantum (a certain percentage of “Indian blood”) or being a descendant of someone from the base rolls (the original list of tribe members). According to Cherokee Nation’s website, to become an official citizen a person must have at least one direct ancestor listed on the Dawes Roll, a federal census from 1898-1906.
But systemic forces — including state-sanctioned boarding schools that specifically functioned to separate Native children from their families and assimilate them into European American culture, and other forms of legal and social discrimination against Indigenous people — have led to the dilution, whitewashing and disconnection of Native heritage from an untold number of impacted residents. At the same time, appropriation of Indigenous culture and outright identity remains rampant in American society, from the co-opting of symbols, dress and vernacular for aesthetics to the exaggeration of Native ties for a perceived benefit (such as academic scholarship eligibility). In Hollywood, many an actor has claimed Indigenous heritage in order to justify taking on a Native role.
“One of the most important things that we have to protect in this country is tribal sovereignty, and a really important component of tribal sovereignty is each tribe’s right to determine their own citizenship,” says Rae, who is not enrolled in Cherokee Nation. “I have absolute and utmost respect for that.”
When asked whether she felt anything in the Post’s report about the Tribal Alliance findings misrepresented her story, Rae takes a long pause. “I think there’s a lot of nuance to this identity,” she says. “Because a lot of people are in this position trying to navigate their identities and relationships to their communities, there has to be space for people to do that work.” The Tribal Alliance Against Frauds has not responded to a THR request for comment.
Rae says that she’s been having conversations with her family about her exploration of their identity. “[My mother’s] of a different generation, so in a lot of ways I am educating her and helping her to see how these things work and the responsibility that we have,” she says. “I’ve had the conversation with my own kids [her three children with filmmaker husband Russell Friedenberg include Dexter: New Blood actress Johnny Sequoyah] because I want to mitigate any confusion for my descendants. It stops with me. Even if we find those ties — and there’s an indication those ties could be there — I am not a recognized citizen or descendant, and that’s the bottom line.”
“Therein lies the cautionary tale, because a lot of American families have these stories, this understanding that they have this ancestry,” she continues, noting that her lifelong commitment to supporting Native creatives has not changed. “It’s part of America’s lore, and it’s important to mitigate the mythology and begin to connect in a responsible and authentic way. I’m accountable for the ways in which I’ve represented myself, and I want to be authentically who I am.”
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