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Hollywood’s top Native American producer is a fake, activists claim

One of Hollywood’s leading Native American figures is being accused of faking her claims of Cherokee heritage, The Post can reveal.

Award-winning Heather Rae, 56, serves on the Academy of Motion Pictures’ Indigenous Alliance, previously headed up the Sundance Institute’s Native American program and claims “my mother was Indian and my father was a cowboy.” Multiple prior news reports have also cited her as having a Cherokee mother.

But a watchdog group called the Tribal Alliance Against Frauds is now demanding the Academy and the producer drop her “false claims” while activists insist she’s at best 1/2048th Cherokee.

The group accuses her of profiting from usurping “real American Indian voices and perspectives” and being a fraudulent so-called “Pretendian.”

Rae is married to another Hollywood producer, Russell Friedenberg, and the eldest of their three children is actress Johnny Sequoyah, who currently stars in the reboot of Dexter.

Rae (second from left) was thanked for the Academy’s apology to Sacheen Littlefeather (seated) and posed with her at a ceremony, with Janet Yang, Motion Picture Academy president (left) and Bird Runningwater, co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance and Jacqueline Stewart the Academy’s president.
Getty Images

1973 Oscars Sacheen Littlefeather
Littlefeather rocked the 1973 Oscars when she was sent by Marlon Brando to reject his award. After she died, she was revealed to be lying about being Apache.
Bettmann Archive

Ironically, Rae was already caught up in the highest-profile “Pretendian” scandal to hit Hollywood. The producer was thanked by the Academy last year for brokering an apology to Sacheen Littlefeather.

Littlefeather was blacklisted in Hollywood for appearing on Marlon Brando’s behalf to decline his 1973 Best Actor Oscar and jeered as she spoke up for Native Americans, claiming she was Apache.

But after her death in October, Littlefeather’s sister revealed she was a liar, who had faked her identity all along.

Heather Rae Independent Spirit Award
Rae’s 2008 “Frozen River” won an Independent Spirit Award.

Rae is the latest target for Native American campaigners against people appropriating their ancestry.

Other high-profile cases have included Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Elizabeth Warren who apologized for “mistakes” by claiming to also be Cherokee. Tests showed she was 1/64th and 1/1024th Native American.

The Tribal Alliance Against Frauds director Lianna Costantino told The Post: “Being an American Indian person is not just about who you claim to be, it is about who claims you.

“And it’s much more than just race. We are citizens of sovereign nations. Being an Indian is a legal, political distinction.”

(L-R) Johnny Sequoyah, Producer Heather Rae, and Tamara Podemski attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival "Fancy Dance" Premiere at Eccles Center Theatre on January 20, 2023 in Park City, Utah.
Producer Heather Rae, center, with her daughter, actress Johnny Sequoyah, left, and actress Tamara Podemski at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival premiere of “Fancy Dance” in Park City, Utah.
Getty Images

Rae, who was born in California and brought up in Idaho, is best known for “Frozen River.” It won both Sundance and an Independent Spirit Award, and was Oscar nominated.

In 2009, Variety named her as a top visionary while noting her half-Cherokee roots.

Over the years, she has burnished her credentials, which center on a claim that her mother, Barbara Riggs, was Cherokee.

She has a tattoo of Selu, a Cherokee corn goddess and in 2016 told a New Zealand conference: “I grew up in the state of Idaho, which is in Pacific Northwest, in the U.S.

1870 Census Elihue Riggs
Census documents show how Rae’s maternal ancestors were white – not Native American, including great-great grandfather Elihue Riggs (or Rigs) in 1870.

“And, um, my mom was Indian and my dad’s a cowboy. I am not conflicted – I mean, there are times. It was interesting at home.”

She joined the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2016 and her place on its Indigenous Alliance makes her a key figure in its Native American outreach efforts.

Rae has cited her “Indian” ancestry throughout her successful producing and directing career, although she is not an enrolled member of any tribal nation.

Jane Lassiter Heather Rae ancestor.
Ancestor Jane Lassiter’s father won a lottery for Cherokee lands in Alabama.

She works as a “narrative change strategist” for IllumiNative, an “unapologetically ambitious and innovative Native women-led” racial and social justice organization which says it works to amplify “contemporary Native voices” while challenging the “invisibility” of Native Americans.

And her latest project, “Fancy Dance,” is drama about a Native American woman who kidnaps her niece from the girl’s white grandparents that premiered at January’s Sundance Film Festival. It was partly funded by the Cherokee Nation.

“I truly believe it’s my calling in life,” Rae said of being a producer. “To be able to support and foster the voices and the vision of others … And a sense of what I feel is, you know, really important in terms of stories and the kinds of stories that the world wants to hear and needs to hear.”

But TAFF highlights research which argues that far from being half-Indian, Rae has no ancestors recognized by the three Cherokee nations: the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the Eastern Band of Cherokee and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians.

The research includes a divorce certificate from 1969 showing both of Rae’s parents, Vernon and Barbara Bybee, listed as white.

On her father’s side, one ancestor arrived from England in Virginia before the Pilgrims. And on her mother’s side, there is scant evidence of Cherokee connection, it says.

Census and other records show her maternal grandfather’s ancestors all identifying themselves as white.

Only one of them – Rae’s fourth great-grandparent, Jane E. Lassiter – has a possible Cherokee link, through a claim that Jane’s father Archibald Lassiter was one-eighth Cherokee, which would make Rae 1/2048th Indian.

But even that’s dubious – and potentially problematic, according to the Fake Indian project’s research highlighted by the Tribal Alliance.

They say records show that in 1832, Lassiter, won acreage in Alabama in the Cherokee Land Lottery, which redistributed areas throughout Georgia previously settled by Native Americans.

“It was ONLY open to non-Cherokees,” the Fake Indians blog continues. “Winning such a lottery is definitive proof of the ancestor NOT being Cherokee.”

Heather Rae
The veteran Hollywood producer is best known for 2008’s Oscar-nominated crime drama, “Frozen River.”
Matt Winkelmeyer

Rae and the producer’s reps did not return multiple messages seeking comment in response to the allegations, as well as her role in the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance.

The Academy, which The Post approached for comment, does not seek proof of Native American heritage to be part of the Alliance, and includes people who want to be considered allies.

“It is important to note that blood quantum minimums and citizenship requirements within the Native community continues to be a sensitive and nuanced issue that has a dark and complicated history,” a source close to IllumiNative told The Post. “Those within the Native community deserve the space and the agency to have these conversations.”

Rae’s Wikipedia page no longer describes her as half-Cherokee or as Native Indian. A series of edits by an unregistered user called Missouri222 removed previous claims that she was.

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