Star Trek Voyager Got Scammed By A Native American Imposter
In 1995, Paramount debuted Voyager, the fourth big Star Trek series. Like its predecessors, Voyager would bring new races into the fold—alien races and human races. It introduced Chakotay, Star Trek's first Native American main character. The writers debated among themselves exactly the best way to portray this commander's culture.
Should they send him on vision quests? Should they give him a 'medicine wheel'? Should they leave his actual tribal affiliation as vague as possible? The answer to all these questions would ultimately be yes, but the journey there was not easy. The writers knew they needed guidance, and the actor, Robert Beltran, offered little, being the son of Mexican parents.
Enter Jamake Highwater. This man had written several books on being a Cherokee and had hosted multiple TV documentaries on the subject as well. Voyager took him on to advise them on how to write Chakotay. He didn't offer very good advice, says consensus. Chakotay's constant babbling about mysticism and spirit guides annoyed viewers, annoyed the actor, and was eventually dropped in later seasons.
Highwater was a bit vague when it came to the specifics of his own native heritage, almost as vague as Voyager was about Chakotay's. Sometimes, he said his father was Cherokee and his mother Marcia was half-Blackfoot. Other times, Marcia was the Cherokee one. Still other times, he said that Marcia and her husband Alex were white but had adopted him, the son of Indians.
Marcia and Alex were indeed white, but they hadn't adopted him. Jamake Highwater was actually Jackie Marks, who had no Native American ancestry of any kind, since his bloodlines could be traced quickly to Europe on both sides. He'd started out as a California dance instructor, but the authorities shut his dance school down for giving out fake degrees. Over time, he reinvented himself as a "Native American expert," even getting inducted into a Canadian Blackfoot tribe ... through a tourist ceremony, which we thought was the sort of thing only non-natives do, but what do we know, we're not Native American Experts.
If the truth came out years after Voyager, that would have been a bit of an embarrassment for the folks behind the show. Here's the really weird part of this story, though: The big exposé on Jackie Marks came a decade before the show debuted. First an Assiniboine-Sioux researcher looked into the guy's claims and debunked them, and then the Washington Post covered the story, and the National Congress of American Indians kicked him out. Jamake responded by walking back some claims initially, but later claiming that he was suffering discrimination for being adopted or being mixed race.
In fact, even when he died in 2001, the press gave him obituaries that took him at his word. One paper called him "an award-winning American Indian writer" and declared the following, falsely: "Mr. Highwater was born to an illiterate mother, who was a Blackfoot, and a Cherokee father, who was a rodeo rider and stuntman. The impoverished parents soon deposited the boy in an orphanage." Which newspaper was that? Oh, just the Washington Post, the same one who'd broken the news of his fraud 17 years before.