A Native American protests when white people dress, or play American Indians

At what was described as an Indian ceremony in Cassadaga, east of Orlando, Sal Serbin made a request: “You could just add ‘style’ or ‘hobbyists’ to the end of your advertisements.”
At what was described as an Indian ceremony in Cassadaga, east of Orlando, Sal Serbin made a request: “You could just add ‘style’ or ‘hobbyists’ to the end of your advertisements.”
Published Jun. 15, 2012

The real American Indians set up their folding chairs in front of a Marathon gas station.

They weren't there for the Shriners who crisscrossed the road in tiny cars adorned with American flags or Little Miss Chasco in her purple taffeta gown or the Gulf High School marching band, all trumpets, trombones and snare drums.

"Where are they?" asked Sal "White Horse" Serbin, as he wiped sweat from his brow.

Sal, 48, is half Sioux, half Puerto Rican. He looks more Indian, though, with his narrow, dark eyes and thick hair dyed the color of espresso to cover gray. He wore a T-shirt and jeans.

He'd left halfway through his daughter's roller derby competition in Sarasota that morning to drive to New Port Richey for this. His wife had been getting on him lately about gas money for these excursions.

And then suddenly the Krewe of Chasco was upon them, a parade float with a tepee surrounded by women in fringed leather halter tops and skirts and men in leather loincloths and beaded chokers.

Sal and his group — a Cherokee, two Navajos and two Chippewa — quickly bent down and grabbed their signs, elevating them silently over their heads.

Having Fun Playing Indian, Sal's sign asked. Grow Up!!

A man in a yellow mohawk headdress and a red beaded breastplate shrugged and lobbed a strand of pink beads over Sal's head. Another man in a beaded headband walked by as if he didn't even notice. A woman who was skipping along in knee-high moccasins, whooping and hollering, paused, mouthed something profane, and then stuck out her middle finger.

The real Indians stared back grimly.

And then just like that, the float and the fake Indians had passed.

The real American Indians gathered up their chairs and coolers. Five hours after Sal had left his family in Sarasota, less than a minute after he'd lifted his sign over his head, he trudged away.

The Chasco Fiesta Parade whooped and hollered in the distance.

Once upon a time, Americans disdained Indians and their culture. They were pushed off their land, beaten by police and essentially ignored.

Then came the American Indian Movement in 1968. The group waged an often confrontational crusade for Indian rights. In 1973, AIM received worldwide attention during a 71-day standoff with police and the FBI on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the small town of Wounded Knee, S.D. Several Indians died in the gunfire. A U.S. marshal was shot and paralyzed.

Sal grew up during this time of unrest. His mother was a full-blooded Sioux from the Pine Ridge Reservation. His father was Puerto Rican. They met in the late 1950s when the paving company he worked for built an interstate near the reservation.

The family followed Sal's father around the country as he worked on road construction projects. His father didn't allow his mother to talk about her Indian heritage. She wasn't allowed to teach them the language or the traditions. But when her husband was gone, Sal remembers his mother leading him into the crowds of Indians protesting for their rights in Minneapolis. Sometimes the protests turned bloody.

After Sal's father left his mother, Sal moved in with her and took care of her. As the years passed, the issues changed. Now it was not so much about gaining rights and respect for American Indians; it was about keeping everyone from copying their culture and making money off it. Now it seemed like everyone wanted to be an Indian.

Sal recalled one day when he and his mother rebuked a group that was planning a ceremonial sun dance. Sal's mother was angry because some of them were not even Indians. She told them they had no right. As Sal escorted her away, she started to cry.

Seven years ago, Sal's mother died. Before she passed away, she gave him his Indian name: White Horse. She said it was because he was her knight in shining armor.

Now he was rescuing his heritage. Two years ago, Sal started a group called the Fraudulent Native American Task Force.

"The stealing and exploitation of the Native American culture," Sal said, "has become an epidemic."

Fake Indians charged money for smudge ceremonies, held themselves out as Indian performers, started fake tribes, claimed to be descendants of famous Indians when they were not.

On his computer at home, Sal kept two lists, the "wanna-bes," those who claimed to be Indians but weren't. And the traitors or "Native sellouts" — Indians who participated in festivals and ceremonies with non-Indians just to make a buck.

Sal, a gate attendant at Lakewood Ranch who was going to school to become a paralegal, was an unusual messenger for the movement. He was good-natured and soft-spoken and he delivered his criticism pleasantly, as if he were sharing a recipe for chicken soup. But his messages were so incendiary that he even alienated other Indians. His list of enemies was growing.

Leaving behind the noise of the Chasco Fiesta parade, Sal and his companions complained about the white people on the float who had dressed up as stereotypical Indians: the noble savage man, the Pocahontas-style maiden.

"It's all stereotypical Hollywood Indians," said Ruby Beaulieu, executive director of Florida's AIM chapter.

Beaulieu, 77, said she had been protesting the Chamber of Commerce-sponsored Chasco Fiesta event for a decade. Years ago, she said, kids who came to the Chasco Fiesta Children's Village played "Find the treasure in the Indian burial mound" and "Pin the tail on the Indian."

Time and again, they had complained to organizers of the parade. Now only the float remained. It was a sticking point.

Said Joe Alpine of the West Pasco County Chamber of Commerce: "We agree to disagree."

But what had Sal and Ruby and the others accomplished, holding their signs for less than a minute as the float passed?

"It lets them know we're still out there and we're still against it," Sal said. "If we sat home, everyone would think it's okay and it's not."

Sal and Ruby headed over to the Native American Pow Wow and Festival, not to protest it, just to check it out.

Two Indians, in full-length dresses, leggings and moccasins, swayed to a drum beat in the middle of the circle.

As Sal stood on the edge in a small parking lot, an Indian man sneaked up behind him. He held a piece of cardboard: "He's a liar."

Sal caught sight of him out of the corner of his eye. Soon a handful of others dressed in Indian dance costumes had surrounded him.

"You have no right," one of them growled.

"I do have a right," Sal replied.

To understand how Sal ended up surrounded by Indians, you have to go back to the night before, 80 miles to the south in the sleepy beachside retirement community of Venice.

Sal had stood with another sign, this one saying "Cultural Thief," in front of the Venice Community Center.

There, a man named Ed WindDancer, a flute player and a carpenter, had put together a cast of Indian performers for a show called "Flight of the Red-Tailed Hawk." The cost to attend: $15. CDs of his music were on sale. The parking lot was filling up fast.

WindDancer said he was Cherokee, but Sal called the Cherokees. Sal said they had never heard of him. When WindDancer said he was Nanticoke, Sal said he called the group's chief in Delaware and learned WindDancer was not on their tribal rolls either. He knew that WindDancer had changed his last name from Pielert and that part of WindDancer's family had come from Germany four generations ago. He knew that WindDancer had received probation and a $5,000 fine for bartering eagle, hawk and great horned owl feathers with a wildlife officer, a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Sal watched people drive up wearing beaded chokers and fringed shirts. An Indian flute player named Cody Blackbird pulled up.

"I wish you wouldn't play this event," Sal said.

"The contracts have already been signed," Blackbird replied.

Soon, more people arrived.

"He wears brown contacts," he told a couple vacationing from Indiana. They listened attentively but headed in to buy tickets.

"This performance is not Native American," he said to the driver of a gray Sonata. "He doesn't have a right to speak for us or exploit our culture."

The driver signed him thumbs-up, turned around and left. The only obvious victory of the evening.

Sal had protested outside several of WindDancer's performances. One day last year, they had agreed to meet at a Starbucks.

Sal asked him to advertise his performances as "Native American style."

"No," WindDancer replied. "I'm not going to do that."

WindDancer said he grew up learning about Indian ceremonies from his family. One grandmother was of Cherokee descent, the other Nanticoke. Just because he wasn't a member of a federally recognized tribe didn't mean he didn't have Indian blood in him.

"I've dedicated my life to preserving this culture as best I can," said WindDancer, 56. "I'm confident in my blood line."

After the performance in Venice, Sal went home and posted on his Facebook a list of the performers at the event.

He labeled those who were not Indians as "wanna-bes." Those who were Indian, many of them traveling performers from other states, he called "traitors."

"Shame on you!" he'd written. Sal has more than 4,000 Facebook friends. By the following day, some of those listed had seen his post. Which was why they surrounded him angrily at the powwow. The tension defused when a police officer showed up. Sal was asked to leave. And he did.

The dancing never stopped.

A few weeks later, Sal and his wife, Laura, sat in the living room of their modest rental home in Sarasota.

The air was thick with spicy-sweet smoke from Sal's sage burning purification ritual, which he does two or three times a week. Their three kids, ages 13, 11 and 7, played in other rooms.

Laura, 35, is a descendant of a barrelmaker who came over on the Mayflower. She and Sal had met and married 14 years before in Georgia, when he had long, flowing dark hair.

During the early years of raising kids, Sal was not as active in Indian affairs as he was now, Laura said.

But at one point, he learned of a Sarasota woman who was advertising a midnight Indian ceremony to worship the moon. Indians don't worship the moon, Sal said, so he felt the ceremony was more Wiccan than Indian. He complained to the event organizers and it was canceled.

Then one day, Sal wrote a letter to the editor criticizing Christopher Columbus on Columbus Day. That night, someone called and threatened them.

"At that point, I was like, 'Don't rock the boat,' " Laura said. "Leave it alone."

Laura, like many people who are not Indian, struggled with why it bothered Sal so much.

"I didn't understand why it was so bad that these people were carrying themselves as Indians," Laura said. "To me, it was like, 'They like your culture. They want to be like you. What's wrong with that?' "

Sal explained that to Indians, ceremonies were part of their religion. If someone who wasn't Catholic opened a Catholic church and started charging for communion or baptism, how would that make a practicing Catholic feel?

"It's the same thing," he said.

Laura, an Episcopalian who likes the smell of burning sage within reason, nodded. Still, she put her foot down last month when he wanted to speak against a plan to name a barrier island with Indian roots after Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon. It was Laura's birthday.

"Not going to happen," she had said.

One Saturday in early May, six Indians pulled into Cassadaga, a small town just east of Orlando.

They drove past a sign advertising a medicine man, past a hotel and a tiny post office and a sign that read: "We are armed and psychic. Do you really want to mess with us?"

The Indians filed into a large, white wood-frame building with a wraparound porch. They had come to tell them to stop advertising their ceremonies as Indian.

Inside, chairs were set up in a circle with a tiny bowl in the middle, black with ash. Harry Byard, who called himself Raven That Speaks With the Cloud People and wore his hair in a long tail down his back, was waving turkey feathers in one hand and a burning smudge stick of sage in the other.

"You've been cleansed," he said, as a woman in a sunflower jumper entered the circle.

The Indians chose to sit outside the circle, against the wall beneath framed pictures of Cassadaga's spiritualist pioneers.

Barbara Munroe of DeLand called the meeting of the Inter Tribal Circle to order. Her Indian name, she said, was Silver Otter but everyone called her Grandmother. She had clipped royal blue and purple feathers to the crown of her close-cropped white hair.

A woman in a dark top and long flowing skirt held up a medicine wheel that she called "the tree of life." It was red, black, white, yellow, representing Indians, blacks, whites and Asians. On the edge of the room, some of the Indians began to frown. That's not exactly what a medicine wheel represented to them; it was more to pray for health and well-being.

A girl named Tiger Lily, who wore fringed leather boots and had stuck a "third eye" green rhinestone between her brown eyes, gushed about how happy she was to be here.

"Everyone has such beautiful energy," she said.

At that point, one of the Indians stood up.

"I represent the United Urban Warrior Society and the Florida AIM and my message is fairly simple," said Joelle Clark, a Lakota Indian who lives in Gainesville. "If you want to know about Native Americans, find one. We're all over the place. I'm concerned my culture is being stolen and spiritually being abused. And I don't think anybody in this room wants to be a part of that."

Grandmother grimaced. Raven That Speaks With the Cloud People looked at the ground. A crease had developed near Tiger Lily's third eye.

"This is very arrogant," said the woman in the sunflower jumper. "I dislike people who tear something down and don't do anything to build it up."

"You have no right to judge us," yelled the Medicine Wheel lady. "I have worked with Native Americans. That's not the native way."

"In a past life, we were you," said Raven That Speaks With the Cloud People. "We were Indians."

"Let's just love each other," said Tiger Lily.

Sal stood up. Here he was, yet again, fighting with people who really didn't understand why his need to keep them from practicing his traditions mattered. Sal wasn't looking for big battles, like Wounded Knee. He knew that most people ignored him. But if he could make one person understand, perhaps he had accomplished something.

"If you want to continue with this group, if you could just add 'style' or 'hobbyists' to the end of your advertisements," he implored nicely. "This could be a wonderful thing if done properly."

"No problem," said Grandmother. "I will change the name if it will make everybody more at peace."

Sal wasn't done. They shouldn't be giving out fake Indian names.

"Should I change my name" from Silver Otter, Grandmother asked deferentially.

"No," Sal said. "You can keep it."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at or (727) 893-8640.