Colorado writer Erika Wurth has earned accolades from the New York Times and Good Morning America for her new novel based on her native American heritage — but it’s a past, her detractors say, that she has made up.
Wurth, who teaches creative writing at Regis University in Denver, claims Chickasaw, Apache and Cherokee heritage on her mother’s side. The background informs her latest novel, “White Horse,” which was released to capitalize on Native American Indian Heritage Month in November 2022.
But according to Native activists and researchers, Wurth, 47, is one of dozens of “Pretendians,” and featured on AncestorStealing, a blog that exposes white people who pose as “fake Indians.”
“Her story is completely unverifiable,” said Jacqueline Keeler, a Portland, Oregon, journalist who consulted public records going back more than 100 years to investigate Wurth’s claims. “Her story just doesn’t add up. She has zero Native ancestry.”
Last year, Keeler, who is of Dine/Dakota heritage, made international headlines when she unmasked Sacheen Littlefeather, the Native American activist and actor who famously declined Marlon Brando’s best actor Oscar in 1973 over Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans. According to Keeler, Sacheen Littlefeather, who died last year, was not Native. Keeler’s statement was backed up by Littlefeather’s family, who has Mexican-American roots.
Keeler, who has been accused of conducting “witch hunts” to expose fake Native Americans, told The Post she met Wurth a few years ago when the novelist publicly accused Native American writer Sherman Alexie of sexually assaulting her when she was a 22-year-old aspiring writer. Alexie vigorously denied the allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against him by Wurth and two other women.
Keeler said she began investigating Wurth’s background because the novelist’s family story seemed fanciful.
“My grandmother, Margarite Temple, came from a long line of urban Indians (of Apache, Chickasaw, and Cherokee descent) and suffered much,” Wurth wrote in a 2022 essay for CrimeReads.com. “Without the finances to realize her dream of becoming a blues singer in New York, Annie James, the Chickasaw whorehouse owner grandmother who raised her, arranged a marriage with a much older man. Margarite was 14. He beat her, gave her syphilis, walked up the steps of their house drunk, and kicked her while she was pregnant.”
According to Wurth, James exacted revenge by killing her own husband. “She had stripped a bullet, melted it, and poured it into his ear while he was sleeping, which killed him,” Wurth said in a 2017 blog post.
Keeler said a team of researchers and Native American geneologists were unable to verify Wurth’s indigenous roots or the story about the murder.
“Erika Wurth and her family are not of Cherokee descent,” according to the AncestorStealing blog post. “They were white settlers on stolen Native lands. By the time of the 1900 census, they were back in Kansas, the owners of a farm.”
The same census also offers clues about Wurth’s great grandmother. “The 1900 census shows [Annie and Albert Coffin] as married and living together in San Antonio, Texas, [and] by the time of the 1910 census, Annie lists herself as a widow,” reads the AncestorStealing post about Wurth. “Except she isn’t a widow. While Albert Coffin disappeared from the censuses in 1910 and 1920, we know from his gravestone that he was alive until 1925. So the marriage seems to be troubled. But this story of Annie’s ‘much, much older husband’ getting a melted bullet poured into his ear, which she says caused his death, seems to be entirely made up.”
Wurth refused comment Wednesday, but in a series of 2021 tweets she attacked Keeler and her research.
“Somehow, no matter what, no matter if people are dying or being mocked no matter the issue it’s somehow about somebody who isn’t really Indian,” Wurth tweeted. “Because Jackie is THE ONLY INDIAN (Who somehow has never produced her tribal ID…).
“Doesn’t matter whether someone’s enrolled, if they’re successful, she & her white Indians bully, calling pretendinan to get attention from white people who find her to be nothing more than a minor annoyance,” Wurth continued.
London-based Chickasaw writer Tony Perry has also disputed Wurth’s claims, particularly regarding her Chickasaw roots. The Chickasaw tribe’s lands were located in the southeastern US.
“Erika has a PhD to look and examine and analyze her past, but none of that has happened when it comes to her identity,” said Perry. “It’s one thing to have family lore about what you think happened in the past. It’s quite another when you start to build your career around it.”
Wurth has lectured widely and has mined Native American traditions and folk tales in her seven books. In “White Horse,” which was a Book of the Month Club pick in November and featured on a list of Good Housekeeping’s best books by Native writers, Wurth draws on the Chickasaw legend of Lofa, a boogeyman. The novel tells the story of Native American Kari James, who “must face her family’s dark past after discovering a bracelet haunted by her mother’s spirit.” The copper bracelet conjures visions of her missing mother as well as the Lofa.
“I’m not the only Native person I know with an obsession with horror,” wrote Wurth on CrimeReads. “And no wonder. A legacy of genocide and cultural genocide with day and boarding schools, and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women issue—and the general PTSD that comes from that, to move back up to the therapeutic aspects of horror.”
Keeler and other researchers have reached out to Wurth’s publishers and editors to let them know about their research into Wurth’s past. But so far they’ve been met with silence, Keeler told The Post.
“What gets me is the people who enable this kind of behavior, and say nothing,” said Keeler. “Look, I’m 1/32 part German but I’m not here speaking for the German people. But whenever there’s money to be gained, there they are.”