Colorado writer Erika Wurth has been hailed by The New York Times and Good Morning America for her new novel based on her Native American heritage – but it’s a past, critics say, she made up.
Wurth, who teaches creative writing at Regis University in Denver, claims Chickasaw, Apache and Cherokee heritage from her mother’s side. Context informs his latest novel, “White Horse,” which was released to capitalize on Native American Indian Heritage Month in November 2022.
But according to Indigenous activists and researchers, Wurth, 47, is one of dozens of “suitors” and is featured on AncestorStealing, a blog that exposes white people who pose as “fake Indians”.
“His story is completely unverifiable,” said Jacqueline Keeler, a reporter from Portland, Oregon, who searched public records dating back more than 100 years to investigate Wurth’s claims. “His story just doesn’t fit. She has no aboriginal 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 turned down Marlon Brando’s Best Actor Oscar in 1973 for Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans. According to Keeler, Sacheen Littlefeather, who died last year, was not Indigenous. Keeler’s statement was backed by Littlefeather’s family, who have Mexican-American roots.
Keeler, who has been accused of leading “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 22. budding old writer. Alexie has strenuously denied the sexual misconduct allegations made against him by Wurth and two other women.
Keeler said she began investigating Wurth’s background because the novelist’s family history seemed fanciful.
“My grandmother, Margarite Temple, came from a long line of urban Indians (of Apache, Chickasaw, and Cherokee ancestry) and suffered greatly,” Wurth wrote in a 2022 essay for CrimeReads.com. “Without the financial means to realize her dream of becoming a blues singer in New York, Annie James, the grandmother who owned the Chickasaw brothel who raised her, arranged a marriage with a much older man. Margaret was 14 years old. 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 took 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 Native American researchers and genealogists were unable to verify Wurth’s indigenous roots or the murder story.
“Erika Wurth and her family are not of Cherokee descent,” according to the AncestorStealing blog. “They were white settlers on stolen Indigenous land. At the time of the 1900 census, they were back in Kansas, owning a farm.
The same census also offers clues to Wurth’s great-grandmother. “The 1900 census shows [Annie and Albert Coffin] married and living together in San Antonio, Texas, [and] at the time of the 1910 census, Annie declared herself a widow,” reads the AncestorStealing post on Wurth. “Except she’s not a widow. While Albert Coffin disappeared from the censuses in 1910 and 1920, we know from his tombstone that he lived until 1925. The marriage therefore seems troubled. But this story of Annie’s “much, much older husband” having a molten bullet poured into his ear, which she claims caused his death, appears to be entirely made up.
Wurth declined to comment on Wednesday, but in a series of tweets from 2021 she attacked Keeler and his research.
“Somehow or another, no matter what, no matter if people die or are laughed at, no matter what the problem is, it’s kind of about someone who’s not really Indian .” Wurth tweeted. “Because Jackie is THE ONLY INDIAN (who never produced his tribal ID…).
“It doesn’t matter if anyone is inscribed, if he succeeds, she and her white Indians bully, calling pretendinan to get the attention of white people who find her nothing more than a minor annoyance,” Wurth continued.
London-based Chickasaw writer Tony Perry has also disputed Wurth’s claims, particularly regarding his Chickasaw roots. The lands of the Chickasaw tribe were located in the southeastern United States.
“Erika has a doctorate to look at, examine and analyze her past, but none of that happened in regards to her identity,” Perry said. “It’s one thing to have family traditions about what you think happened in the past. It’s another when you start to build your career around it.
Wurth lectured extensively and tapped into Native American traditions and folk tales in his seven books. In “White Horse,” which was a Book of the Month Club pick in November and was on a list of Good Housekeeping’s top books by Indigenous writers, Wurth draws on the Chickasaw legend of Lofa, a boogeyman. The novel tells the story of Native American Kari James, who “must come to terms with her family’s dark past after discovering a bracelet haunted by her mother’s spirit.” The copper bracelet evokes visions of her missing mother as well as the Lofa.
“I’m not the only Native person I know with an obsession with horror,” Wurth wrote on CrimeReads. “And it’s no wonder. A legacy of genocide and cultural genocide with day schools and boarding schools, and the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women – and the general PTSD that comes with it, to get back to the therapeutic aspects of horror.
Keeler and other researchers contacted Wurth’s editors and editors to inform them of their research into Wurth’s past. But so far, they’ve been met with silence, Keeler told the Post.
“What attracts me is people who allow this kind of behavior and say nothing,” Keeler said. “Look, I’m 1/32 German, but I’m not speaking here on behalf of the German people. But whenever there is money to be made, they are there.