One of the consultants on Star Trek: Voyager was a man who faked his backstory. While he claimed to be a Native American, the man who called himself Jamake Highwater was first known as Jack Marks, and his deception impacted both the course of Star Trek, as well as the real Native American community as a whole. Here’s what you need to know.
Jamake Highwater Lied About Being Native American
Indian Country Today reports that Highwater was first outed in 1984. Despite being called out as a fake Native American in the mid-1980s, Highwater was still somehow able to get a job on Star Trek: Voyager, which first started airing in 1995. It’s hard not to draw comparisons to the similar actions of Rachel Dolezal/Nkechi Diallo many years later.
It is not clear how Highwater was able to fool so many people over the years, particularly after being outed in the 1980s. A 2001 obituary of Jamake Highwater from the LA Times makes no mention of Highwater’s disputed heritage, either.
Clearly, not enough people were looking closely at this man’s credentials and life history. But exactly why this deception was allowed to go on, unchallenged, may be tied in America’s racism problem. In an opinion piece for Indianz.com, Mohawk poet Alex Jacobs stated, “No one in the national media ever seemed to care that what Marks/Highwater did was a much greater misrepresentation and a series of actual crimes that hurt and affected the Native American community.”
Jamake Highwater Worked on ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ as a Consultant
Check out an interview with Jamake Highwater from 1978, prior to his time on Star Trek, in the video above.
If you ever felt like some of Chakotay’s storylines were lacking detail or authenticity, there’s a very good reason you may have felt that way. Star Trek‘s Native American consultant for Voyager was a fraud.
The American Studies Journal notes that Voyager hired Highwater as a consultant early in the process, with a focus on enriching the character of Chakotay.
The development of the Chakotay character, overseen by Highwater, was complicated. Chakotay’s tribal affiliation changed multiple times during early production. According to A Vision of the Future, an analysis of Star Trek: Voyager by Stephen Edward Poe, notes that Chakotay was variously a Sioux, a Hopi, and a Native American with no tribal affiliation during early drafts of the Caretaker pilot script. This lack of a clear cultural identity is perhaps unsurprising, given that Highwater was not a real Native American.
Fans of ‘Star Trek’ Feel Chakotay Wasn’t Given His Due
Fan response to Chakotay’s character is mixed. Some fans really liked him (and his flirtations with Janeway), but others struggled to connect with the character, arguably because he was not as fully fleshed out as some of the show’s other characters.
Michelle Erica Green of TrekToday reviewed the Chakotay-focused episode “Tattoo”, and found it frustrating viewing.
“There’s no getting around the laziness of the writing staff,” Green wrote, “Who seem to believe that putting a label like ‘Native American’ on a character is sufficient to count for diversity without doing any substantive research about Native American beliefs and customs.”
ScreenRant‘s Kristy Ambrose called out part of the “Chakotay problem” in her rundown of the show’s worst episodes.
“The character of Chakotay never really had a place to be in the show,” she wrote, “The stereotypical view of Chakotay’s Native American heritage is never handled very well, and this episode is a glaring example, as his heritage gives him some kind of inherent gateway into spiritual knowledge.”
For his part, Robert Beltran, the Mexican-American actor who played Chakotay, went on the record about wanting to do right by the character. He told the Chicago Tribune:
“I take that responsibility very seriously because I take my own indigenous roots very seriously. I think that even full-blooded Native Americans can see this actor portray Chakotay and know that I don’t have to reach very far to find the reality of it because it’s in me.”
However, Beltran’s former co-star Robert Duncan McNeill has gone on the record about how the lack of a deeper backstory did both the character, and fans of Chakotay, a major disservice. In an interview with TrekMovie.com, McNeill stated: “I think that’s a real missed opportunity for the character. There are native people around this country and indigenous people around the world that get exposed to Star Trek. And that would have meant a lot to them, if that had been taken a little more seriously. I think they could have really seen themselves and connected and been inspired in a way that that sort of broad-stroke cartoony version probably didn’t connect to them.”