The exact date of Highwater's birth is unknown but it might be any time between 1923-1933. (The date he later used in a 1974 affidavit, February 14, 1942, is unverified and unlikely.) According to his later statements, he was adopted into the white family of Marcia and Alexander Marks in 1947 and given the name Jack or Jay Marks. He graduated from high school in 1950 and attended college in Los Angeles. He later claimed that he had met Susan Sontag and Ana´s Nin who he later credited as having encouraged him in writing.
In 1954 he moved to San Francisco and taught modern dance at a neighborhood school. By that time he used the name J Marks. In March 1955 he and other instructors formed the San Francisco Contemporary Dancers and Marks became its director and choreographer. He worked in that position until 1967. He also edited Contemporary, a periodical for performing arts, in 1960-1962.
In 1967 Marks moved to New York and joined a project of his acquaintance Karlheinz Stockhausen. He began to rehearse reorganized Contemporary Dancers for a European tour, but the project failed.
Marks wrote his first article to Saturday Review about the intended European tour on September 30, 1967. Later the same year he began to write the book Rock and other Four Letter Words for Bantam Books that was published the next year. He also began to write articles and music reviews to various publications. In 1973 he published a book about Mick Jagger.
On July 13, 1969, Marks first referred to himself as a Cherokee Indian in the interview for the Sunday News. He later stated that in 1974 he had received information from his adoptive mother with an affidavit which made him think that at least one of his parents were Indian. He stated that his mother was Marcia Highwater, a Cherokee who had married Greek-born Alexandre Markropoulos, and that he was born Jamake Highwater. He would later change these details.
Mark gradually begun to use a new name in the byline of his writing, first as Jamake Mamake Highwater, but he later dropped the middle name. Highwater began to write books about Native American art, dance and legends. Native Americans later charged that Highwater's information was stereotypical and false.
Highwater changed his story. Later he would state that his parents were a Blackfoot named Amilia Bonneville, and a Cherokee, James or Jamie Highwater and that his name was legally changed to Marks after his adoption. His original parents had supposedly died of starvation during the Great Depression. Later he added a brother that would have been killed in the Korean War.
After 1975 he became a lecturer and author about Native American culture. He lived mostly in Soho, New York City. In 1977 he recorded and released an album on Folkways Records, entitled Anpao: An American Indian Odyssey. From 1975-1979 he was the classical music editor for the Soho Weekly News, and from 1979-1985 he lectured at New York University's School of Continuing Education and spoke in conferences and workshops. He also hosted programs for the Public Broadcasting Service.
After 1980 Highwater begun to receive criticism from Native Americans who doubted his claims of Amerindian ancestry.
Mona Kratzert, California State University research librarian, discusses him in her article about expanding the canon of Native American literature. She sources some of the antagonism to "certain Native Americans who believe he lacks authenticity and has commercialized his Indian-ness." As Kenneth Roemer remarks mildly in a footnote, Kratzert's decision to defend Highwater was "controversial". Gerald Vizenor writes extensively on Highwater's career as an impostor (for instance in Fugitive Poses, where Highwater is included alongside Lynn Andrews and Carlos Castaneda as someone who is "native by concession".
In 1978 Ed Calf Robe of the Bloods of Canada gave Highwater the honorary Indian name Eagle Boy, which he changed to Eagle Son. Calf Robe later refused to stage a formal ritual to officiate it.
In 1982 Highwater founded the non-profit trust the Native Land Foundation to promote world folk art. He also founded the Native Land Research Center near Hampton, Connecticut.
Joe DeLaCruz, 1984 President of National Congress of American Indians, stated that Highwater was fraudulent and that his information was stereotypical and false.
In 1984, investigative journalist Jack Anderson devoted a nationally-published syndicated newspaper column to expose Highwater as a fraud.
In 1986, respected Native activist Hank Adams alleged that Highwater was in fact a filmmaker Gregory J. Markopoulos and had falsified his ethnic identity to get federal funding. Charges were dismissed.
Highwater began to write about more general themes. In 1992 the Native Land Foundation moved to Los Angeles, alongside with Highwater. Most of his papers were given to the New York Public Library.