No, Andrea Smith is not the “Native American Rachel Dolezal”. Rachel Dolezal is the Native American Rachel Dolezal – she also claimed Native ancestry, something that is so common as to be boring in light of the overall ridiculousness of the situation. She even went so far as to say that she was born in a tipi.
But anyway, that was just my sensational title to get you hooked. If the Daily Beast can do it, then heck, so can I. Now to the real story.
Well, she’s not really “hailed for her Cherokee heritage” as much as for her work. But thanks for getting the sensationalism & oversimplification going right off the bat. (What is “HEAD DRESS”?)
Last fall, I met Andrea Smith at a conference. I don’t think I have ever been quite as nervous to talk to an academic. Why? Because Andrea Smith is not just any academic, she is the academic that many young Indigenous women now in our twenties grew up with. “Conquest” was released in 2005 when I was 15, and it was the first book I had access to that explicitly addressed the framework of colonial gender violence for Indigenous women. As I grew into a young Indigenous feminist writer, Andrea’s work continually informed my writing, my activism, and my everyday life. Andrea’s work introduced me to the world of Indigenous feminism, and even as I discovered new writers, I returned to her work over and over again.
This is why it is particularly surreal for me to see the revival (and progression) of campaigns to discredit Andrea Smith’s identity, but this time, in a much more personal and hostile manner, taken to the public sphere and picked up by whitestream media interested in the spectacle.
To be clear, these are issues that were already being talked about in Indigenous communities for years. After I discovered “Conquest”, I started to hear the rumors that she might not actually be Cherokee.
The Daily Beast published an article yesterday where a genealogist “confirms” that Andrea has no Cherokee ancestry. Anyone who has spent time in Indigenous communities knows that real belonging is a lot more complex than government ID, status, blood quantum, skin color, or a DNA test can delineate. Anyone who has studied the history of Indigenous communities knows the devastating impact of colonial membership policies imposed on tribes from the outside.
Yes, if it is true that Andrea’s claims to heritage were entirely made up, it is a betrayal. Pretending to be Indigenous is not okay, regardless of your intentions. Accepting the astounding number of public engagements she has done over the years (and payments for these events) on the basis that one is a Cherokee scholar is unthinkably harmful and displaces countless Indigenous women scholars. For this reason I support the many Indigenous scholars I know that have worked to bring this particular case to light and demanded accountability; many of them important, senior women scholars who make spaces in the academy for young Indigenous women like me.
Anger and betrayal in cases of white settlers who pretend to be Indigenous (affectionately labeled “pretendians”) is a result of the frustration of already being underrepresented, misrepresented, and having so few opportunities to make space for Indigenous voices, and then seeing yet another white person take up what little space should have been ours.
Some folks have compared Andrea Smith to the recent Rachel Dolezal scandal, but there are a few key differences; the most glaring of which is that Andrea Smith’s work is inextricably foundational to Indigenous Studies, Indigenous activism, and Indigenous feminisms. If you have read anything written in the past decade about Indigenous women, it can likely be tied back to the work of Andrea Smith.
And so, when I saw that Andrea’s integrity was once again, being questioned my panicked reaction was, “oh great, another excuse for everyone to discredit Indigenous feminism.” After reflection, I realized this was an overreaction, because there are numerous Indigenous women & Two-Spirits whose work stands on its own, and deserves to come out from behind the shadow cast by any single rockstar scholar. Just off the top of my head:
Making Space for Indigenous Feminism – Ed., Joyce Green
Feminism for Real – Ed. Jessica Danforth
ANYTHING and EVERYTHING by Lee Maracle, Kim Tallbear, Mishuana Goeman, Audra Simpson, Leanne Simpson, Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, Verna St. Denis, Alexandria Wilson, the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, Chelsea Vowel, Patricia Monture, Naomi Sayers, Adrienne Keene.
There is a whole lot of unaddressed identity terrain that Indigenous communities are just starting to explore. For example, many, many white settler scholars who write on Indigenous issues, who get hired to speak or teach on Indigenous issues, who get tenure and make exorbitant sums of cash for their work on communities that aren’t theirs. There are many white-passing Indigenous scholars who get hired to speak or teach on Indigenous issues, and do not bother to acknowledge their position or the extreme differences in lived experience between passing and non-passing Indigenous people. There are many Native men who are invited to speak on behalf of Native women and Two-Spirits, as if we are incapable of speaking to our own lives. When a person declares their Indigeneity, why do we still assume a universal lived experience (or universal burden) among those who claim that identity? What things are truly universal (if any) about Indigenous people or our lived experiences?
If there is a point of consensus at all on what it means to “be Indigenous”, it’s acceptance by an Indigenous community, rather than simply naming oneself a member. Will Andrea Smith be claimed by an Indigenous community (in whatever form that takes) in the days or years to come? Would it even make a difference now?
From what I’ve seen already, there are a lot of Indigenous women questioning the motives behind this sudden public “outing”, particularly the personal hostility behind it. As far as I knew, Andrea had stepped back from the spotlight quite a bit in the past couple of years. This doesn’t mean letting “pretendians” off the hook for the harm they do, but being aware of how often “identity” has been used as a tool of colonialism, namely, colonial gender violence.
Moving forward, how do we best deal with this situation?
- Rather than tearing down any one woman, support the already-existing immense body of work of Indigenous scholars, particularly, that of Indigenous feminists and Indigenous women. Support the work of Indigenous feminists whose work is useful for our communities.
- Support the work of diverse voices on Indigenous experience, and realize that there isn’t any one rockstar scholar who can speak for all of us.
- Open more spaces for Indigenous scholars, writers, artists, et al. to flourish, rather than demanding we fight for scraps.
- Allow Indigenous women to lead, guide, and decide when to have discussions about Indigenous women’s identity.* Allow Two-Spirits to lead, guide, and decide when to have discussions about Two-Spirit identity.* Allow Indigenous people to lead, guide, and decide when to have discussions about Indigenous identity.* (* – if you are not privy to said discussions, or just because said discussions are not all over your Twitter feed, don’t assume they’re not happening.
- If you are 1) a reporter who has never bothered to do a story on Indigenous issues until today, 2) a white settler, 2) a white scholar of Indigenous studies, or 3) an Indigenous male scholar who has rarely/never engaged with Indigenous feminism except to crap on it, I implore you to go away and do something productive, rather than throwing tomatoes at a woman whose work has likely made more impact in the lives of Indigenous women than yours ever will.