No, Andrea Smith is not the “Native American Rachel Dolezal”

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.

headdres

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.

And finally:

  • 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.

29 thoughts on “No, Andrea Smith is not the “Native American Rachel Dolezal”

  1. Mary Jane July 1, 2015 / 7:48 am

    Great piece – thanks!

  2. disrupt_isms July 1, 2015 / 8:55 am

    Such a huge point on how the attempt to discredit, whether founded or not, amounts to further erasure of indigenous identity, feminism, and thought. Great post as usual!

  3. Brad Erickson July 1, 2015 / 12:52 pm

    Thank you. I respect Andrea and hope she continues her important work. I don’t know her personal story but I think that is between her and the Cherokee community. I fail to see how people external to that relationship have anything productive to contribute on the matter.

  4. Lynn July 1, 2015 / 5:51 pm

    Miigwetch. As many have argued, Indigenous identity is so much more than genetics:

    Through her work on identity and Indigenous nationhood, anthropologist Dr. Audra Simpson, Mohawk, argues identity is both relational and a feeling. It is not easily defined by genetics or quantified by blood.

    Through her work on identity and belonging, lawyer Dr. Pamela Palmater, Mi’kmaq, arrives at the limitations of blood in determining identity. She argues blood is not an indicator of our identities, adding it is completely irrelevant.

    One contribution of Indigenous knowledge is valuing that knowing who you are is more than what is in your mind. Identity is also located in our hearts and the practices we do.

    Typo alert “2) a white settler, 2) a white scholar of Indigenous studies,” Lynn

  5. Shanya Cordis July 1, 2015 / 6:07 pm

    “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. ”

    Thank you for your thoughtful meditation on this topic and in particular thank you for questioning the unnamed privileges and critical distinctions in lived experience between passing and non-pasing Indians. As a black-indigenous woman (Lokono/Warau), I believe it is critical to interrogate ye ways in which race, racism, white supremacy and anti-blackness operate in our communities and how that is intimately tide to gendered violence.

  6. Lawrence Mojado July 1, 2015 / 7:45 pm

    I am an Indigenous male scholar. I grew up on an Indian Reservation and have had many strong Indian women in my life, and there are many strong Indian women in my community presently. I lost all my respect for Andrea Smith, although her work WAS powerful and gave many Indian women an outlet and a means to understand g white settler colonialism and the gendered violence embedded within its function, she did this under a false identity, an appropriated identity, that is just as damaging and violent as colonislism and it’s underlying notions of power and control. Erasure of Indian women is a violent act, whether it be through physical acts or appropriation, I believe both remain violent. My mother, my sister, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, my great-great-grandmother, my aunts, my great-aunts, and all of my female cousins are powerful and strong Indian women. Growing up around such strong Indian women helped to shape my ideological framework and worldview. Whenever I read “Indigenous feminist” scholarship, I immediately think of my early life and the strong Indian women in my life at thst time and their influence, what is common is that their experiences, their narratives, their life histories are rarely illuminated within the indigenous feminist scholarship I have studied. Rarely, I will find a feminist perspective that can remind me of the powerful women in my life, thst I feel can accurately represent my tribal community. Now, when I encountered Andrea Smith’s work I felt empowered as a Native, I felt a strong voice that I felt was emanating from the organic grassroots of tribal community experience, I felt proud and strong and I thought of the strong and proud women in my life. Today, that is all gone. I cannot respect someone who uses a false appropriated identity to benefit themselves at the cost of others, more specifically the experiences of Native women. I feel betrayed, her work is now a hypocritical criticism of colonislism, she is using the same tool that white settler communities have used for centuries, erasure.

    • Douglas September 23, 2015 / 8:19 pm

      Exactly, and very well said.

  7. Reluctantly unsupportive of Andy Smith July 1, 2015 / 8:24 pm

    This is an unpleasant topic for those of us who respect and admire Andy’s *work*, as do I. But it must be said that Andy *the person* has consciously, repeatedly, and unequivocally made claims to being Cherokee with no basis whatsoever. She has acknowledged this now explicitly to several people–and asked at least some of them to keep it private, with some complying and some not–and she has broken promises that she would no longer claim to be Cherokee. The genealogist, David Cornsilk (Cherokee) to whom you refer has worked for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) but he runs a private practice. I.e., he is a professional genealogist hired by Andy. This isn’t a case of Andy not being tribally enrolled, not meeting federal blood quantum, not tracing back to the Dawes rolls, etc. etc. Twice–first tracing her mother’s lineage (when Andy was an undergrad at Harvard), and then her father’s (when she was a grad student), all the way back to early white settlers in present-day Virginia–the genealogist found *no lineal connections whatsoever.* The findings were conclusive, not inconclusive. If you don’t believe it, contact David Cornsilk… or ask Andy herself. Despite knowing this information, Andy has consciously presented herself as Cherokee (first through her mother’s side, then her father’s; for years as tribally enrolled, and then not), and in doing so has notoriously policed non-Native scholars and activists, even purging them from ‘Native spaces.’ (She did so, for example, from a Native Studies reading group at UC Santa Cruz which was not previously Native-only; and then essentially disbanded the group when she turned off other Native students and scholars.) Moreover, although Andy is herself Evangelical Christian, she gained privileged and sensitive access to Native Evangelical communities for the research for her second book by presenting herself likewise as an Evangelical Native. It is difficult, if not impossible, to regard this as something other than a violation of her informants’ trust. Last but not least, Andy has reserved her greatest hostility for Native scholars and activists, even (now-former) friends, who felt compelled to broach the issue of her identity claim with open minds and open hearts. It is possible to support Andy’s work but also find unacceptable her conscious misrepresentation of her identity. For those open to doing so, see, among the now-many Native and other non-‘whitestream/ mainstream’ sources:
    https://tequilasovereign.wordpress.com/2015/06/30/rachel-dolezal-and-andrea-smith/
    http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/07/01/four-words-andrea-smith-im-not-indian
    http://andreasmithisnotcherokee.tumblr.com/

    • untenured NAIS scholar July 3, 2015 / 12:35 pm

      Thank you. It’s useful to be able to separate the person from their work and the impact it has had.

  8. lauragrabhorn July 1, 2015 / 9:04 pm

    The simple fact of the matter is this: It is the absolute right of the Cherokee Nation to determine its own members. It is a sovereign right of each Indigenous nation to do so. The Cherokee Nation is saying that she has no connection, and no heritage. Period. End of discussion.

    Does that affect what she researches and writes about? Maybe. Maybe not. She could have been just as effective as a feminist who writes about the issues she covers. When people fabricate identity, particularly claiming Native identity, they undermine the sovereignty of the tribe they falsely claim. They do real harm to the scholarship in the field of Native studies. If a scholar is willing to lie about ethnicity—what else are you willing to lie about?

    Tribes have been fighting for their rights since the initial encounters with white settlers. When white people take identity, it is nothing but conceited white supremacist action. There are descendants who have lineal descent but do not have the opportunity to enroll in their tribes because individual tribes have different criteria for enrollment. I know many people in this situation. People who put on Indian identity like it is a damned costume really chap my hide because there are so many people for whom their REALITY is in fact, complex. I’ll be damned if I ever look the other way when fakers benefit off of identity because they are pathological pretenders.

    • Erica Lee July 2, 2015 / 9:47 am

      Thanks for your comment. For clarification, I wasn’t claiming to speak for the Cherokee nation or say that she should be accepted into their community – that’s not my role.

    • Dan July 4, 2015 / 12:03 am

      Does the Cherokee Nation have the absolute right? Isn’t blood quantum part of determining membership? And, isn’t blood quantum a carry over from colonialism? Are we saying that these nations are simply contextualizing blood quantum, adapting it to a fluid culture? Or are they parroting the colonial force that put them onto tiny reservations?
      The word absolute is a strong one. I’m not trying to say that any indigenous nation has no right, but I think that when any indigenous nation utilizes the tools of the colonial powers in order to define themselves, then they are doing the ancestors and their values a major disservice.
      Now, if adoption into a tribe is still a legitimate way to become an actual card carrying (oh wait…that’s colonial too, right?) member, then awesome.

  9. Albert Delbert July 1, 2015 / 9:40 pm

    What matters or should matter is the work itself. There are many good and important non-native scholars who work in indigenous studies, particularly in law. The question is not the race of the writers, but whether their work forwards the aims and goals indigenous peoples. For the writer of this blog, Professor Smith’s work clearly means a great deal and to my mind that matters a great deal. I do not know if Professor Smith ever stated that she is a Cherokee or a member of one of the Cherokee nations. It’s unfortunate if she did, certainly. But it also says something about the meagerness of our lives that we do care so much about this issue. Do French people care if Americans pretend to be French? No, they do not. To them, it’s just weird. But if a non-Indian pretends to be an Indian, they apparently are taking one of our precious spots. This situation actually speaks to something more fundamental about the impoverished lives of indigenous peoples than the possibility of ethnic fraud.

  10. America Meredith July 2, 2015 / 6:47 am

    There hasn’t been a “sudden public ‘outing’ “—Smith’s lack of Cherokee heritage has been common knowledge in Cherokee circles for years. Perhaps adding to your list of suggestions, how about letting Cherokee people speak for Cherokee people?

    • Erica Lee July 2, 2015 / 9:44 am

      I agree. I was referring to the surfacing of discussions in non-Indigenous circles in the past weeks.

      And yes, it’s ultimately the decision of Cherokees whether or not Andrea Smith belongs in their communities. No question. However, navigating what “acceptance” for her work could entail in a broader pan-Indigenous community, not as a representative of the Cherokee nation, (and not as “transracial”, either) is a complex issue I wanted to touch on.

      • America Meredith July 2, 2015 / 10:38 am

        There’s also the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the United Keetoowah Band. Cherokee scholars approached Andrea in past years, asking her to stop making her false claims of Cherokee descent, yet, just in May at the Montreal’s Anarchist Bookfair, she’s listed as being Cherokee. By doing so, she is taking the lead in undermining her own credibility. The solution is for her to stop claiming Indigenous descent, accept her own heritage, and move on.

  11. Pam July 2, 2015 / 12:45 pm

    Thank you. I was trying to get my head around the news about Andrea following the release of the article. Andrea’s work has really helped me, as a white woman, understand the impacts of colonization on indigenous women. Your framing of identity and self-identification within a colonial context has given me a lot to think about. I have shared this with my ally friends.

  12. Dr. Patti Jo King July 2, 2015 / 3:38 pm

    This would all be well and good if Andrea Smith really was an indigenous woman and scholar, but she is not. We have known of her since her days in grad school (1990s), and I can tell you, this is not just a “sudden public outing” as you put it, and it was not hostile in the beginning. Cherokee people have asked her repeatedly to stop her charade. Our objectives have little to do with her work, much of which is interesting, but everything to do with her false identity. While the notion of blood quantum may be founded on racial biases, not all tribes employ it, including our tribe. But this is not about blood quantum either. It is quite one thing to say that one has Native heritage – in her case, Cherokee heritage. Thousands of Americans rightfully claim that they had distant Native relatives. But to say you are a member of a tribe is quite a different matter. Tribal citizenship is a political affiliation and members must meet whatever criteria their particular tribe has set up as a qualifier. There are literally thousands of people who can lay legitimate claim to Native heritage, but without membership qualifiers, the Cherokee tribe alone would double in size overnight. Tribal citizenship also carries certain rights and privileges that non- members are not afforded. It also, in my mind, carries with it certain responsibilities- to carry on and protect our culture and integrity for our future generations. While Andre Smith’s claims to be a member and spokeswoman for Cherokee women may have begun as an innocent or naïve mistake on her part it certainly became part of a deliberate and calculated agenda for career and salary advancement and self-aggrandizement, as well as a means of popular support for her work and book sales. I and an authorized tribal official personally met with Andrea back in 2007. The meeting was not negative, vitriolic, or accusatory in any way. We had coffee and talked. I told her I admired some of her early writing and used it in my classes, which is true. She admitted that her mother had told her she was Cherokee and that she was enrolled, but she said she had never seen her membership card. Back then she also claimed to be a member of a prominent Cherokee family, but that family denied this, and it was confirmed through all three Cherokee tribes that she was not an enrolled member. I basically spoke to her about the differences between heritage and citizenship, and she apologized profusely, vowing that she would clear the matter up and stop her fraudulent claims. Nevertheless, she went right on with her masquerade until her employer denied her tenure. Then of course, she whined to the heavens that she was a victim of racial discrimination as a Cherokee. Her trusting supporters rallied to her defense and the matter received a great deal of publicity. Although the maneuver did not save her job, she ultimately parlayed her alleged ‘victimization’ into another lucrative academic job, and her reputation as a marginalized Indian advocate and expert was set. Since then she has continuously accepted large sums in speaking honorariums as an ‘expert Indian spokesman for ‘her people’ while legitimate Indian scholars and representatives are passed over for lack of such glamorous drama. This is no small matter for our communities. Only .1 percent of all college professors are enrolled American Indian tribal members. For over 500 years non-Indian “experts” have informed students and the general population about our history and life ways with only a modicum of cultural nuance and understanding. Those of us Native academics who have our boots on the educational ground are confronted with a two fold problem now; how to effectively teach about our communities, and how to undo all the cultural misinformation these non-Indian academics have disseminated. Andrea Smith is not the only professional Indian fraud out there, but one whose 15 minutes of fame may have suddenly ended abruptly through no ones fault or curse but her own lies and deception.

  13. lyz jaakola July 3, 2015 / 6:30 pm

    There is one issue here, the lies and deceit of Smith regarding her claims of Indigenous identity. The author seems to try to make many excuses for Smith’s Charletonism. As a tribally enrolled female college faculty member, I think there is no excuse for the lies and deceit and that there should be legal repercussions for Smith. Cultural identity is indeed complex but if she were to have chosen to be an artist, and falsely claimed Cherokee identity, she could have been charged with a felony. I believe that the Native Arts & Crafts Act should be equally applied to all the arts, including music and literature but it currently is not. If it were, perhaps people would be less inclined to try to make their living off of lying about their identity. For the record, I live on my reservation and teach at our tribal college. I make enough money to support my family but sometimes find myself hovering just above the poverty line. So, yes, I have a clear and righteous bias on this issue. The only thing I hope comes of this story is that more people learn the difference between pretendians and those of us who walk the walk.

  14. Mark McCarthy July 7, 2015 / 8:26 pm

    When I used Andrea Smith’s “How to End Oppression” statement to the UN as the basis of my capstone presentation for my BA in American Indian Studies & Comparative History of Ideas, I began with: “My name is Mark McCarthy, and I am a white-man!” I proceeded to tell the assembled students and faculty the most important aspects of being an ethical ally—the most important being not to speak for others, but to make space for indigenous voices. I was not aware of Smith’s claiming to be a member of the Cherokee Nation; I thought she was a great, albeit white, scholar that was contributing to feminism. As Sherman Alexie says: “Unless you have ever said, ‘I don’t want to be an Indian!’,” you are not an Indian.
    Pressure from both Indian and non-Indian constituencies to be “authentic,” seemingly forces scholars and activists to manufacture, exaggerate, and even invent identities that conform to such binary constructions as have been used by European colonizers to destroy communities for two thousand years. This is a sad turn of events. As or me, I may be white, but I’m not stupid—I’ll concentrate on decolonizing whatever space, and stepping back from privilege.

  15. Ganada July 10, 2015 / 10:41 pm

    I am just disappointed that someone would go to the wall to call Andy out. I believe that the call out is really about her book on sexual violence. Whey would we do the dirty work of government to say who is an NDN and who is not.

  16. Lou DePietro July 16, 2015 / 3:38 am

    No credibility whatsoever.lied and then doubled down on the lie.Made money off the backs of native Americans.despicable.

  17. Nate Hilts November 26, 2015 / 11:45 pm

    I knew Andrea Smith and some of her family back in the 1980s, when we were both in our teens (she older than I); I used to attend church with her younger sister. I remember other members of her family mentioning being of partial Native American heritage, and it always seemed credible to me. At the very least, this is not an identity she adopted later as an academic. Whatever the case, I think it is fairer to judge her on her scholarship and what she has done for the Native American community.

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