Fake Cherokee?

In wake of Rachel Dolezal scandal, a prominent professor in Native American studies who regularly says she is Native American is accused of misrepresenting her background.

July 6, 2015
U of California at Riverside
Andrea Smith

When the scandal broke last month over Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane, Wash., NAACP leader and adjunct instructor of Africana studies at Eastern Washington University who apparently faked being African-American, there was widespread discussion in academe. But Dolezal was not a major player in African-American studies.

The focus on Dolezal has renewed scrutiny of Andrea Smith, associate professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California at Riverside, who is being accused of faking a Cherokee heritage that many say she lacks. Smith, unlike Dolezal, is a prominent scholar. Her books are considered significant in Native American studies, and her writing and public appearances have routinely included references to her having Cherokee roots.

Smith's ethnicity also played a role in a tenure dispute. In 2008, the women's studies department at the University of Michigan (one of two departments in which Smith worked) voted against Smith's tenure bid there, but the American culture program (the other department in which she worked) backed the bid. Lack of backing from both divisions doomed her chances. In the ensuing protest, graduate students and others who supported Smith accused the women's studies program of abandoning a talented minority scholar. Some say that Smith has since admitted to not being Cherokee (while the record on that is in dispute). But when her job was threatened, she allowed her defenders to point to her Cherokee status as a reason Michigan should have promoted her.

The reports about Smith are not new, and some in Native American studies report hearing about this possibility years ago. But a series of blog posts in the last week has focused renewed attention on the accusations that Smith has misrepresented her background.

The issue is both important and sensitive to many Native American studies scholars. Leaders in the field stress that they believe that outstanding scholarship has been done by people with a variety of backgrounds, Native American and other. But many also say that there is a particular obligation in this field -- when the number of Native American scholars with prominent university positions is so small and when Native Americans have been misunderstood by scholars for generations -- to be open about one's background.

"All scholarship should be based on integrity and that integrity includes honesty and transparency," said Winona Wheeler, president of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, associate professor indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan, and a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation. "One of the significant tenets of indigenous studies as a discipline is that we strive to [situate] ourselves with our research. So it's really important in the discipline that we advise our readers somehow about the place that we're coming from."

Smith did not respond to requests from Inside Higher Ed to requests on the controversy, and she has not commented in social media or elsewhere. Public support for her has not been visible.

'Andrea Smith Is Not a Cherokee'

Much of the information that has circulated about Smith has been summarized in a new anonymous blog called "Andrea Smith Is Not a Cherokee." The blog is a mix of examples of where she has described herself as a Cherokee and cases where she reportedly has admitted to people that she lacks evidence for this, or that she flat-out is not a Cherokee.

Many of her activities suggest that Smith is a minority woman and/or a Native American. She helped organize the group INCITE, which describes itself as "a network of radical feminists of color." She has been active in the group Women of All Red Nations. Her scholarship is about Native Americans (which of course doesn't mean she is one). Her best known book is Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (Duke University Press).

For many of her campus appearances, she is described in ways that explicitly call her Cherokee. For an event at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she was called a "Cherokee intellectual." And for an event in May at Bridgewater State University, the program described her as a "Cherokee feminist." There are also videos of her being introduced at conferences as a Cherokee -- this video shows her as that happens.

The problem, according to Smith's critics, is that she is not Cherokee and has known that for years. The blog and an article in The Daily Beast quote people as saying that they confronted her about her background and that, at various times, she pledged to stop describing herself as a Cherokee.

Steve Russell, an emeritus professor at Indiana University at Bloomington whose research is on Native American studies, is among those cited by the blog, and he confirmed to Inside Higher Ed that he received a direct promise from Smith to stop calling herself Cherokee. Russell described how he signed a petition on Smith's behalf when she was denied tenure at Michigan, but felt betrayed when he found out more. That's a common pattern among some of those who backed Smith in the past. Russell has spoken out at scholarly meetings about Smith's status.

Patti Jo King, interim chair of American Indian studies and director of the Center for American Indians at Bacone College and an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, also confirmed to Inside Higher Ed having discussions with Smith years ago in which Smith pledged to stop claiming Cherokee status. "But instead of coming clean and showing herself to be a true advocate for Native women, she continued her deception, proving to me that she is merely masquerading for money," King said. "She is not the first to do this -- indeed there are hundreds of 'pretend Indians' who use the guise to sell their 'authentic' books to an unsuspecting and naïve public. Although we have tried to enlighten the public for decades about our objections to kind of identity fraud, the pretenders seem to feel they have a perfect right to misrepresent themselves."

Does Ethnicity Matter?

While Smith's ethnicity (now disputed) was cited in debates about her employment at Michigan, she currently works in California, where the state Constitution bars public colleges and universities from considering race and ethnicity in hiring. A spokesperson for the university, asked about the controversy, said via email: "Professor Smith is a teacher and researcher of high merit who, on that basis, earned a tenured faculty position at UC Riverside. The University of California is precluded by law from considering an individual’s ethnicity in any hiring or advancement decisions."

While UC Riverside can maintain it doesn't care about Smith's ethnic status, other universities where she has worked have taken positions on the importance of accurate ethnic identities.

The American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Smith had a postdoctoral fellowship, in 2010 issued a statement called "Identity and Academic Integrity."

Robert Warrior, director of American Indian studies at Illinois, said that Smith didn't prompt the statement, but that the reports about her were "a topic of discussion throughout our development of it. We knew about the ethical issues regarding her claims to Cherokee descent at that point."

The Illinois statement said in part: "We recognize the importance of being able to identify ourselves clearly and unambiguously. Too often, we realize, American Indian studies as a field of academic inquiry has failed to live up to its potential at least in part because of the presence of scholars who misrepresent themselves and their ties to the Native world. While we do not in any way want to suggest that only Native scholars can do good scholarship in Native studies, neither do we want to make light of the importance of scholars who work in this field being able to speak with clarity about who they are and what brings them to their scholarship and creative activity."

Does Honesty Matter?

The new focus on Smith has prompted much discussion among Native American studies scholars.

Joanne Barker, an enrolled member of the Delaware Tribe and professor of American Indian studies at San Francisco State University, wrote a blog post comparing the Dolezal and Smith cases and the relative lack of attention (in the mainstream media) to the latter case. Within the field, Barker wrote, it is important to note that while many people didn't know about Smith until recently, many did. And she asked in her blog about the responsibility of those who knew -- even if they admired Smith's scholarship.

"There are certainly many people who knew/know, so why have her ethics and integrity not been questioned or challenged in the same or similar way to those of Dolezal?" Barker wrote. "Why does Smith’s fraud get excused on the grounds of 'her good work' but Dolezal does not?"

Another piece attracting attention is by David Shorter, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, about doing work on Native Americans while not being one. Shorter is a fan of Smith's scholarship, but says that misrepresentation matters.

"She has done incredible theoretical work in the academic field of indigenous studies and has even been recognized internationally for her broad and groundbreaking antiviolence coalition building. So does it matter that she did all of that in redface?" wrote Shorter in an essay in Indian Country Today. "Yes, it does. Andy Smith did not just appear out of an egg, as a fully formed 'woman of color' advocate, validated as an indigenous scholar, and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. She got there by grabbing the microphone, keeping others away from it and deciding to speak both 'as' and 'for' a group of people."

And there is no reason to have done so, Shorter said, noting that he is but one of many who, without being part of an Indian nation, have still managed to study Native Americans, build relationships in various tribes and be taken seriously by scholars of a range of backgrounds. How might Smith have pulled this off? The answer is in Shorter's headline: "Four Words for Andrea Smith: 'I'm Not an Indian.'"


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