Preventing Ethnic Fraud

Should anyone police whether professors have the racial or ethnic background they claim? Native American studies group calls for more accountability in the wake of several disputes.

September 22, 2015

Rachel Dolezal, the former head of the NAACP in Spokane, Wash., and adjunct instructor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University, made headlines this summer for claiming to be black even as her parents publicly insisted she was white. The case brought to light something that academe has dealt with for decades: faculty applicants claiming an ethnic affiliation they don’t actually possess, either to gain some kind of edge in the hiring process in terms helping an institution meet its diversity goals, or to appear more expert in one’s field, or both (or possibly neither). While a variety of ethnic and cultural groups have been the subject of such fraud, Native Americans might be the most consistently affected group.

In the wake of Ward Churchill's controversial comments about Sept. 11, for example, the former University of Colorado at Boulder historian was investigated for claiming Native American heritage that some dispute. More recently, this summer, ongoing skepticism regarding the Cherokee background of Andrea Smith, the well-known associate professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California at Riverside, boiled over again with a series of blog posts questioning her self-proclaimed identity.

And just last week, Dartmouth College came under fire for hiring Susan Taffe Reed as director of its Native American Program, saying that her alleged tribal affiliation -- Eastern Delaware Nations -- isn’t a universally recognized tribe. The group isn't recognized by federal or state authorities, but she defends it as legitimate.

Seemingly in response to recent events, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association circulated this week a statement asking colleges and universities to be more vigilant in preventing ethnic fraud, while at the same time proclaiming the issue one of integrity for faculty applicants.

But the statement invites more discussion of just how to prevent ethnic fraud, and who’s responsible for doing so.

“Issues of indigenous identity are complex,” the statement says. “Hundreds of years of ongoing colonialism around the world have contributed to this complexity. However, such complexity does not mean that there are no ethical considerations in claiming indigenous identity or relationships with particular indigenous peoples. To falsely claim such belonging is indigenous identity fraud.”

The association says that its members are expected to show “commitment to the communities with whom we work, about whom we write and among whom we conduct research,” and to uphold the highest ethical standards of the profession. That includes honesty about ancestry and ties to indigenous communities. Anything less hurts the field and Native Americans, it says, calling fraud a form of appropriation that is continuous with violence.

“In no way are we implying that one must be indigenous in order to undertake Native American and Indigenous Studies,” the statement continues. “We are simply stating that we must be honest about our identity claims, whatever our particular positionalities. Belonging does not arise simply from individual feelings -- it is not simply who you claim to be, but also who claims you. When someone articulates connections to a particular people, the measure of truth cannot simply be a person’s belief but must come from relationships with indigenous people, recognizing that there may be disagreements among indigenous people over the legitimacy of a particular person’s or group’s claims.”

For these reasons, the association’s council says it “expresses its conviction that we are all responsible to act in an ethical fashion by standing against indigenous identity fraud.”

According to the United Nations’ Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues statement on indigenous identity, the association says, the ethnicity "test" is “self-identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member.” It's not one of “enrollment, or blood quantum, or recognition by the state, or meeting any particular set of criteria for defining ‘proper’ or ‘authentic’ indigenous identity.”

The statement seems to reject a 2003 recommendation from the Association of American Indian and Native Alaskan Professors that colleges and universities prevent ethnic fraud by requiring documentation of enrollment in a state or federally recognized nation or tribe, with preference given to those who meet the criteria. The association also recommended a case-by-case review process for those who can't meet the requirement. The now-inactive association also said institutions might ask applicants claiming Native American heritage to demonstrate past and future commitment to American Indian concerns.

The 2003 statement has always generated some debate, even at its inception (although it also enjoyed substantial support). Michael Wilson, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and former member of the organization, now heads up a Listserv of the same name. Wilson said he couldn’t say whether colleges or universities should check on Native American professors’ backgrounds because, for any number of reasons -- including that their ancestors didn’t want to be part of a federal accounting system -- some professors might not be able to present proof of an identity “the story of their lives” would tell. Other tribes are matrilineal, he said, meaning having a father of a certain tribe could still preclude one from membership.

“I can’t deal in a binary on this one,” Wilson said, suggesting that colleges and universities might accept proof, if not require it.

Others support the verification practice in full.

Venida Chenault, president of Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kans., with a 100 percent Native American student body, said verification is "not as complicated as one may suggest.” While individual tribes may have some complicated enrollment policies -- a related but separate issue in Chenault’s mind -- she said cross-checking an applicant’s stated ethnicity with a federal tribal enrollment database is quite simple, and only makes sense. The university verifies every applicant’s claim.

“I think it’s offensive when an individual claims the privilege of being native but has no sense of responsibility or integrity in terms of fulfilling any commitment to a tribe,” she said. “Otherwise it’s simply a box they check.”

Chenault said the university’s faculty is about 50 percent Native American and 50 percent nonnative. While the university has never hired a faculty member simply for being Native American, she said that research increasingly supports the view that students benefit from having role models of the same ethnic backgrounds. So if a hiring committee were considering two otherwise identical candidates, they would take into account whether one was Native American, she said.

Asked if the verification approach might work at a mainstream university that was looking to recruit faculty members from additional ethnic groups for which verification isn’t possible, Chenault said she didn't know. But she said she does know that on her campus, formal verification is one way to stop ethnic fraud in its tracks.

“Every time this occurs and it’s ignored, these universities are complicit in allowing a fraud when there are qualified tribal people who could provide tremendous contributions,” she said.

Some at non-Indian universities support the verification practice, too. Cutcha Risling Baldy, an assistant professor of American Indian studies at San Diego State University who blogs about cultural concerns in higher education, said verification should come from native nations. (Note: This sentence has been updated from a previous version to reflect Baldy's current institution.)

“This is why schools, organizations and agencies should build positive and productive working relationships with tribes,” she said via email. “This requires the institution to also have a deep sense of responsibility for how they build these relationships and to educate themselves about history and contemporary politics of tribal nations and societies.”

If an individual is not enrolled in a federally recognized tribe, “because of one of the myriad of reasons that could happen, then both the individual and the institution need to work with the tribal communities in order to develop methods for best moving forward with that claim,” she said.

Similar to Chenault, Baldy said that being considered Native American “is not only about membership or ancestry but about the responsibility to community and the continued fight for self-determination.” So in the case of those who claim native ancestry in academia, “individuals should be conscious of the politics and responsibility before making a claim to native identity,” she said.

Baldy said that fraudulently claiming native ancestry has “deep roots in settler colonialism and the desire to normalize colonization and occupation of indigenous lands and indigenous histories.”

She added, “There is a place for people who want to teach about, study and understand native nations and cultures who are not of native descent. There is no need to claim native ancestry to be a legitimate scholar in native studies when there is so much important work that could and should be done with allied scholars.”

Those on some other campuses disagreed with Baldy’s take on verification, however.

Diana Lawrence, a spokeswoman for Dartmouth, said it’s illegal under federal law to hire or deny employment based on an individual's nationality. So while Dartmouth “is concerned about ethnic fraud, we would never ask a job applicant to provide any kind of ethnic documentation,” she said.

Benjamin Reese, chief diversity officer at Duke University and president of the National Association for Diversity Officers in Higher Education, said it is in fact illegal for colleges and universities to hire candidates for their ethnicity alone. Separately, he said, most colleges and universities believe that that “having the widest range of viewpoints and experiences and backgrounds is related to robust conversations on campuses and specifically in the classroom.”

Both those factors aside, Reese said, trying to verify the increasingly diverse ethnic backgrounds of faculty candidates is simply “inappropriate.”

“I think one’s experience that directly relates to employment, such as having a degree from an accredited institution -- those things should be verified,” he said. “But it’s a slippery slope when you start looking at criteria you can’t directly relate” to the job.

Richard A. Baker, assistant vice chancellor and vice president for equal opportunity at the University of Houston and a regional director for the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity, said that while he understood the concerns surrounding ethnic fraud or cultural appropriation, “it would be a big step backward for institutions to begin verifying or certifying employees’ self-identified race or ethnicity.”

Institutions would be legally limited in how they could use that information due to antidiscrimination laws, Baker said. So institutions might better approach the issue in the same manner that they approach gender.

“If someone self-identifies their gender, we do not make them prove it -- we take them at their word,” he said via email. “Why? Because it’s not about what we perceive but what they believe about themselves. In today’s diverse workplace, we understand that every employee deserves to be treated equally, with respect, and included regardless of what anyone perceives their race, ethnicity, gender or any other protected classification to be.”


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