Reversal at Dartmouth

After questions about her own ethnic status, official named to lead college's program for Native American students will not take the position.

October 2, 2015
Susan Taffe Reed

Susan Taffe Reed will not be director of Dartmouth College's Native American Program after all. Her appointment, announced a month ago, drew criticism from many Native American groups who said that her claim to be Native American was false (which Taffe Reed denied) and that the appointment insulted them.

Dartmouth issued a brief statement about the latest development. "Susan Taffe Reed will no longer serve as the director of the Native American Program. Unfortunately, the distraction around her appointment prevents her from effectively serving in this role. It does not prevent her from contributing to Dartmouth in other ways and we are currently exploring other opportunities with her. The experience of Dartmouth students is our priority and we are working to ensure that we have a strong and easily accessible network of support in place for our students."

A spokeswoman for Dartmouth declined to answer whether the decision was made by Taffe Reed or the college, and said she understood Taffe Reed was not commenting.

The controversy over Taffe Reed started shortly after the college announced her appointment. In a news release, the college noted Taffe Reed's academic background (a Cornell University Ph.D. and postdoc positions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Bowdoin College) and her research interest (ethnomusicology), and stated that Taffe Reed is president of Eastern Delaware Nations Inc.

Not all Native Americans recognize Eastern Delaware Nations as an Indian tribe. Nor do federal or state governments. And then a blog ran a detailed genealogical post about Taffe Reed's grandparents (from whom she draws a Native American connection) alleging, with legal documents, that they are white European immigrants and their descendants. Dartmouth and Taffe Reed dispute the blog post but did not issue a detailed rebuttal.

Native American alumni of Dartmouth also questioned the appointment. Many said they would not have objected to a non-Native American getting the job, but appointing someone they viewed as posing as Native American bothered them.

The Dartmouth appointment attracted widespread attention from Native American activists as it followed the case of Andrea Smith, associate professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California at Riverside, who was accused this year of faking a Cherokee heritage that many say she lacks.

Amid the debate over Taffe Reed, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association circulated 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.

Scott Bear Don't Walk, a Native American activist who has been among those criticizing the appointment of Taffe Reed, said via email that the latest news was an important victory for Native Americans. He is an Apsáalooke tribal member, a Salish and Métis descendant and a doctoral student at the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought.

"By hiring her to work with Native American students, most of whom are a long way from their tribal communities, Dartmouth simply didn't do due diligence," he said. "This was done out of ignorance. They seem to not understand that real Native Americans, tribes and communities exist. For them, claiming to be native is enough -- this is part of the 'box checking' phenomenon. I ran into this a great deal, at colleges away from tribal communities, back East and in the Midwest."

He added, "The Native American community takes this as a victory for truthfulness about tribal belonging. Dartmouth tried to wiggle out from under this truthfulness, but in the end, perhaps because of all the media attention, they had to relent. They said that she wasn't leaving the director position for any other reason than the negative attention that affected her ability to be director of the Native American Program. But that is victim blaming."


Back to Top