Latest Ethnic Fraud in Indian Country, or When does Exposing Ethnic Fraud Become a Witch-hunt?

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Recently, the Rachel Dolezal scandal turned the public’s attention to an issue people of color are all too familiar with–identity claims made by people of dubious ethnic origins. As a white woman with no black lineage whatsoever, Dolezal was outted as an ethnic fraud after passing as a black woman for many years. Although the question “is she really black?” appears to have been answered (a resounding no), her deception seemingly raised as many questions as it answered: what constitutes legitimate claims to membership in particular groups? What is “transracialism” and can it apply outside the context of adoption? Is race really only just a social construction, and if so, can one become a member of another race just by saying so?

Fraudulent claims to blackness are apparently not unknown in the black community, but it is somewhat mystifying given the level of racism that still exists in the U.S. Sociologists talk about cultural capital and how people negotiate culture to benefit themselves, something Dolezal clearly did. Dolezal perceived something valuable in blackness and appropriated it for various reasons, which we could speculate as monetary benefit (jobs and scholarships), a way to connect more deeply to her adopted black siblings, or maybe just to get back at her parents with whom she has been engaged in a legal battle for custody of those siblings.  Or maybe it was because being “white” has come to be perceived as problematic.

Many have pointed out how the appropriation of Indianness is nothing new in Indian country. In academia “box-checking” is a well known phenomenon for obtaining benefits associated with Indian identity such as scholarships and a smaller competition pool for jobs. Academic identity fraud is relatively easy to pull off since most of the time proof of ethnic association is not requested. Indian country has had its share of academic identity scandals, with Ward Churchill being perhaps the most notorious.

More recently has been the resurfacing of another identity debacle with the Andrea Smith conflict. Andrea Smith–who like Churchill claimed Cherokee heritage–is a very well known scholar and prolific writer who has made important contributions to Native American studies. Like Dolezal and Churchill she was publicly exposed for claiming an identity she could not substantiate, and appears to have lied about being Cherokee. The difference between Smith and Churchill, however, is that Churchill was found to have plagiarized and fabricated sources in his research, and as a result lost his tenured teaching job at CU-Boulder.

Since 2008 Smith has been marginalized in the Native American studies community due to her fraudulent Cherokee claims. Since then, however, she has attended law school and maintains a professorship in the Ethnic Studies department at the University of California at Riverside. While her identity claims have most definitely damaged her credibility, her scholarship has as of yet not been found to be questionable.

Relatively little has been recently written about her publicly, until a tumblr blog surfaced with the title “andreasmithisnotcherokee.” As its name implies the site is dedicated to publishing disparaging information about Smith. Since Smith has already been taken to task publicly about her Cherokee claims and she no longer publicly claims it, it is unclear why the blog has surfaced at this point in time. The blog is shrouded in mystery due to its anonymity (no name of ownership is attached to it), so whoever is behind it appears to not want to be known. Whoever it is seems to have a personal axe to grind with Smith for unknown reasons.

As scholars we are trained to ask questions. We are professionally obligated to interrogate issues to understand all sides so we can argue convincingly for one conclusion or another. There is a moral aspect to it as well, especially when a person’s reputation is at stake. Questions must be asked about this case: why the blog now, after it’s already well established that Smith is not what she previously claimed to be? When is exposing someone as a fraud tantamount to a witch hunt?  Hasn’t Andrea Smith already paid a price for her indiscretions? What is to be gained from this ongoing public defamation of her?

These are my questions.

Addendum 7-1-15

As I continue to read the various commentaries about the Smith controversy I see many valid viewpoints. To reiterate, the most troubling aspect for me (and I’m not seeing this reflected much at all) is the secrecy of the tumblr site. It’s troubling because the core concern here is ethics and accountability. Smith’s critics contend that she is not being accountable to other Native people (especially Cherokee) by her lack of ethics in not relinquishing her claims to Cherokee heritage. They demand transparency. But where is the transparency of the mystery tumblr blogger who is perpetuating Smith’s public defamation?  Is there not a double standard at work here?

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About Dina

Dina is a freelance writer based in San Clemente, Ca. She is also a Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. A descendant of the Colville Confederated Tribes of Washington, she holds a bachelor's degree in Native American Studies and a master's degree in American Studies with a research focus on indigenous studies, both from the University of New Mexico. She is a veteran Indian artist, and dancer in the Native American powwow tradition. She writes for Indian Country Media Network, Native People's Magazine and numerous other outlets.
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11 Responses to Latest Ethnic Fraud in Indian Country, or When does Exposing Ethnic Fraud Become a Witch-hunt?

  1. Pingback: Dolezal vs. Smith: Apples to Oranges? | Zoongde

  2. Thanks so much for this blog; I found out while trying to make sense of this whole affair. I especially liked the questions you asked in your concluding paragraph. I believe Steve Russell offers a partial response, with similar concerns about avoiding a witch-hunt, in his latest post in Indian Country Today (7/1): “The challenge for the rest of us is to avoid cruelty to these people without endorsing their fantasies and to mitigate the harm that they do, whether or not they intend harm. The Dolezal affair has opened up conversations that are long overdue. It also kicked off a collection of evidence on the Andrea Smith fraud collected here, that would have never gone viral if Smith had kept her word to cease and desist or if Dolezal had not breathed life into the debate over ethnic fraud and why it matters.”

    His post is here: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/07/01/rachel-dolezal-outs-andrea-smith-again-will-anybody-listen-time-160925

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    • Dina says:

      Thanks for this. I’m still not clear why this Andrea Smith thing has resurfaced at this time. I have not seen anything about Smith’s resurrected claims to Cherokee ancestry, other than Steve Russell’s vague reference to her still claiming it. Maybe she has, but I haven’t seen anything. Just this mysterious tumblr page. I totally agree that her fraud is unacceptable and has even been harmful. But I also want to know why the secrecy of the tumblr poster? Is there some other agenda not being copped to?

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  3. Dina says:

    Thanks again. It’s a problem that she continues to allow others to introduce her as Cherokee. If she were an artist, she’d be prosecuted. http://www.indianz.com/News/2015/018000.asp

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dina says:

    Yes. And for me, I wonder what are the implications of expecting others to live up to our standards of truth? We expect Smith to stop claiming Cherokee identity because she cannot “prove” it. But yet, as one person pointed out, she was told her whole life she was Cherokee. Most of us as Native scholars or activists know that part of the genocidal impulse of the US was to make them disappear on paper. I know first hand how blood quantum was statistically diminished in my family by BIA agents back in the allotment days. How do we know that some kind of document fraud didn’t happen in her family? There’s probably no way of ever knowing. Is there only one standard of truth?

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    • Dina – all good questions; this is why I’m reserving judgment. I’ve used Smith for so long (taught her work in my classes and cited her work in my own research) that I believe she has earned the right in my book to be “innocent until proven guilty.” There could be all sorts of perfectly rationale explanations for the disconnect between her claimed identity and these allegations (e.g., the options you mentioned, family lore of Cherokee ancestry in the absence of “proof” that would satisfy genealogists). Re: truth, my point there was to draw upon larger notions of truth and deception than simply acts of commission. With of course some exceptions, we have intersubjective agreement on what words mean (e.g., someone with heritage from Egypt in the U.S. doesn’t normally identify herself as “African American” because the “standard” meaning of AA is someone who descended from slaves in the U.S. context; if she did or if others did, it would be “on her” to make the correction.) My understanding, which I totally admit is partial, is that one does not normally claim any tribal membership/citizenship unless the tribe/nation in question would claim that person. For everyone’s sake, I really hope Andrea Smith addresses the matter directly.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Dina says:

    Absolutely. It is the height of hubris to expect integrity from someone while not being willing to exhibit it in oneself.

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    • On this last point, I was once involve in a discussion (in a professional academic society of which I’m a member) about professional (mis)conduct guidelines. Re: cases of sexual harassment, some parties wanted to allow for anonymous complaints (since they envisioned a situation of a power imbalance, e.g., a female grad student and her male advisor, and worried about retribution against the one making the accusation); others believed firmly in the moral right — also recognized in our courts of law — for the accused to face his accuser. I appreciated the logic and wisdom of both sides. Ultimately we decided against anonymous complaints for legal reasons (e.g., since our academic society isn’t of course a sovereign nation, any lawsuit that might result from the incident in question would most likely involve a subpoenaing of the records, which would mean that any such “protection” we gave about anonymity would be compromised in the legal proceedings, so it’d be better not to offer a protection that we would be unable to follow through with). Bottom line: I find myself more interested in the inter-Cherokee discussions (including in some of the links in the anonymous Tumblr) than the anonymous Tumblr itself for reasons.

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