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


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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The Myth of the Post-Racial Society

Red Earth, White Lies

Occasionally I receive mail or messages from readers who take issue with some of the ideas and concepts I write about. Often they are people with no indigenous ancestry (thus “non-Native”), and are offended by what they see as a divisive, race-based ideology. One particular reader recently lamented that “it is unclear to me if you grasp or care to understand the biases, discrimination and racial division your ideas create.” He went on: “any person born in North America is a native North American not just the Northern Siberian peoples that migrated to the Americas or Turtle Island, so-called, some 15,000 years ago, [sic]” thus faithfully regurgitating the increasingly shaky Bering Strait theory like good, unquestioning American citizens trained to perpetuate the theory as scientific fact. Finally, my unhappy reader concluded that “your insistent categorizing of human beings by race is the essence and scourge of cultural racism. Dividing one another by race is always, always meant to oppress or negate the ‘other.'” Not sure which “other” he is talking about (me as an indigenous colonized other somehow intent on oppressing my own people, or him as “other” in the convoluted conservative logic of reverse racism), but the message is clear: I am a divisive racist, bent on oppressing…..mmmmm, someone. I am also by implication someone who is not smart enough to understand the Bering Strait theory and that all Indians were at one time Asian (or in this case Siberian) “migrants,” a rhetorical tactic that always subtly implies less of a legitimate claim to land, couched in pseudo-scientific language.

At any rate, unhappy reader wants me to understand that we live in a post-racial society (just ask the people of Ferguson, Missouri if we live in a post-racial society), and that talking about race automatically means we are being divisive, and presumably anti-American. Naturally, this topic deserves more than a few hundred word blogpost, and I’ll leave that to the capable research of cultural studies scholars that unhappy reader(s) can find themselves. But I want to make one particular point unhappy reader fails to comprehend. When American Indians (and yes, I mean true NATIVE Americans, as in “have always been here”) talk about their heritage and history, they aren’t classifying themselves based on racial difference. It was the United States government that inflicted (and continues to inflict) this socially constructed ideology on Indians as a way to reinforce their difference, and ultimately claim their lands. A good example of this is the Burke Act of 1906 which made it easier for Indians with more European ancestry to sell their lands (invariably to whites) because they were seen as more “competent” than Indians with more “Indian blood.”

The distinction American Indians are talking about when they talk about their heritage is a political distinction, not a racial distinction. Native Americans as members and citizens of Native nations today fight for a “degree of measured separatism” in order to preserve their lands and cultures, and prevent against the assimilation that has been forced on them, formally and informally, by the United States. It is a conscious resistance to the universalizing melting pot theory of Americanism. And if that is what people like my unhappy reader considers divisive and un-American, so be it. As Americans, they are entitled to their opinions, however misinformed they may be.

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Hope for the Future in American Indian Education

Jacque Nunez and Dina at the opening of the Earth Lodge in San Clemente, 2013.

Jacque Nunez and Dina at the opening of the Earth Lodge in San Clemente, 2013.

This week I had an unusual experience that I’d like to share. I work as a volunteer docent in a Native American museum program that is on the campus of a local elementary school in the community where I live, called Lobo Lodge. There is a sister exhibit called the Earth Lodge where we teach Native American approaches to environmental studies at the K-12 grade levels. Both exhibits are the only of their kind that we know of anywhere in the country, and are part of the federally funded Indian education program at Capistrano Unified School District (although the exhibits are entirely privately funded). Kogee Thomas is the director, and Acjachemen storyteller and cultural teacher Jacque Nunez contributes her valuable knowledge. We give tours, do teacher training, and have family activity nights. We are considered an important resource in the region for teaching Native history and culture, as well as being a gathering place for Native community members.

This week Kogee, Jacque, and I were asked by a group of elementary school teachers and their principal to meet with them to discuss a dilemma they were having at their school. The school has traditionally had a day they call “Colonial Day” where they teach about the colonial period of American history. The kids enact colonial dances, eat food from the era, do crafts, and dress in period costumes. It seems they had an irate parent who expressed his opposition to his Native American children participating in reenacting what he felt was a shameful, oppressive history. The teachers encouraged his children to dress in “Native American costume” to “honor” and highlight their heritage. But the parent was enraged  and uncompromising, even threatening to sue the district.

The teachers were naturally disturbed at the parents’ reaction to Colonial Day. But it got them thinking about how to teach American history in a way that not only gives a more balanced approach and incorporates Native history and perspectives, but that doesn’t perpetuate harmful stereotypes. We had a long and lively discussion, giving them ideas about how to change Colonial Day to make it more culturally sensitive while at the same time meeting educational standards for teaching American history.

Kogee, Jacque, and I expressed how unusual it was to be asked for help like this. The teachers were genuinely interested in what we had to say; they were not defensive, or arrogant in any way. They heard us express our academic perspectives and desires to have American Indian histories be more accurately represented in American education. But they also heard us tell our own painful family histories of cultural shaming as a result of government policies, and how history-telling perpetuates those wounds. The meeting was truly a remarkable moment for the 3 of us Native women, and we let the teachers know that it was an act of healing for each of us. Such conscientiousness on the part of teachers gives me a small glimmer of hope for the future of American education.

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Surfing and the Politics of Sovereignty and Identity

Dina surfing at Log Cabins, North Shore Oahu, ca. 1981

Dina surfing at Log Cabins, North Shore Oahu, ca. 1981

People who know me know the diversity of my interests. On one hand, I am firmly entrenched in my identity as a person of American Indian heritage. On the other, I am also deeply influenced by my upbringing in Southern California and my attachment to surfing as a sport and a lifestyle. For better or worse, I am an urban Indian, full of seemingly inherent contradictions. This is the stuff of identity politics.

We all live in a very complex society, and like most people I am driven by a need to integrate the seemingly disconnected aspects of my life. But as most indigenous wisdom teaches, everything is connected, someway, somehow, including surfing and indigeneity.  In Hawaiian culture the connection between these two things is well known, since for something like 2,000 years wave riding was a central element of the culture. The same is true in Peru and other places.

In human affairs everything is political because of the relationships that connect us to each other and to our respective environments. Relationships are always about the balance of power. Even surfing is political because of the way we must interact with each other in the surf zone, sharing space with safety in mind. Hawaiians have always known this, and the rules that guided society carried through in the surf zone. When Europeans came to dominate Hawaii, stripping Hawaiians of their political power in government and just about every other aspect of their lives, the one space they could exert power was in the surf. I write about it this week at Indian Country Today.

This knowledge was made available by the excellent historical work of Isaiah Helekunini Walker. Surfing provides one of the most direct links to the natural environment that we as humans can get. The ancient Hawaiians knew it, the ancient Peruvian Indians knew it, and other ocean-based indigenous peoples know it. And surfers of today know it. I suppose it’s only natural that surfing would become such a big part of my identity.

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Changes in Language Over Time: Self-Determination

Treaty between the Ottawa, Chippewa, Wyandot, and Potawatomies.  Phote: Wikimedia Commons

Treaty between the Ottawa, Chippewa, Wyandot, and Potawatomie Indians, 1807.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Language is always changing because as society changes, so must the language we use to describe it. Consider how our present day lexicon compares to a generation ago: back then, we wouldn’t have understood  terms like “text me,” “log on,” “let’s skype,” etc. Conversely, words that were common in 1968 have fallen out of popular use. Today it’s uncommon to say “groovy,” “far out,” or even “swell” or “terrific” as a positive description for something. Language changes with technology, across regions, and from within and between cultures or social groups, which means it’s subject to the social circumstances of any given group.

In Indian country there are words we commonly use today that reflect the changes we have undergone as a subgroup in the US that is subject to constantly changing political policy. Take the term “sovereignty,” for example. In 1935, it was a concept few regular, everyday Indians would’ve understood. By the 1980’s, in the wake of the civil rights movement (and, more specifically, the American Indian Movement) Indians talked about defending not just their treaties, but their “sovereignty.”  Indians attaining high degrees of education led to deeper understandings of their legal conditions, and thus how to improve them. It required a new vocabulary.

With changes in federal policy in the mid-1970’s, the term “self-determination” entered our lexicon, and now we often use “self-determination” interchangeably with “sovereignty.” Both describe very complex political concepts that most non-Native Americans don’t fully grasp. Most American Indians as members of separate and distinct nations, on the other hand, have a better handle on the concept.  But the term “self-determination” means different things to different people, and even at the highest levels of government there is disagreement. This is certainly true within Indian country, and we are still trying to sort out what self-determination means on an international scale where Indians are concerned.

In the wake of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples American Indian intellectuals are engaging in vigorous debates–in sometimes highly acrimonious ways– on what self-determination means. In this article I jump into the debate.

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Why do We Have Native American Heritage Month?

University of New Mexico powwow. Photo Dina Gilio-Whitaker.

University of New Mexico powwow. Photo Dina Gilio-Whitaker.

As you may or may not know,  November is Native American Heritage Month. On the heels of Columbus Day, and all the way through  November to Thanksgiving, Native Americans become the topic of public discussions more than the rest of the year. If it seems obvious that the month of Thanksgiving is a good time to  talk about Indians, given American narratives about pilgrims and Indians, you would be right. But it’s actually a little more complicated than that.

The Purpose of National Holidays

Nations (or more specifically, states, as in nation–states) celebrate national holidays  for a variety of reasons.  Their function is always patriotic in nature;  that is, they serve to reinforce a sense of national identity.  Independence Day, Columbus Day, and Presidents’ Day, all illustrate this point perfectly. Even ethnic holidays or commemorations serve that purpose,  like Martin Luther King, Jr. Day,  Black Heritage Month (February),  and Native American Heritage month. In the case of Native and African  American commemorations, they reinforce the ethnic diversity of the United States (what scholars call the multicultural state). Such celebrations create a sense of unity  and are meant to promote healing from the trauma inflicted  on both groups through the historic abuses of colonization and slavery.

Native American Heritage Month and Columbus Day

The creation of Native American Heritage month, however, had another more dubious purpose. It was created by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, two years before the 500 year anniversary of Columbus’s historic first voyage. With major celebrations planned, Bush knew there would be a backlash from American Indians who view Columbus’s voyages as the beginning of the genocide against Native peoples. Bush also proclaimed 1992 as the “Year of the American Indian.”

To read more about the history of Native American Heritage Month, see my longer article here.

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School Shootings: A Symptom of Society Failing Our Children

What kind of world do we live in when school shootings are commonplace, predictable even? In June, CNN reported that there were 74 school shooting incidents in the past 18 months, since the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Connecticut. Some of the incidents (where a gun was fired in or around school property) were drug or gang-related, personal, or accidental. But 15 of them were premeditated, mass murders, where there were “situations similar to the violence in Newtown or Oregon —a minor or adult actively shooting inside or near a school.” That averages out to one major shooting every 5 weeks, CNN says.

The shootings don’t seem to occur along racial or even economic lines. The Oct. 24th shooting at Marysville Pilchuck High School in Everett, Washington, however, occurred in a Native American community where apparently all the victims and the shooter were members of the Tulalip Tribes. That, it could be argued, makes this one different.

The shooter, Jaylen Fryberg, was not a likely murderer. He was not a social misfit, and he was active in his culture. As Native people, we believe that raising our children with traditional cultural values will contribute to their self-esteem and teach them right from wrong. We believe that infusing them with the teachings handed down to us—the wisdom of our elders—will give them things that the dominant culture can’t give them.

But those teachings still come within the context of a larger dominant culture. It is a culture saturated with violent images, desensitizing our children from the moment they enter the world. It’s a society with the highest incarceration rate in the world, and a foreign policy based on ideological domination—modern day colonialism. And it’s a society teetering on an environmental catastrophe that will likely play out in our children’s lifetimes.

The Tulalip community refuses to make the shooting about race. It’s simply not necessary. The point is that our society is failing our children. We know it, and they know it. School shootings are just one of the manifestations of that tragic knowledge.

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Land Reform in Vanuatu

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), passed in 2007, gave a new language to indigenous rights struggles. While the Declaration is not considered an international treaty, it is a very important foundational document that acknowledges the circumstances specific to the unique needs of indigenous peoples.

The language it created is finding its way into laws and policies of governments. Recently, the government of Vanuatu passed a new land reform law that inscribed the language of “free, prior, and informed consent” as a guiding principle to prevent land loss and to protect indigenous customary land tenure practices. Read more about it here.

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Grateful Dead’s 50-year career to be chronicled in Martin Scorsese-produced documentary

Martin Scorsese to make a documentary celebrating 50 years of the Grateful Dead. Deadheads, check out the 20 minute clip from the 1986 Farm Aid concert. Absolutely stellar.

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Inaugural Post

As a writer, I have come to grasp the importance of visibility (or what you might also call shameless self-promotion!). Writers write because they feel they have something to contribute to the world. I write for that reason, and others. For me it is about education, the desire to impart the light of knowledge (if not wisdom) into a sea of social darkness, especially where Native people and history are concerned. It all began when in my 30s I learned the hidden history of my own family and how they suffered at the hands  of the American government, with its policies to eradicate American Indians. I came to see how my life  was in so many ways a direct result of this. And I couldn’t be silenced  by it like my ancestors were,  drowning in their own trauma, generation after generation, and struggling to merely survive.

No, this was not acceptable. The buck would stop with me and my mission came to be  this intergenerational healing. Education was a cornerstone of that process. As American Indian people  we can no longer allow ourselves to be victimized. The tide of history is changing, along with the historical narratives  of the United States which slowly  unveils a more accurate portrayal of how  this country was actually formed.  It is as ugly as it is agonizing, but the truth must prevail.

At the same time,  if the goal of healing  is to become a more whole human being, with an identity grounded in authenticity, then we must find balance. We must find the joy in life amid the sorrow, and find ways to connect the disparate elements of our lives.  I do this through surfing. There are few more direct ways  to connect with the environment, and there is nothing like  the energy of Mother Ocean to heal a wounded soul. This is why I must write about surfing!

So please enjoy your journey through this blog and come back and read often. It’s a work in progress and as I learn WordPress I hope to make it ever-better. I appreciate your attention.



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