For the last week or so, people outside of Native American communities, politics and academia have been using a less-discussed aspect of Rachel Dolezal’s fraud—that she has Native ancestors and was born in a teepee—as an entry point to talk about white women who pretend to be Native American.
The conversation stems from a June 30 Daily Beast article titled "Meet the Native American Rachel Dolezal" that purports to prove that Native feminism and anti-violence icon Andrea Smith is, like Dolezal, a white woman passing for a person of color.
David Cornsilk, a geneologist who says he examined Smith’s claims of Cherokee heritiage in the1990s, told the Beast, “Her ancestry through her mother was first and showed no connection to the Cherokee tribe. Her second effort came in 1998 or around then with ‘new claims’ on her father’s lineage, which also did not pan out.” Cornsilk goes on to say that Smith “told [him] her employment depended on finding proof of Indian heritage.”
The story of Smith’s alleged ethnic fraud has been making the rounds in some Native, academic and organizer circles for many years. But in mid-June, seemingly on the heels of the Dolezal fiasco and an anonymous Tumblr called "Andrea Smith is not Cherokee," Native writers, bloggers, educators, commenters and cultural critics are having the conversation again. Smith reportedly shut down her social media accounts last week and her supporters launched a counter blog, Against a Politics of Disposibility.
We’re going to leave the sleuthing about Smith and the takedown to Tumblr and others. Instead, we present some of the issue-based threads that have emerged about who is and isn’t Native and why it matters.
Thread 1: Non-natives use Smith as a token, and it’s time for other Native feminism scholars to get some attention.
In a widely shared mid-June post on her mé’êško’áe Tumblr, Southern Cheyenne artist, activist and sexual violence survivor Annita Lucchesi addressed what she called tokenism among non-Natives and the overshadowing of "really amazing" Native feminist scholars:
Andrea Smith is not Cherokee. omg. this is not new information. this is what bugs me about how Natives are treated by non-Natives in academia!!! most Native scholars that are connected to their cultures/communities have questioned her for a very long time. but non-Natives get so comfortable using their one token go-to Native Feminist to quote that those questions don’t get heard or understood. […]
it’s a shame honestly because she has overshadowed some really amazing Native feminist scholars for a VERY long time.
Luchessi went on to publish a list of "cool indigenous feminists," and then declare that she’d written her initial post to "clear the air and move on." She also urged people to stop using her words as a "catalyst for toxic policing or name-calling" and an opening to "grandstand on an antiquated blood quantum platform."
Thread 2: Support Native self-determination and quit "throwing tomatoes" if you’ve never supported Indigenous feminist work.
In a July 1 post on her Moontime Warrior blog, University of Saskatchewan political science student and Idle No More organizer Erica Violet Lee provided bullet points about how "best deal with this situation." Among her suggestions:
- "… [R]realize that there isn’t any one rockstar scholar who can speak for all of us."
- "Open more spaces for Indigenous scholars, writers, artists, et al. to flourish, rather than demanding we fight for scraps."
- …Allow "Indigenous people to lead, guide, and decide when to have discussions about Indigenous identity…"
- If you’re a reporter who doesn’t cover Native issues; a "white settler;" a white Indigenous studies scholar;" or an "Indigenous male scholar who has "rarely/never engaged with Indigenous feminism except to crap on it," you should"stop "throwing tomatoes at a woman whose work has likely made more impact in the lives of Indigenous women than yours ever will."
Thread 3: Question the tools tribes use to determine membership.
In a lengthy July 1 public Facebook note, Andrew Jolivette, a San Francisco State American Indian Studies professor who who specializes in mixed-race issues, urged readers to question how tribes determine membership. Among eight points, the Opelousa/Atakapa-Ishakf scholar who went to graduate school with Smith writes:
When the Cherokee were removed in the 1830s [,] not all Cherokee left. [M]any remained, unrecognized in their original homelands but we both [N]ative and non-[N]ative academics tend to favor the enrolled to the detriment of the unrecognized. […] I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Smith like the Ohlone are [n]ot recognized because of a government system that seeks to erase Indian people, especially mixed-race Indians. This happens throughout the United States and Latin America where blackness is in fact used to erase Indian blood, while whiteness in Indian country is rarely questioned.
The problem of the census and enrollment from a critical mixed race perspective—census takers did not enroll all Indians nor did they even record the blood quantum of siblings with the same parents in a consistent manner. In Louisiana, where my father is from, the practice of categorizing mixed race people especially after 1890 focused on making as many multiracial people into African Americans as possible to disenfranchise them. This is not to say that these individuals were not Black, but they were also White/Latin and American Indian.
Thread 4: Why now?
Like many other writers and commenters, freelance writer and researcher Dina Gilio Whitaker, a descendent of Colville Confederated Tribes of Washington, wondered about the timing of the anti-Smith Tumblr on her personal blog, RumiNative:
Relatively little has been recently written about [Smith] 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.
Thread 5: The whole question is ancient and silly.
The satire site Tlo’chi’iin News poked fun at the age and value of discussing Smith’s identity. From a June 30 fake news report called "BUSTED! Native Scholars reveal Indominus Rex not REALLY a dinosaur":
Anonymous sources within The Scholars of Indigenous Stuff revealed Tuesday that the Indominus Rex, made famous in Jurassic World, is not even a real dinosaur.
“Although it is perhaps the most well known and cited dinosaur in people’s imaginations right now, did you know that the Indominus Rex lied about its background? It’s not a real dinosaur.”
Thread 6: Smith must admit to ethnic fraud.
In a July 1 opinion piece for Indian Country Today Media Network, David Shorter, a writer* who did undergraduate and graduate work in Arizona State’s American Indian Studies department, has "Four Words for Andrea Smith: ‘I’m Not an Indian’":
[Andrea Smith] has done incredible theoretical work in the academic field of Indigenous Studies and has even been recognized internationally for her broad and groundbreaking anti-violence coalition building. So does it matter that she did all of that in Red Face?
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.
Thread 7: Everyone loses here.
Writing on her tequilasovereign blog, Joanne Barker predicts a frustrating outcome in which non-Native thinkers will "eventually dismiss the sources and documentation of Smith’s fraud as crass or too-complicated identity politics." Also in the future that Barker describes:
Native academics (and) activists will turn on one another, will go mute, or will ignore the information (again) in the name of not advancing racism, not doing harm to Smith, or showing respect for her “good work” in “the community."
Meanwhile, we’ll all fail to ask why, as Dolezal and Smith present themselves through such complicated personal stories of childhood abuse and family dysfunction, we respond so differently to Dolezal’s blackface and Smith’s redface. We’ll avoid the opportunity to think out loud together about why it seems the entire nation demands accountability of someone pretending to be Black–of literally altering her physical appearance to conform to racist expectations of Blackness–but doesn’t seem to give one iota of concern about those who pretend to be Indian.
Is this because, at the end and beginning and middle of Smith’s fraud, “we” would all like to claim or have already claimed to have been raised in tipis, hunting for our food, feeling Indian since we were kids, shifting out of ourselves into the Indian’s pains and successes? Is it that “we” all, secretly, want to be Indian like her? Or perhaps that “we” all, secretly, already claim to be Indian ourselves?
At press time, Smith’s social media accounts remain closed and Incite!, the women-of-color-centered anti-violence organization she co-founded, has not issued an official statement. The University of California at Riverside, where Smith teaches media and cultural studies, has also refrained from making a public statement.
*Post has been updated to reflect that David Shorter does not identify as "white."