Meet the Native American Rachel Dolezal
Andrea Smith is a Native American activist and academic hailed for her Cherokee heritage. One small problem: She’s not Cherokee.
Andrea Smith—an associate professor at University of California, Riverside, the founder of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, and a leading Native American studies scholar and activist—may not, in fact, be a Cherokee woman, despite repeatedly presenting herself as such since at least 1991.
I first saw Andrea Smith in 2013 when she delivered a keynote at the Southeastern Women’s Studies Association (SEWSA) conference and, although her program bio did not explicitly mention that she was Cherokee, she was widely understood by conference goers to be a Native American speaker.
After all, she was the author of Conquest, a landmark text about state-sanctioned acts of violence against Native American women, she had been involved with the Chicago chapter of the organization Women of All Red Nations (WARN), and when she was denied tenure by the University of Michigan, students and faculty rallied around her, suggesting discrimination on the basis of her Native American descent.
She had a long history of speaking as a Native American woman on issues affecting Native Americans. Her tenure controversy, in particular, was legendary in academic circles. At the time, Inside Higher Ed referred to her as “[a] Cherokee,” adding that “she is among a very small group of Native American scholars who have won positions at top research universities.”
But that’s not so, as David Cornsilk—a research analyst who did genealogical work for the Cherokee Nation in the late 1980s and has operated his own practice, Cherokee Genealogy Services, since 1990—can attest. He confirmed to The Daily Beast that Smith reached out to him twice during the 1990s to research her own genealogy. There was no evidence of Cherokee heritage either time.
“Her ancestry through her mother was first and showed no connection to the Cherokee tribe,” Cornsilk told The Daily Beast. “Her second effort came in 1998 or around then with ‘new claims’ on her father’s lineage, which also did not pan out.”
At first, Cornsilk thought that she was “just another client, nothing out of the ordinary.” But when she came back the second time, Cornsilk told The Daily Beast, Smith “told [him] her employment depended on finding proof of Indian heritage.”
Smith allegedly continued to portray herself as Cherokee despite Cornsilk’s research. Her second attempt to establish her Cherokee descent came shortly before she established the renowned feminist of color activist organization INCITE! and about five years before her 2002 appointment as an assistant professor at the University of Michigan.
Cornsilk told The Daily Beast that he was “compelled to inform members of her field that she had no Cherokee ancestry.”
Smith and I interacted on Twitter during SEWSA but we can’t anymore. As WordPress blogger tequilasovereign discovered, Smith deactivated her Twitter account shortly after Annita Lucchesi, a graduate student at Washington State University, posted a now-viral Tumblr post entitled “Andrea Smith is not Cherokee.”
“Andrea Smith is not Cherokee. omg. [T]his is not new information,” Lucchesi wrote.
Although Smith’s deception may have been something of an open secret among groups of Native American scholars and activists, the news comes as a shock to a broader academic community that has long hailed her as a Cherokee voice.
“Andrea Smith does not rep being Cherokee unless you ask her, she usually introduces herself as a ‘woman of color or Native.’ [S]he has no ties to any Cherokee community, no record of her ancestry, and no known family that identifies as Cherokee or acknowledges Cherokee ancestry,” Lucchesi added.
For the past week, an anonymous Tumblr has been posting evidence of Smith’s portrayal of herself as Cherokee alongside evidence debunking these claims. The emerging narrative is eerily similar to the case of Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP chapter president who portrayed herself as black for 10 years before being revealed to be white by her parents.
In 1991, Smith wrote an article for Ms. Magazine entitled “For All Those Who Were Indian in a Former Life,” (PDF) in which she chastises white feminists who want to appropriate aspects of Native American culture without experiencing any of the oppression:
“When white ‘feminists’ see how white people have historically oppressed others and how they are coming very close to destroying the earth, they often want to disassociate themselves from their whiteness. They do this by opting to ‘become Indian.’ … Of course, white ‘feminists’ want to become only partly Indian. They do not want to be a part of our struggles for survival against genocide…”
Her bio below the article refers to her as “a Cherokee woman” and “cofounder of Women of All Red Nations (WARN).” At the time, Smith, who was born in San Francisco, may not have had any proof of Native American descent. In other words, she may have been a white feminist trying to “become” Native American herself—a level of hypocrisy that recalls Dolezal’s own criticisms of cultural appropriation.
By the time Smith was denied tenure in 2008, she was serving as the director of Native American Studies at the University of Michigan. When students and faculty portrayed the denial as discrimination against a Native American faculty member, at least one Cherokee critic who was aware of Smith’s background decided to speak out.
Long before Rachel Dolezal was accused of “ethnic fraud,” Steve Russell, a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network, called Smith an “ethnic fraud” for portraying herself as Cherokee in the buildup to the UMich incident:
“I am Cherokee, and Smith has in the past claimed that same tribal affiliation. Her e-mail handle, I have learned, is ‘Tsalagi’ [meaning Cherokee]. In my last column, I mentioned her 15 refereed articles, two books written, book chapters written and books edited. These are the currency of academia: what you have done rather than what you are born.”
In the column, Russell describes the damage Smith causes by allowing the university and the public to perceive her as Native American.
“If the University of Michigan wants a researcher and teacher, it would appear by objective criteria they have one. If they want a Cherokee, not,” he wrote. “Ethnic fraud is harmful to tribes and sometimes to individual real Indians if they are passed over for a fake in a job that really does call for a tribal person.”
The piece was not widely read, however, and academic bios for Smith continued to refer to her as “a Cherokee woman” until as recently as December 2014. In the meantime, Smith took a position at University of California, Riverside. And although accusations of ethnic fraud continued, they appear to have flown under the radar until Lucchesi’s post.
In 2013, Mark Edwin Miller’s book Claiming Tribal Identity: The Five Tribes and the Politics of Federal Acknowledgment described an alleged confrontation between Smith and Cherokee scholars Patti Jo King and Richard Allen that occurred midway through her career. According to Miller, Smith agreed to stop claiming Cherokee descent after they “confronted her” in a private meeting. Judging from the long list of bios in the 2010s in which she is referred to as “Cherokee” or “aboriginal,” Smith did not respect King and Allen’s wishes.At a conference in 2011, for example, Smith was introduced as “an anti-violence activist from the Cherokee nation” and speaks using the collective pronoun “we” when referring to indigenous people:
As for why Smith might have claimed to be Cherokee, David Cornsilk has his suspicions. He said that it’s “not unusual” for people to contact him on the basis that their employment depends on proving their descent.
“I just did a research project for a client [who] had some silly notion that by being certified he could do more for Indians than we could for ourselves,” Cornsilk told The Daily Beast. “It’s that kind of paternalistic arrogance that made me shut down my business for a few years.”
Like Rachel Dolezal and her work with the NAACP, Smith has a long history of advocating for and speaking on behalf of Native American women. But like Dolezal, her refusal to clarify her own background raises important and troubling questions about her role in that very work.
Andrea Smith could not be reached for comment. When asked for comment on Smith, INCITE! told The Daily Beast: “We support Andy Smith and the self-determination of all First Nations People. INCITE would rather place our collective resources into abolishing settler colonialism than in perpetuating this ideology by policing her racial and tribal identity.”
Update: Patti Jo King, a Cherokee historian, journalist and Interim Chair of American Indian Studies at Bacone College, confirmed to The Daily Beast via e-mail that she and her colleague Richard Allen confronted Andrea Smith about her claims of Cherokee descent at a conference in 2007. King wrote that Smith “admitted” to her and Allen that “she wasn’t sure about her connection to the Cherokee family,” that she “apologized profusely for making untrue statements as well as statements she said she was not sure about,” and that she “promised to set the record straight and never again claim to be Cherokee.” “She has allowed publishers, professors, conference organizers, publicists, and her many readers to continue to propagate the notion that she is indeed Cherokee, and by extension, speaks on our behalf,” King said.