A week ago, Dartmouth announced that ethnomusicologist Susan Taffe Reed is the new director of the college’s Native American Program, boasting that she is “the president of the Eastern Delaware Nations.”
But the Eastern Delaware Nations (EDN) is not a federally recognized Native American tribe, it’s a 501(c)(3) that also allows “members [who] are not of Native American descent, but [who] join as social members.” And, after a searing blog post unearthed alleged death certificates of Taffe’s ancestors that show her family coming to the U.S. from Ireland after the Indian Removal Act, Native American alumni of the college are protesting the hire on their Facebook page. Native American media is also scrutinizing Dartmouth’s decision to hire someone for a student affairs position who seems less than forthcoming about her own heritage.
The issue, they say, is not necessarily the EDN’s lack of federal recognition but a refusal of transparency on Taffe Reed’s part that recalls recent cases like disgraced former NAACP chapter president Rachel Dolezal and UC Riverside professor Andrea Smith, who continues to claim Cherokee identity despite backlash from Cherokee scholars and leaders.
Taffe Reed herself did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment but she did provide statements to Inside Higher Ed and local news outlet Valley News. In neither instance did she specifically disprove the genealogy that has been posted online.
She told Inside Higher Ed, “My ties to all aspects of my identity are very important to me. Throughout this process, I have been forthright about my personal and professional experience. Given the history of this continent, it is not uncommon for Native identities to be mixed and complex.”
Dartmouth spokeswoman Diana Lawrence was more direct with Valley News, claiming that the genealogical blog post was inaccurate: “Susan Taffe Reed is of Native and European heritage. She has never represented herself as a member of a federal- or state-recognized tribe. She was transparent about her professional and personal experience throughout the search process. We are satisfied with the information she provided and are confident in her qualifications for this position.”
But, as the Valley News notes, Lawrence “did not specify the inaccuracies” with the blog post.
So far, the college is standing by its decision to hire Taffe Reed, recognizing the debate around her but insisting that “[i]t is not up to Dartmouth to determine which perspective is correct.” They further note that it is illegal to make hiring decisions based on ethnicity.
“While we recognize the legitimacy of the concern that individuals may falsely identify themselves as Native American, Dartmouth also understands that there are varying perspectives in the Native American community over what constitutes ethnicity, which is a separate issue from false claims of ethnicity,” the school’s official statement reads.
Lawrence told The Daily Beast that Taffe Reed “disclosed her heritage in her cover letter for the position” and provided a new and additional statement from Professor Bruce Duthu, head of the search committee for this position.
“Susan openly acknowledged that she is a person of mixed ancestry and identity, including Native ancestry,” Duthu wrote. “In the case of Native peoples (and other people of color), state records, including birth and death certificates, are notoriously unreliable sources of information about personal background. Likewise, there are serious problems with reliance on notions of ‘federal recognition’ as a measure of ‘authenticity’ since the standards for such recognition have been widely and consistently criticized by Native and non-Native scholars and activists alike ever since they were promulgated in 1978.”
But those questioning Taffe Reed’s new position say that her case is more clear-cut and does not hinge on questions of federal recognition.
In one biography (PDF), Taffe Reed claims that she is “Turtle Clan and of Delaware, Irish, and German ancestry” and, in another, she lists herself as “Delaware (Turtle Clan). In a book chapter, she says that she is “related to Little Beaver.”
Dr. Nicky Kay Michael, a Native American historian and member of the federally recognized Delaware Tribal Council told The Daily Beast that she is very skeptical of Taffe Reed’s claim to be from the Turtle Clan if she is unwilling to openly discuss her heritage.
“When you say those things, that’s a red flag,” Michael said. “If you are Delaware, you’re going to have to say who your family is. It’s not just a case of federal recognition; we want to know who you are. What family do you come from?”
As Michael notes, the Delaware tribes in the United States that currently have federal recognition originally lived near the Delaware River but relocated west under pressure from the government beginning in the mid-eighteenth century. The Pennsylvania-based Eastern Delaware Nations group from which Taffe Reed hails claims on its website that most of its members are “descendants of Native Americans who lived in the Endless Mountains Region of Northeastern Pennsylvania and resisted being removed” but many in official Delaware tribes, Michael included, dispute the notion that a substantial number of Native Americans stayed behind in the Northeast.
“They don’t ask our permission to use our name and then they appropriate our culture,” Michael said of the EDN. “What [Taffe Reed] did is she basically used this 501(c)(3) as a forum and then she wrote articles claiming to be Delaware.” Michael does not speak for the Delaware Tribe but she says that an official statement is forthcoming.
The EDN did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on Taffe Reed.
Kerry Holton, president of the Delaware Nation—another federally recognized Delaware tribe—told The Daily Beast that he has been authorized to make official comments on the Dartmouth situation, and that he has so far been unsuccessful in his attempts to reach the college president.
Holton told The Daily Beast that he does not dispute Taffe Reed’s credentials per se but he does take exception to Dartmouth’s communication around Taffe Reed.
“It looks like she’s well-qualified for the position,” said Holton, “but they turned it into a questionable Native issue by mentioning the Eastern Delaware Nation, which is simply a charitable organization.”
Holton says that Dartmouth’s original announcement, which praised Taffe Reed for her “leadership roles in her Delaware tribal community,” was “misleading” because they failed to acknowledge that the EDN is a 501(c)(3)—and a controversial one at that—rather than a Native American tribe.
“I put a little bit of this responsibility on Dartmouth for the misleading way that they presented it,” he said. “And the fact that Susan has not been very forthcoming in trying to clarify anything—that, right there, just makes it even more suspicious and very difficult for me to swallow.”
Holton plans to send a letter to Dartmouth on Monday detailing the Delaware Nation’s concerns.
In the meantime, the Native American community at Dartmouth is questioning the hire on social media.
One student wrote into the alumni-run Dartblog claiming that the school sought the input of Native American students at a series of dinners with prospective candidates in late July. Although students “felt comfortable” with Taffe Reed, the student reports that “she wasn’t even our top candidate for the position and the primary reasons we liked her (despite a lack of experience for the position) are [now] being called into question.”
Alumni are also voicing their discontent on their public Facebook page, comparing Taffe Reed to former professor Ward Churchill and others who have made dubious claims of Native American ancestry. Some are planning to forward correspondence to Dartmouth trustees.
“You all have no idea what naming her to this position has done to validate decades of cultural thievery!” wrote Michele Leonard.
Alum Bear Christensen wrote, “I agree that this position does not require it to be a [N]ative person, but this is not the case of the ethnic makeup of a person, it is a case where someone has actively embraced and promoted a false cultural connection to give themselves an air of ‘cultural authority’ as a ‘selling point’ for her academic career.”