Tribes Blast ‘Wannabe’ Native American Professor
The Cherokee Nation is denouncing scholar-activist Andrea Smith for falsely claiming to be a member of the tribe. Beyond untrue, the ethnic fraud is a painful reminder of their past.
“I have always been, and will always be Cherokee.”
This is University of California, Riverside professor Andrea Smith’s official response to recent allegations that she is not Cherokee, an identity that she has claimed throughout her decades-long career as a prominent figure in Native American scholarship and activism.
In a blog post on Thursday night, Smith maintained that she is Cherokee, that she has “consistently identified [herself] based on what [she] knew to be true,” and that “[t]here have been innumerable false statements made about [her] in the media.”
On June 30, research analyst and Cherokee genealogist David Cornsilk confirmed to The Daily Beast that he analyzed Smith’s genealogy at her request twice in the 1990s, finding no evidence of Cherokee ancestry either time. In response to Smith’s latest claim, Cornsilk again told The Daily Beast that she is not Cherokee and challenged her to share her ancestry publicly if she continues to label herself as Cherokee.
In her statement, Smith did not list any specific media statements that she feels are false nor did she offer evidence to refute the claims that she is not Cherokee. As was the case with The Daily Beast’s original report, Smith did not respond to request for comment.
Smith’s continued identification as Cherokee has been widely compared to the case of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who became the center of a media firestorm last month for posing as black while serving as an NAACP chapter president. Since The Daily Beast article on Smith was published, several media outlets including Inside Higher Education, Salon, and Indian Country Today have amplified the allegations that Smith, like Dolezal, has a lengthy history of “ethnic fraud.”
The coverage culminated Tuesday in an open letter from twelve female Native American scholars who wrote that “[Smith] has demonstrated no accountability, and undermines the integrity and vibrancy of Cherokee cultural and political survival.”
But Smith largely dodged this call for accountability in her first public response to the allegations, positioning herself instead as the victim of “social media attacks.”
“It is my hope that more Indigenous peoples will answer the call to work for social justice without fear of being subjected to violent identity-policing,” she wrote.
Smith will be able to continue her own work with the support of University of California, Riverside. Earlier this week, the school issued a statement to The Daily Caller saying that: “Professor Smith is a teacher and research [sic] of high merit who, on that basis, earned a tenured faculty position at UC Riverside.” They further noted that the school is prohibited, by law, from considering ethnicity as a factor in hiring decisions.
But whether or not the Cherokee community and the field of Native American studies will welcome Smith back is another matter.
Smith’s apparent ethnic fraud has sent shockwaves through academia that run far deeper than the case of Rachel Dolezal, despite drawing less public attention. As Scott Jaschik wrote on Inside Higher Education, the widespread coverage of Dolezal’s fraud was disproportionate to her overall scholarly importance—she was “not a major player in African-American studies.” Smith, on the other hand, has enjoyed a prominent position in Native American studies for decades. Her 2005 book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide continues to be a staple on Native American studies syllabi.
Some of Smith’s supporters have contributed statements to an anonymously curated blog entitled “Against a Politics of Disposability” but, aside from this, Native American scholars and activists have largely been critical of her claims.
On Indian Country Today, Steve Russell, a Cherokee writer and emeritus professor at Indiana University Bloomington, asked, “How can you be an Indian without knowing which of your relatives is Indian? How can you be an Indian with no ties to an Indian community?”
According to a keynote Russell delivered in 2008, he received an unwanted phone call from Smith after writing about her claims of Cherokee ancestry online. In the address, Russell described a “bizarre” conversation in which Smith claimed that she “thought” that she was Cherokee but could not name a single Cherokee ancestor when asked.
“When I had personal contact with Andrea Smith, I came away with the same impression many people have had after personal contact with Rachel Dolezal: this is a deeply disturbed person,” Russell wrote in his recent column.
For Russell and many other Native Americans, Smith is less directly analogous to Dolezal than she is to a long tradition of people who falsely claiming Native American descent or enrollment, people sometimes jokingly referred to as “pretendians” or members of the “Wannabe tribe.” Author and activist Ward Churchill, for example, claimed to be an enrolled member of the United Keetowah Band of Cherokee Indians in the 2000s although he had only been awarded an honorary associate membership at the time.
Native Americans refer to this appropriation of their culture as “playing Indian,” which is, ironically, a phenomenon that Smith herself critiqued in 1991.
Around the same time as Russell’s “bizarre” interaction with Smith, Joanne Barker, a professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco University who attended graduate school with Smith, had her own encounter with Smith’s denial.
Last week, Barker wrote on her blog that she and “about a dozen Native feminist scholars” participated in a conference call with Smith back in 2008 to talk about her lack of Cherokee descent, which Smith had reportedly acknowledged to a colleague.
“When we all got on the conference call together, Smith refused to talk with the rest of us about it,” Barker wrote. “She got on the call, bursted into tears, said, ‘I can’t do this,’ and hung up.”
Knowledge of Smith’s fraud appears to have been widespread in academic circles but discussed more or less in private until now. As Kim TallBear, an associate professor of Anthropology and Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, noted in a radio interview, “Within the field, we’ve known about it for years, many of us, and we’ve anguished over this because many of us know Andrea and her work has been valuable.”
Smith’s defenders have criticized the current focus on her identity as a painful replication of the logic behind blood quantum laws, which were used first by the colonial and then by the federal government in the U.S. to classify Native Americans based on their degree of ancestry by blood.
But the Cherokee Nation “does not require a specific blood quantum” for citizenship—it only requires “at least one direct Cherokee ancestor listed on the Dawes Final Rolls,” a late-19th and early 20th-century federal census of five Native American tribes.
Even by this low bar, David Cornsilk could not verify Smith’s supposed Cherokee ancestry. Cornsilk explained to The Daily Beast that his process involves crosschecking names on the rolls with members of the individual’s extended family including aunts, uncles, siblings, grandparents, and cousins.
“Andrea Smith isn’t just missing from the tribe, but [in] every generation back to the genesis of America, all of those relatives I mentioned are also missing,” he said.
The Cherokee Nation also independently told The Daily Beast that “Andrea Lee Smith” is not in their system.
In her public statement, Smith downplayed the fact that she is not enrolled in the Cherokee Nation: “My enrollment status does not impact my Cherokee identity or my continued commitment to organizing for justice for Native communities.”
But according to Patti Jo King, a Cherokee historian and Interim Chair of American Indian Studies at Bacone College who says she privately conversed with Smith about her claims of Cherokee identity in 2007, it is Smith’s deception—not her enrollment status and not her advocacy—that constitutes the central issue.
“She’s trying to switch the argument around here,” King told The Daily Beast in a phone interview. “We are not talking about her scholarship here. We are not talking about her commitment to Indian people.”
King also shared more details about the 2007 conversation in which she and Richard Allen, a Cherokee policy analyst, met with Smith to discuss her claims of Cherokee identity. During that conversation, Smith told King and Allen that her mother had told her that she was Cherokee. According to Cornsilk’s timetable, however, Smith would have already received confirmation that she was not Cherokee twice by that time.
King added that Smith was “very humble” during that meeting but now seems determined to continue claiming Cherokee identity in spite of the criticism she has received in the past week.
“This infringes on our rights of self-determination, self-identity, and sovereignty,” King said. “We are the best experts of our own culture and we have the sovereign right to decide who our members are, just like any nation.”
In a final strange development in Smith’s story, there are also emerging indications that her sister, Justine, may have also made false claims of Cherokee ancestry. Justine Smith has a lower public profile than her sister but has still established a career as a pastor and theologian in Native American communities.
In his Indian Country Today column, Steve Russell relayed a story about Justine Smith submitting “a Cherokee Registry card with her name and somebody else’s number on it to a prospective academic employer.”
The anonymous Tumblr that has been leaking information about Andrea Smith for the past several weeks includes a similar allegation—attributed to King’s colleague Richard Allen, who could not be reached for comment because he is on medical leave—about Justine Smith’s 2010 hiring at the Saint Paul School of Theology in Oklahoma, namely that she was hired using fraudulent Cherokee identification and then quickly left the position when confronted.
A 2010 hiring announcement from Saint Paul School of Theology does indeed list Justine Smith as “a member of the Cherokee Nation” and refers to her “the first full-time Native American woman to serve in any full-time faculty position in theological education in North America.”
Dean Elaine Robinson of the Saint Paul School of Theology was not willing to address the specifics of Justine Smith’s identity but she did note in a statement to The Daily Beast that Smith began work on July 1, 2010, that the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma made “accusations related to [her] Native identity,” and that Smith “has not been associated with Saint Paul School of Theology since October 2010, just three months after her hire date.
“I’ve had no contact with her since then,” Robinson said.
Despite the fact that the Cherokee Nation seems to have disputed Smith’s identity in 2010, she is still listed as Cherokee on the website for the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies and a 2013 interview referred to her as “Native American.”
She is currently a pastor at Norman First American United Methodist Church in Oklahoma and, on July 2—days after the allegations about her sister had already come to light—the church’s Facebook page shared a photo of Justine Smith “discuss[ing] history of the Cherokee, including a large display of Cherokee baskets, carrvings [sic], children’s books, New Testment [sic] in Cherokee, and Cherokee ‘Tear’ dresses.”
Justine Smith did not respond to questions about her position at the Saint Paul School of Theology and her identification as Cherokee. The Norman First American United Methodist Church also did not reply to questions about whether or not Smith identifies as a Native American pastor.