Andrea Smith is a Native American activist and academic hailed for her Cherokee heritage. One small problem: She’s not Cherokee.
By Samantha Allen
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.
Rachel Dolezal and Andrea Smith: Integrity, Ethics, Accountability, Identity
“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.”
Smith’s admissions to multiple Cherokee people in 1993, 2007, and 2008 that she has no lineal descent claims as a Cherokee is as striking as the fact, as noted on tumblr, that, “To date, no member of the Redbirth Smith family or any other Cherokee family has acknowledged Andrea Smith’s claims of descent/belonging.”
In the two weeks since Lucchesi’s posts, the twitter and Facebook flurry, and the appearance of andreasmithisnotcherokee, not a single national media outlet or professional institution or association to which Smith is a member has remarked on Smith’s case. And neither has Smith responded–to refute, to acknowledge, to apologize. In fact, it appears that all she has done in response is to close her twitter account (@andrea366, though one she seems to be affiliated with @NativeChristian remains active) and her Facebook account (Andy Smith).
[Insert the sounds of crickets here.]
By Steve Russell
Still, fraud is fraud, and professors are to some degree, whether we like it or not, role models. 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.
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? How can you “mistake” whether or not you are tribally enrolled?
By seeking grants and honoraria and academic positions as a Cherokee, she does harm both in the sense of denying these things to real Cherokees and in the sense of representing a Cherokee culture about which she knows little. Still, I can sense that she wants to be Cherokee as desperately as Rachael Dolezal wants to be black.
When the dust settled over the outing of Andrea Smith half a dozen years ago, she had agreed to quit representing as Cherokee and several Cherokees, myself included, agreed to quit harping on the fraud already committed.
Years later, I found out she never quit playing Cherokee and, worse, her sister Justine joined what is beginning to appear to be a family scam, reportedly going so far as to submit a Cherokee Registry card with her name and somebody else’s number on it to a prospective academic employer.
An artist and a scholar are both under fire for claiming to be Native American, which furthered their careers
Why it matters
Four Words for Andrea Smith: 'I’m Not an Indian'
By David Shorter
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. While writing my ethnographic works, I do sometimes speak “for” Yoemem; but I’ve also gone to great lengths to simply translate and when possible, amplify Yoeme people’s claims. But, I’ve never spoken “as” a Yoeme person.
For every scholarship she received as a Native person, for every honorarium she has received as an Indigenous speaker, for her book sales that a publisher sold as coming from a “Cherokee” author, those recognitions came at the expense of some student who wasn’t funded, some speaker who wasn’t invited, or some book by an Indigenous author that wasn’t bought.
She spent years cultivating relationships with other powerful women of color to ensure her insider status. And as I personally know, she pushed others out of her way by not only playing an insider, but also playing the gatekeeper. One only needs to visit this Tumblr page (http://andreasmithisnotcherokee.tumblr.com/) to see her strategic use of “we” when talking about Indigenous experiences and “them” when talking about colonizers. Andy and I both went to a graduate program, History of Consciousness, a place that excelled at theorizing the strategies of exactly such representations within social movements.
Lisa Aldred wrote a great scholarly article that methodically shows why people want to be Indian. In “Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances,” she demonstrated that non-Indians are unconsciously motivated to become or affiliate as Indigenous because doing so alleviates them of their guilt about colonization. This essay is powerful in the classroom because it shows the sheer power of this motivation, from headdresses, to sweat lodge tourism, to the entire market for anything smacking of Indian spirituality.
Blogger tequilasovereign (Joanne Barker, Lenape) wrote about this very subject of indigenous identity back in April. From “13 Observations in 3 Parts: Anti-Racist Feminist Allies and the Politics of Indigeneity,” Barker asserts:
If you cannot identify your nation/group/tribe/band, then you should have a transparent explanation (adoption, for instance).
Because of the histories of misrepresentation of Indigeneity in territorial dispossession and violence, there are deep ethical responsibilities in identifying oneself as Indigenous.