By Scott Jaschik
"All scholarship should be based on integrity and that integrity includes honesty and transparency," said Winona Wheeler, president of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, associate professor indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan, and a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation. "One of the significant tenets of indigenous studies as a discipline is that we strive to [situate] ourselves with our research. So it's really important in the discipline that we advise our readers somehow about the place that we're coming from."
Robert Warrior, director of American Indian studies at Illinois, said that Smith didn't prompt the statement, but that the reports about her were "a topic of discussion throughout our development of it. We knew about the ethical issues regarding her claims to Cherokee descent at that point."
The Illinois statement said in part: "We recognize the importance of being able to identify ourselves clearly and unambiguously. Too often, we realize, American Indian studies as a field of academic inquiry has failed to live up to its potential at least in part because of the presence of scholars who misrepresent themselves and their ties to the Native world. While we do not in any way want to suggest that only Native scholars can do good scholarship in Native studies, neither do we want to make light of the importance of scholars who work in this field being able to speak with clarity about who they are and what brings them to their scholarship and creative activity."
By various authors
Rather, our concerns are about the profound need for transparency and responsibility in light of the traumatic histories of colonization, slavery, and genocide that shape the present. Andrea Smith has a decades-long history of self-contradictory stories of identity and affiliation testified to by numerous scholars and activists, including her admission to four separate parties that she has no claim to Cherokee ancestry at all. She purportedly promised to no longer identify as Cherokee, and yet in her subsequent appearances and publications she continues to assert herself as a non-specific “Native woman” or a “woman of color” scholar to antiracist activist communities in ways that we believe have destructive intellectual and political consequences. Presenting herself as generically indigenous, and allowing others to represent her as Cherokee, Andrea Smith allows herself to stand in as the representative of collectivities to which she has demonstrated no accountability, and undermines the integrity and vibrancy of Cherokee cultural and political survival. Her lack of clarity and consistency in her self-presentation adds to the vulnerability of the communities and constituents she purports to represent, including students and activists she mentors and who cite and engage her work. This concerns us as indigenous women committed to opening spaces for scholars and activists with whom we work and who come after us.
The stories we tell have consequences, and the harm that some stories produce goes beyond their individual context. One of the devastating consequences of Smith having served as the often singular representative of indigeneity in a variety of academic and activist social justice contexts is damage to strategic alliance building, especially between indigenous and non-indigenous women of color. Accountability to communities, kinship networks and multiple histories is part of the difficult work scholars of indigenous and critical race studies must be willing to undertake to ensure that our work combats rather than reinforces or leaves untouched the intricate dynamics of heteropatriarchal racist colonialism.