July 02, 2015

Smith's defenders denounce "identity policing"

As the criticism of "Cherokee" activist Andrea Smith unfolded, her defenders also took to the Internets. The first "criticism" I saw was mild:

No, Andrea Smith is not the “Native American Rachel Dolezal”

By Erica Violet LeeYes, if it is true that Andrea’s claims to heritage were entirely made up, it is a betrayal. Pretending to be Indigenous is not okay, regardless of your intentions. Accepting the astounding number of public engagements she has done over the years (and payments for these events) on the basis that one is a Cherokee scholar is unthinkably harmful and displaces countless Indigenous women scholars. For this reason I support the many Indigenous scholars I know that have worked to bring this particular case to light and demanded accountability; many of them important, senior women scholars who make spaces in the academy for young Indigenous women like me.But:Moving forward, how do we best deal with this situation?

Rather than tearing down any one woman, support the already-existing immense body of work of Indigenous scholars, particularly, that of Indigenous feminists and Indigenous women. Support the work of Indigenous feminists whose work is useful for our communities.
It's not one or the other. We can tear down Smith's wall of denial while supporting the work of genuine indigenous scholars. In fact, nudging Smith out of the limelight does exactly that. It frees up time and space for us to examine other people's work.

Jealous of Smith?

But then Smith's defenders got serious with their accusations:

Statement from Tawna Barnett-Little (Muscogee Creek/Seminole)All academics have shortcomings and it amazes me that you choose to attack Andy’s identity as her shortcoming and take it to this level. That’s the best you could do in finding something to call her out on? How pitiful. Why not go after her scholarship, her arguments? Oh yeah, because they’re brilliant! And her work is used in both grass roots organizing spaces and academic settings. Testimonies of Indigenous female rape survivors have asserted Andy’s work to be healing and empowering. Andrea and her sister Justine have both been extraordinarily positive voices in my life as well as other members of my family. This also rings true during times of hardship when their words have been encouraging and they have been physically present in our lives…..oh, remember that I said I’m a FULL-BLOOD (black haired-brown skinned-Indian looking individual unlike the rest of these insecure-in-your-identity-academic-mixed-bloods who I would not have criticized until you decided to exercise identity policing) which means that Andrea does hang out with Native People, contrary to previous blogging claims that she does not hang around other Natives. Many others can attest to that as well.

As we say in Muscogee, “mistvlke fekcahke owet fullet owes” (they are going about in a jealous way). I guess if my academic scholarship was lacking, I might also develop jealousy toward Andrea Smith. So, attacking her identity on grounds of not having an enrollment card and “misrepresenting herself” is an easy target eaten up by non-grass roots Indigenous Peoples and is something that only mainstream whites and insecure Natives seem to care about. It is obvious that these attackers do not know Andrea and her personal family challenges, particularly those surrounding her lineage. Trying to survive in academia can be brutal in Native Studies arenas where everyone wants to be Indianer-than-thou. I am altogether compassionate toward her claim/misunderstanding about enrollment in the Cherokee Nation. That doesn’t dismiss her exceptional work, commitment to social justice and desire to end global oppression. Andrea does not claim to be a Cherokee cultural or language expert and these attackers evidently have fooled folks into thinking they are somehow culturally and linguistically superior to Andy in their Native identity. Wow, that’s a joke! Andrea has not used her Cherokee identity as a way to promote herself; rather, she identifies with what she was told her identity is growing up and she participates in social justice advocacy--for people other than herself. In fact, she went to law school to defend those who cannot defend themselves. Andrea has made INCREDIBLE personal sacrifices for her family and herself in order to fight for justice, and anyone that attempts to discredit her clearly does not get the whole picture. The virtues of my Muscogee People (vnokeckv, eyasketv, mehenwv, kvncvpkv) do not support this kind of hateful behavior. It sounds like most of these attackers are without traditional teachings from their respective nations; they have yet to learn how to live on this earth.
Why not go after Smith's scholarship? Because her scholarship and her identity are two separate issues. Duh.

If I ever heard of Smith before this controversy, I don't remember it. I'm not Native, "traditional," or academic, so there's nothing for me to be jealous of. I criticize people who lie and dissemble because lying and dissembling is wrong.

For the umpteenth time, no one is saying a word about Smith's work or her advocacy. We're talking about her identity problems such as the "misunderstanding" about being an enrolled Cherokee.

More important things to do?

Why Realness Fails Us in Native Studies

By Chris FinleyIn the shadow of the Rachel Dolezal scandal, mostly non-Cherokee Indigenous academics have raised an alarm about Andy Smith’s identity once again. I want to point out that it is mostly tenured faculty that are doing this. I want to know why you have an investment in Andy’s identity in particular. Indian identity has always been heavily policed. Usually it was the settlers trying to undo us, but in this case, it is ourselves. This is the part that makes me truly sick. There isn’t a settler in sight but there is a massacre occurring. It isn’t only Andy who is hurt and scared by this discussion. I know if my identity was held up to a microscope or even a magnifying glass, I would fail spectacularly. I don’t speak my language, I don’t make it home much, I don’t eat venison because I’m a vegetarian (total Indigenous failure!), I don’t even like camping, I haven’t had sexual relations with an Indian in over 5 years, and I never wear turquoise jewelry. Sure, I’m enrolled, but as an Indigenous person my identity is always scrutinized and measured. (People often ask me for my blood quantum or specific questions about my cultural practices.) As a Native woman, my identity and civility are always under attack. Native men in the academy do not have their identities and work scrutinized as much as Native women do.

Andy Smith has done more for Indigenous people than I ever will and this is not because I think she blocked me but I just never had the energy she had to dedicate every waking moment to ending oppression. To me the question or desire should not be for a self-confession from Andy about what went wrong or what she is or is not, because I think her actions speak louder than that. My desire is for Indigenous people to stop tearing each other apart and to stop attacking someone who really tried to do some good. Why didn’t so many people call out Kevin Costner when he was adopted by the Rosebud Nation and then built a casino and that was not about sovereignty or decolonization. I tell you, I saw Andy go through her tenure battle at Michigan and the institution would have never treated a white woman that way, but it most certainly would have done so to a Native feminist.
And:For us to forsake Andy for not being Native when we have a white president of Native American and Indigenous Studies is very hypocritical. Why let white people run Native Studies? Does that make us less Native? I don’t think so but maybe it does. We have real things to worry about, theorize, and love. And this debate does not get us there. It is not a caring debate. The debate relies on those who want to be Native informants who tell all the other non-Natives that Andy is not Cherokee or Native like this means something really deep. To me, it doesn’t. When I found out there wasn’t a Santa Claus, I got over it.

This is not the most important thing happening in Native America, nor should it be.

This is NOT about Andy, but this is about us and how we deal with this shit.
I call postings such as this "Fifty shades of defending wannabes."

Wow, I am so sick of the "more important things" argument. If you're in academia, you're automatically not doing anything truly critical. "Chris Finley is a queer Native feminist finishing her PhD in American culture at the University of Michigan"...and that's what we should be doing instead of criticizing Andrea Smith? Because getting a PhD is the key to saving Native lives?

Finley and her ilk are thinking, writing, and teaching about long-term issues, which is fine and dandy. But don't tell us you're holier than thou--e.g., saving children from burning fires--and we're not. Academics, journalists, entertainers, and artists all contribute to the furtherance of Native culture and history in their own ways. Talking about wannabes who co-opt Native identity is one of those ways.

Working for Big Brother?

Statement from Klee Benally (DinĂ©/Russian-Polish)Off social media most of the day and now back to a witch hunt against fierce feminist author and friend, Andy Smith. While I’m not privy to all that’s been published, so far I’ve read tequilasovereign’s (aka Joanne Barker) tumblr and a couple others. tequilasovereign’s statements eerily evoke cointel-pro badjacketing rather than Indigenous feminism. Reading it I couldn’t help ask myself, what interests are served via this pillory?

When Ward Churchill’s identity was called into question it clearly served a conservative agenda. My position then was that his identity is between him and the creator and an issue for his family and Nation to address internally through their own cultural process. After all, the primary issues regard accountability, colonialism, and white supremacy. I still maintain that his political contributions shouldn’t be uncritically thrown out when challenged with the colonial institution of “blood-quantum.”

Accountability on Indigenous terms figures quite different than putting someone on a social media blast. Certainly ethnic fraud should be critically addressed regarding Indigenous (mis)representation but is this the proper way and venue to address matters that have such serious implications? Perhaps we should also consider the standard set by Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma’s shit politics regarding anti-black dis-enrollments? It’s further concerning how the logic of this applies to non-Federally recognized Indigenous Peoples too, what are the standards for Indigenous academic purity there?

This isn’t to excuse redface, but to recognize that quantum/enrollment issues are more complex than the Dolezal matter (her own family put her on blast, which is quite different than what’s playing out with Andrea Smith), just check the Pechanga or Pala issues for reference: http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/…/casino-tribe-outcasts-cla…/
Churchill's and Smith's identities are between them and their creator? Is that also true of Iron Eyes Cody and all the German hobbyists and hipsters in headdresses? They're Native if they say they are?

In other words, Benally is excusing redface. Anyone and everyone can pretend to be Native if they feel like it. If my heart and soul tell me I'm Cherokee, I am.

Unfortunately for Benally, Smith isn't being accused of having a too-low blood quantum, or of violating the Cherokee Nation's standards. She's accused of having no Cherokee heritage whatsoever. No blood ties, no community ties, nothing. So spare us the histrionic talk about how the System and the Man are trying to oppress poor Andrea the wannabe.

Sticking to Smith's fraud

Another commenter pushed back against these accusations, noting how people were trying to change the subject from Smith's misdeeds.

On the Politics of Distraction

By Joanne BarkerMy point is that expecting Andrea Smith–or anyone else–to be honest, to have integrity, in how they identify themselves and their work is not the same thing as policing their/her identity through the standards of racial authenticity. No one I know has ever asked her what her racial quota is or whether or not she can produce her CDIB.

Equating “identity policing” with the expectation of integrity with how someone presents themselves as Native is part of the trouble–anticipating that kind of racialized equivalence is exactly why Cherokee people and Native scholars who have known about Smith’s fraud for 7 to 24 years have never come forward.
And:I share this because in the blogosphere of reactions to what seems like new information about Smith for a lot of people, people are speaking as if those of us who have known, who have tried to think out loud about the issues in the last few days and weeks, are spiteful and mean-spirited and hateful people. That has not been my experience. The Native feminists and NAIS allies, UCSC alum and others, who have known and who are just beginning to speak up about the issues are compassionate, generous, empathetic, and smart and have been genuinely distressed about Smith–and for Smith’s health and well-being–and what the right thing is to do and to say for years and years and years. It has required a lot of spiritual, emotional, professional, and intellectual energy to work through. And we are only just beginning.

My challenge to everyone is to stay focused. There are too many distractions in conversations about these issues–too many accusations of papergenocide, lateral violence, cruelty. They have seemed, to me, disingenuous. A way to refocus the question and alleviate Smith of any kind of responsibility or accountability.
You know, it wouldn't affect me one iota if I found a nonwhite ancestor in my family tree. Why should it? It literally would have nothing to do with my present circumstances or plans.

Therefore, I don't understand why people would go around touting a rumor or a lie for years. Why don't they just save us the trouble and check themselves into a psychiatric institute? Because clearly they have unresolved issues and need help.

For more on Indian wannabes, see Vague Ancestors Aren't a Free Pass and Rachel Dolezal = Indian Wannabe.

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