Education

Top American Indian Scholar Outed As Fake Indian

Just a few weeks after Rachel Dolezal transfixed the nation with her bogus claims to black heritage, yet another professor stands accused of falsely claiming a different racial identity to advance her career.

Andrea Smith, a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California at Riverside, has started to draw attention in the wake of the Dolezal incident from those who say she has for years falsely claimed to have Cherokee blood. The case is arguably much more significant, though, because while Dolezal was a relatively undistinguished academic at Eastern Washington University, Smith is recognized as a significant scholar in her field. She routinely appears as a featured scholar at major events and has written books that were well-received by her colleagues (though others may question the broader worth of works like Conquest: Sexual Violence And American Indian Genocide).

Her career has largely been defined by her supposed American Indian identity. Besides her academic work, she also helped create the organization INCITE!, which describes itself as a collection of “radical feminists of color.” She’s also been active in the Indian group Women of All Red Nations (WARN).

But according to many, Smith’s Cherokee identity is a complete sham. Much of the attack on Smith is coming from an anonymous, but well-sourced, Tumblr blog, Andrea Smith Is Not A Cherokee. She has also been called out in The Daily Beast.

The Beast article quotes David Cornsilk, a Cherokee genealogist, who says he actually researched Smith’s heritage back in 1993 (while she was still an undergraduate) at her request and found absolutely no evidence of Cherokee heritage. Cornsilk says Smith actually approached him a second time in 1997 to look again, allegedly telling him “her employment depended on finding proof of Indian heritage.” Once again, Cornsilk found nothing.

But that apparently didn’t deter Smith, who simply continued to claim Cherokee heritage directly or allow others to attribute that heritage to her. In 2008, her failed tenure bid at the University of Michigan caused a significant backlash, with activists claiming the school was marginalizing minority women. A 2011 symposium at Quebec’s Concordia University described her as a “Cherokee Intellectual.” Similar descriptions have been used for Smith for events at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Toronto.

Questions about Smith’s heritage have been raised in the past. Former Indiana University at Bloomington professor Steve Russell called out Smith in Indian Country Today in 2008, but it apparently went unnoticed outside the Cherokee community. Russell told Inside Higher Ed that he extracted a promise from Smith back in 2008 to stop claiming Indian ancestry after finding she was not enrolled with any tribe, as long as he in return promised to stop writing about the matter. If this claim is true, then Smith has apparently repeatedly flouted that promise.

Not only that, but apparently even Smith’s siblings may be getting in on the fraud. An article published by Russell on July 1 accuses Justine Smith, Andrea’s sister, of not only falsely claiming Cherokee heritage but also getting a fake tribal ID card.

Smith did not return a request for comment, and rather than respond via social media her Twitter account appears to have been deactivated. Also, despite the claims against her, UC-Riverside says it isn’t bothered.

“Professor Smith is a teacher and research of high merit who, on that basis, earned a tenured faculty position at UC Riverside,” the school said in a statement given to The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The University of California is precluded by law from considering an individual’s ethnicity in any hiring or advancement decisions.”

Bogus claims to American Indian blood are nothing new in academia. Ward Churchill, an activist professor who drew national attention for describing 9/11 victims as “little Eichmanns,” was also found to have made dubious claims to Indian heritage. There’s also the case of Elizabeth Warren, who in the past claimed, without evidence, to have some Cherokee blood.

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