Meet the Native American Rachel Dolezal

Samantha Allen, Daily Beast, June 30, 2015

Andrea Smith–an associate professor at University of California, Riverside, the founder of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, and a leading Native American studies scholar and activist–may not, in fact, be a Cherokee woman, despite repeatedly presenting herself as such since at least 1991.

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.

“Her ancestry through her mother was first and showed no connection to the Cherokee tribe,” Cornsilk told The Daily Beast. “Her second effort came in 1998 or around then with ‘new claims’ on her father’s lineage, which also did not pan out.”

At first, Cornsilk thought that she was “just another client, nothing out of the ordinary.” But when she came back the second time, Cornsilk told The Daily Beast, Smith “told [him] her employment depended on finding proof of Indian heritage.”

Smith allegedly continued to portray herself as Cherokee despite Cornsilk’s research. Her second attempt to establish her Cherokee descent came shortly before she established the renowned feminist of color activist organization INCITE! and about five years before her 2002 appointment as an assistant professor at the University of Michigan.

Cornsilk told The Daily Beast that he was “compelled to inform members of her field that she had no Cherokee ancestry.”

Smith and I interacted on Twitter during SEWSA but we can’t anymore. As WordPress blogger tequilasovereign discovered, Smith deactivated her Twitter account shortly after Annita Lucchesi, a graduate student at Washington State University, posted a now-viral Tumblr post entitled “Andrea Smith is not Cherokee.”

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For the past week, an anonymous Tumblr has been posting evidence of Smith’s portrayal of herself as Cherokee alongside evidence debunking these claims. The emerging narrative is eerily similar to the case of Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP chapter president who portrayed herself as black for 10 years before being revealed to be white by her parents.

In 1991, Smith wrote an article for Ms. Magazine entitled “For All Those Who Were Indian in a Former Life,” (PDF) in which she chastises white feminists who want to appropriate aspects of Native American culture without experiencing any of the oppression:

When white ‘feminists’ see how white people have historically oppressed others and how they are coming very close to destroying the earth, they often want to disassociate themselves from their whiteness. They do this by opting to ‘become Indian.’ … Of course, white ‘feminists’ want to become only partly Indian. They do not want to be a part of our struggles for survival against genocide…

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