Posted on June 15, 2021

The Native Scholar Who Wasn’t

Sarah Viven, New York Times, May 25, 2021

It was a Thursday morning last September, and J. Kehaulani Kauanui had just woken up. She was reading a story on her phone in bed, a confession written by a woman named Jessica Krug, when, quite suddenly, it yanked her into the past.

“To an escalating degree over my adult life, I have eschewed my lived experience as a white Jewish child in suburban Kansas City,” wrote Krug, a history professor who had for years identified — and published — as a Black and Latina scholar. “I have thought about ending these lies many times over many years,” she continued, “but my cowardice was always more powerful than my ethics.”

Kauanui checked the time. The confession was posted only minutes earlier, but already six friends had forwarded her the link. It was that kind of story, the kind that spreads so fast and so far it soon seems that everyone has read it, and everyone has had a reaction: shock, disgust, anger, amusement. But Kauanui wasn’t thinking about Krug; she was thinking about Andy.


Andy is Andrea Smith. She and Kauanui met almost 25 years earlier, when Kauanui was a 28-year-old graduate student in the history of consciousness program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Smith was a young divinity student who planned to go there for her Ph.D. Kauanui served on the department’s admissions committee that year, and she still vividly remembers Smith’s application: how passionately she wrote about gender politics but also how clearly she defined her ethnic identity. “She positioned herself as Cherokee,” she told me. “She had something in the application that talked about what it meant for urban Native Americans away from homeland.”

Kauanui is Kanaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiian. But she grew up in Southern California, and she knew what it felt like to belong ancestrally to one place but be raised somewhere else. {snip}

Over time, the two became good friends just as Kauanui had hoped, though she quickly realized that Smith didn’t want to talk about her family or her Native roots. For years, all she would tell Kauanui was that she was from Long Beach, Calif.; that her mother was Oklahoma Cherokee, as were her grandparents; and that her dad, though out of the picture, was Ojibwe. {snip}

Even 25 years later, when she knew that so much of what she first believed wasn’t true, Kauanui still grappled with what to make of everything Smith had said — or hadn’t said. When Krug confessed last September, her admission prompted the outings of a series of white people who had been masquerading in their fields over the years as Black, Latino or Indigenous — six in academia alone by the year’s end. And yet, unlike Krug or the others who confessed and then disappeared from the public eye, Smith never explained herself or the lies she told. She has never really had to.

Rereading Krug’s mea culpa later that afternoon on a laptop at her dining-room table, Kauanui thought about the reckoning that never took place. By then it had been years since she and Smith had been in touch. But on an impulse, she found Smith’s university email address and, with a click, sent her a link to Krug’s confession.

In the subject line, she wrote: “Now it’s your turn.”

A Harvard graduate with long brown hair and pale skin, Andrea Smith began to make a name for herself in the early 1990s when she and her younger sister, Justine, moved to Chicago and started a local chapter of Women of All Red Nations, an activist organization that grew out of the American Indian Movement of the 1960s and ’70s. (Neither sister responded to multiple requests for comment for this article.) Although the sisters stayed in Chicago for only a few years, they made an impression: They helped organize a protest of the Columbus Day Parade and flew in Native activists to speak at community gatherings. And they also, says Katie Jones, a Cherokee woman who protested and organized alongside them, called out Native activists they thought weren’t “legit.”

“I watched them both go after this woman named Constance,” she told me. “Constance had showed up, she’d been living in Champaign and came to Chicago and tried to plug in with us, and they were like, ‘She is Portuguese, she is Black, but she’s not one of us; she’s lying, she’s a fake.’”

Although the United States has a long history of white people “playing Indian,” as the scholar Philip J. Deloria calls it in his book of the same name, the 1990s saw the beginning of what would eventually be significant pushback by Native Americans against so-called Pretendians or Pretend Indians, including the successful passage of a national law prohibiting non-Native people from marketing their art as “Indian.” Smith found her voice within that protest movement in 1991 when she published an essay in Ms. Magazine calling out white feminists and New Agers for co-opting Native identities.

“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,” Smith wrote. “They do this by opting to ‘become Indian.’ In this way, they can escape responsibility and accountability for white racism. 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, and they do not want to fight for treaty rights or an end to substance abuse or sterilization abuse.”

It was the kind of article that would have gone viral, if viral had existed back then, and it hinted at the forceful voice that would define Smith’s activism and scholarship. Patti Jo King, a Cherokee academic and later one of the first people to confront Smith about her identity, says she taught that essay in her university classes for years. Before questioning Smith about her ancestry at a private meeting in 2007, King actually opened by saying how much she had enjoyed her article calling out fake Indians.


It was in 2006, during their collaboration on a collection of essays by Native American women, that Kauanui first heard rumors about Smith’s identity. {snip}

That fall, a friend of Kauanui’s — aware of her friendship and ongoing collaboration with Smith — reached out and asked whether Smith was really Cherokee. “Oh, no, she’s totally Cherokee,” Kauanui told that friend. She wondered whether the concern was that Smith was “not Native enough” because she grew up off the reservation.

But the next year, Kauanui was shown confidential emails that complicated the narrative. In early 2007, an official from the Cherokee Nation began emailing Smith, asking about her connections to the Cherokees given that she wasn’t enrolled — a word used for citizens in a tribal nation. Smith’s responses were evasive, and reading them, Kauanui couldn’t figure out why she didn’t just clarify who her relatives were. It was, she came to realize, the first moment she really doubted Smith. But as so many others would later do, she brushed her concerns aside.

In the months that followed, Kauanui was distracted by her work helping to organize a conference that spring at the University of Oklahoma. The conference was a step toward starting a national organization to bring together scholars working on Native and Indigenous issues. Smith was at the conference, too, and one afternoon during a panel session, she pulled Kauanui outside, saying she needed to talk to her about something serious. “I just went home to Long Beach, and I found out from my mother that I’m not actually enrolled,” she said, according to Kauanui’s memory of the conversation. “I have to try to figure this out because there are people from the Cherokee Nation who are going to meet with me here.”

The two were on a bench on the Norman campus. Smith seemed anxious and Kauanui wanted to help, but again she was confused: From the emails, she knew that Smith had already been told she wasn’t enrolled. Kauanui couldn’t mention them — she’d been sworn to secrecy — and she still thought there had to be an explanation. She told Smith to share the names of her relatives with tribal officials, sure that they would be able to straighten things out.

But Smith told her that it wasn’t that simple. And indeed, it wasn’t. Being “enrolled” in an American Indian tribe essentially means being a legal citizen of that tribal nation. It’s a status that can be passed down by parents who are also enrolled but also one that can be claimed, depending on the citizenship rules of each tribe, if an individual can prove he or she is a child, grandchild or at times even great-grandchild of someone who was a tribal member. As the Cherokee genealogical researcher David Cornsilk would later tell me, Smith couldn’t even do that: She had known since the 1990s that her family had no identifiable Native American roots, because Smith had hired Cornsilk to look for them and he found nothing.


Kauanui knew none of this that day in Norman. All she knew was that, after Smith came back from her meeting with a tribal official and Patti Jo King, the Cherokee academic, she said she had agreed to stop identifying publicly as Cherokee. Smith implied that her enrollment status was a mistake and that she was still Cherokee, just not officially so. It was an explanation that made little sense to Kauanui, but she believed it because she didn’t want to consider the other option: that Smith was lying to her.

In the months that followed, however, Kauanui’s doubt grew into something harder, something she might have eventually verbalized if in February 2008 Smith hadn’t found herself in the middle of another crisis. She learned that the University of Michigan had denied her tenure, a decision in academia that is akin to being fired. The reasons were not stated — tenure decisions are confidential, and no one I’ve talked to knows why — but Smith’s supporters were outraged. They organized a petition to overturn the decision and held a one-day conference in Ann Arbor, with Angela Davis as a guest speaker, to highlight the difficulties faced by female scholars of color. At that point, very few academics outside of Kauanui knew of the rumors about Smith’s identity, and a conference news release described her as “one of the greatest Indigenous feminist intellectuals of our time.”

Their organizing didn’t change the tenure decision, but it did draw the attention of a Cherokee academic named Steve Russell, who learned that Smith was not enrolled. He decided to write about her in a column for Indian Country Today — the first of many times she would be “outed” over questions about her identity. He titled the column “When Does Ethnic Fraud Matter?”


But eventually Kauanui could no longer suspend her disbelief. She called Smith and asked her directly how she knew she was Cherokee, and specifically Oklahoma Cherokee. Smith said she didn’t know. Kauanui asked her who her mother’s grandparents were, and she said she didn’t know. She said her mom didn’t know, either. {snip}


After that conversation, their book project fell apart. It was originally conceived as a project written and edited solely by Native American women. It had been almost ready to go to press, but when it became clear that Smith wasn’t going to step down as one of the editors, Kauanui pulled out. {snip}


By the fall of 2008, Smith had a new job as an assistant professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California, Riverside, and had turned her attention to a different book project, a collection called “Theorizing Native Studies,” with the Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson. {snip}


After 2008, Smith no longer identified as Cherokee in her official bios, but she continued to identify as such for the panels, interviews and lectures she often spoke as a representative of Native American views and causes. At the same time, her younger sister, Justine, had begun building a career of her own in academia based, in part, on claiming a Cherokee identity. {snip}


Things might have continued that way — with Smith’s misrepresentations an open secret, known only by a small circle of Native American scholars — if, in June 2015, a TV crew hadn’t shown up to interview a little-known activist and part-time academic in Washington named Rachel Dolezal. When the reporter asked Dolezal on camera if she was African-American, she looked shocked, said she didn’t understand the question and then walked away. It was a confrontation that, as a news station in Houston later put it, “triggered a fascinating national conversation on race and identity.”


A couple of weeks after the Dolezal news broke, a graduate student named Annita Lucchesi forced the issue when she posted about Smith on her Tumblr account: “Andrea Smith is not Cherokee,” she wrote. “omg. this is not new information.” Her small protest soon inspired a much larger and more prominent project: an anonymous Tumblr titled “Andrea Smith Is Not Cherokee” that collected stories and documentation disputing Smith’s identity as well as her sister’s. That attention prompted David Cornsilk to speak publicly about his genealogical work for Smith; and with him as a key source, The Daily Beast ran an article calling Smith the “Native American Rachel Dolezal.”


The University of California, Riverside, also issued a statement praising Smith as a “teacher and researcher of high merit,” noting that it could not, by law, consider ethnicity when making hiring or promotion decisions. {snip}

Smith’s only response was a brief post to her personal blog in July, which was later taken down. “I have always been, and will always be Cherokee,” she wrote. {snip}


When I began researching this article, I wanted to understand why stories like these seem to dominate one industry — my industry. As a white academic, I watched, aghast, as other white academics were outed for pretending to be scholars of color, both in real life and online. It seemed absurd to me at the time but also horrifying — in part because the outings coincided with a moment of national reckoning on questions of race and representation, and a number of universities, including mine, had recently committed to hiring more scholars of color. I kept wondering, as the former academic Ruby Zelzer posted on Twitter in September, “Academia, do we have a problem?”

It started last April, when the writer H.G. Carrillo, a former and much beloved assistant professor at George Washington University, died of complications from Covid-19. The Washington Post ran an obituary that recounted the story he always told others in his adult life: that at 7, he fled Cuba with his family and landed in Michigan. But after the obituary ran, Carrillo’s sister contacted the paper. He wasn’t Afro-Cuban, she said. He was a Black man from Detroit, and his given name was Herman Glenn Carroll.

A couple of months after that, BethAnn McLaughlin, a white former assistant professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University, apologized for pretending under the Twitter handle @Sciencing_Bi to be a bisexual, Native American scholar at Arizona State University, where I now work. {snip}

Then in September, Krug posted her confession, which received by far the most attention, including write-ups in The New Yorker, The New York Times and eventually Vanity Fair, and was followed a few days later by the outing of a University of Wisconsin, Madison, graduate student, C.V. Vitolo-Haddad, who was white but had presented as Black for years. Later that month, Craig Chapman, a white assistant professor of chemistry at the University of New Hampshire, was outed for, like McLaughlin, creating a Twitter account purporting to be a woman of color that he used to criticize minority groups and social-justice arguments. Then, a few weeks after that, Kelly Kean Sharp, an assistant professor of African-American history at Furman University who had identified as Chicana, resigned after she was accused of having no Mexican ancestry at all.


It’s a problem that has been known at least since 1992, when, in an early use of the term “ethnic fraud” in a newspaper, The Detroit News published an investigation into what were then known as box-checkers: students who identify as Native American on their college applications. “Thousands of students misrepresent themselves to gain entrance and scholarships to U.S. universities, costing real American Indians access to higher education,” the article reported. It was accompanied by a shorter piece about similar lies by Native-identified faculty. Of the 1,500 university educators listed as Native American at the time, said Bill Cross, who helped found the American Indian/Alaska Native Professors Association, “we’re looking realistically at one-third of those being Indians.” {snip}

Many academic administrators feel there’s little they can do to fix things without, as Daniel Schwartz, the history department chair at George Washington University and at one point Krug’s supervisor, put it, launching into a “new McCarthyism” of interrogating people’s race. Universities are also hesitant to start vetting identity claims, in part because of the fear of lawsuits but also, according to a number of scholars I talked to, because doing so would force them to confront the real problems they face when it comes to outreach and support of students and faculty of color. And yet academia also doesn’t make it easy for people with concerns to speak out, in large part because academia is a hierarchical industry, one in which a small minority of those with secure jobs or tenure have huge sway over decisions about job security for the remaining majority. And a vast majority of those making those decisions are white. According to a 2020 report by the American Association of University Professors, Black, Hispanic and Indigenous scholars are all grossly underrepresented in academia, especially the further up you go in the hierarchy. Black scholars account for only 6 percent of all full-time faculty; Native Americans less than 1 percent.