From the New York Times:
More than a decade ago, a prominent academic was exposed for having faked her Cherokee ancestry. Why has her career continued to thrive?
By Sarah Viren
May 25, 2021
… 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.”
Krug was the Jewish but fake Puerto Rican professor of Grievance Studies who was really into salsa dancing and hoop earrings.
… 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
Its most famous graduate was Huey Newton.
Here’s Professor Andrea Smith:
When she squinches up her eyes, she looks like maybe she’s part American Indian, a little.
, 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. Part of her eventual dissertation, in fact, would look at that question of identity within the context of Hawaii, specifically the state’s comparably strict rules regarding who counts as Native and who doesn’t.
A glance at her photo would suggest why she came to this scholarly conclusion.
But throughout this article Kauanui is treated as an unimpeachably authentic Person of Color, the Moral Voice of the Racially Marginalized.
The thought of having not just another Native student at Santa Cruz but a student who understood how complex and complicated Native identities can be was thrilling to Kauanui, and she pushed for Smith’s acceptance and reached out to her as soon as she got in.
I.e., hiring based on race.
By the way, the NYT uses artsy graphics to occlude what the professors look like and distract readers. Here’s their version of the lady who claims to be Native Hawaiian:
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.
… 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. …
Has Senator-Professor Elizabeth Warren?
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.”
… Simultaneously an “old guard Marxist,” a born-again Christian and an animal rights activist, Smith was the kind of person, Kauanui said, who once commented multiple times on the feelings of shellfish after someone ordered shrimp at lunch. But as the years passed, Smith mellowed. Kauanui thinks she realized that her dogma was off-putting. Easing up on her doctrinaire Marxism, she also developed a new fascination with celebrity gossip. “People in our program, they were doing cultural reads on Hollywood,” Kauanui said. “But to go from there to talking about which Hollywood star was bonking whom was totally another extreme. So she really went there and really committed. She knew about that stuff, and it was kind of her discussion fodder at conferences. And it made people laugh.”
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. By then, the two had grown close, even as the trajectory of their careers had diverged. They had both graduated with doctoral degrees and landed jobs at well-regarded universities: Kauanui at Wesleyan University and Smith at the University of Michigan. But while Kauanui was developing a narrow expertise on Hawaiian indigeneity, Smith had become nothing less than “an icon of Native American feminism,” as the publication Colorlines later called her. She co-founded the national organization Incite! Women of Color Against Violence; was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy work; and aligned herself with prominent activists, including her dissertation adviser Angela Davis and Winona LaDuke, who later wrote the introduction for Smith’s first book.
… 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.
… 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.
Every tribe has different rules. To be a Cherokee you have to have had an ancestor on the Dawes Rolls of 1907. So, you don’t have to be very Native American to be a Cherokee. Here’s a photo from a recent Cherokee Youth Summit:
On the other hand, if you are descended from multiple members of various tribes that use a quarter blood quantum threshold for membership, you could be noticeably American Indian without qualifying for any tribe.
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.
Although he can no longer recall the exact dates, Cornsilk says Smith first asked him to research her mother’s side of the family in the early 1990s, when she was working as a Native organizer in Chicago. Near the end of the decade, she hired him again to look into her father’s side — around the time she was starting graduate school at Santa Cruz and introducing herself as Cherokee and also after she accepted the first of two Ford Foundation fellowships then earmarked for underrepresented groups in academia.
It’s almost as during the Affirmative Action Age (6. 1969), it’s been worse for your career to be a white.
After researching both sides of Smith’s family tree, Cornsilk concluded that she had no identifiable Native American relatives, enrolled or unenrolled or even living near those who were once enrolled. He says he sent off his report to her both times and never heard back. “She never said anything,” he told me. …
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 [say his name: Judge Harold Haley], 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.”
… If this were like the other cases of ethnic fraud in academia, Smith’s story would end at this point. These stories have become common enough now that we can predict their narrative arc: They begin with a confrontation that then leads to a revelation, followed by outrage and sometimes an apology before the guilty party slips into obscurity. But with Smith the story just keeps going. She was called out, yes. She retreated briefly and even told Kauanui that her new 10-year plan was to “live a private life and work church bake sales.” But then she came back.
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 …
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. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin — where she received support from the McNair Program, which helps college students from underrepresented backgrounds — Justine began a doctorate in religion at Harvard University. In 2010, she was offered a visiting faculty position at the St. Paul School of Theology. A news release announcing the hire identified Justine as Cherokee and noted, “It is believed that she also will be the first full-time Native American woman to serve in any full-time faculty position in theological education in North America.”
The Cherokee Nation reached out to St. Paul after learning about Justine’s hire and discovered, according to an email I reviewed, that she had “obtained a Cherokee Nation citizenship card and had altered it.” St. Paul said that Justine was suspended after the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma raised concerns regarding her identity claims and was employed by the college for only three months. …
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.
Of course, UCR violated Proposition 209 banning racial preferences when it hired Smith, but it could be dicey to fire Smith for not being the race she was hired to be.
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?” …
The fakes tend to be leftist women professors of Grievance Studies who got their jobs due to affirmative action and many also seem to have a fantasy that they are an Indian princess or a spicy salsa dancing queen or whatever.
All of this was a little bewildering to watch from the sidelines. Academia is an industry, like journalism, that defines itself in large part by its ethical standards; we’re supposed to educate people and produce knowledge. So what does it mean that we’re also a haven for fakes? Even more disturbing for me, as I began to learn about Smith’s story, was hearing similar stories that had gone untold — or, perhaps more accurately, unheard. Talking with Cornsilk, and with some of the Native scholars who signed the open letter, I learned about other academics falsely claiming to be Native American who came before or after Smith. It was the accumulation of such stories, not just Smith’s alone, that finally pushed many to speak out.
“There are so many fakes in academia,” said Kim TallBear, a Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate professor at the University of Alberta who said she was scared at first to sign the 2015 open letter. “It just felt like we needed to recognize the pervasiveness of the problem.”
… 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.” The most prominent example of this is Senator Elizabeth Warren, who was listed as Native American by both Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania Law School when she was on the faculty at those institutions and has since apologized for claiming that identity.
The Stanford geneticist Sen. Warren hired to analyze her DNA reported she was 1/256th American Indian, although Razib Khan says he was too conservative. Razib’s best guess is 1/64th.
… Figuring out Andrea Smith’s family history wasn’t easy, but halfway into my reporting I became determined to do that work …
Smith’s mother, Helen Jean Wilkinson, was born in a small town in Indiana to what appear to be middle-class parents: Her father was an engineer according to a death certificate, and her mother was at one point a trustee for Luce Township, a farming town of a little more than 2,000 on the Ohio River near Evansville. Their ancestors appear to have been mostly farmers and laborers in Kentucky and Indiana going back generations. … But neither Helen, nor her parents, nor her grandparents, nor her great-grandparents, nor her great-great-grandparents are listed in census records I found as anything other than white.
Helen went to Indiana University, where she worked on the yearbook staff and majored in business education. At some point after graduating, she moved to California, where she married a man named Donald R. Smith. They had two children, Andrea and then Justine, and divorced in 1968. Helen died in 2014 …
Donald R. Smith is alive, the woman confirmed, and he isn’t Ojibwe. He is a white man from Chicago who, like his daughters, is very smart. He was a nuclear physicist with the Pentagon before he retired, the relative told me. He has a degree from M.I.T.
One reason Smith’s career survived exposure of her affirmative action fraud is because she’s smarter than the average Grievance Studies prof. Another reason is because nobody in power wants to think about affirmative action fraud because nobody knows what the precise rules are. Finally people in power don’t want anybody to even think about affirmative action. They want to keep its existence on the public’s mental backburner.
His family are mostly of British ancestry, and no, he didn’t want to talk to me, but his relative wanted me to know that I was doing a good thing writing this article. “Honestly, integrity is everything in academics,” she said. “So let the truth out.”
… I found a cousin of Helen’s on her father’s side, a woman named Margaret Jane Wilkinson. She told me that Helen had never identified as Native American. But, she said, the family always claimed her grandfather on her mother’s side — the son of the police chief who shot a man in Owensboro — was American Indian.
That would be an Andrea Smith’s great-grandfather.
Eventually I found a woman named Barbara Smith, Helen’s cousin on her mother’s side, who remembered her grandfather — Mr. Pierce, as she called him. He wasn’t Native American, she said without hesitation, but there were rumors of Native ancestry in her family. She’d believed them, too, until she took a genetic test a couple years ago.
“We’re mostly Scandinavian,” she said.
The rumors could still be true if they go back to 18th Century America. With enough generations, randomness can just delete the DNA needed to prove even a valid genealogical family tree. But that’s a long way back.
When we hung up, I felt for a moment that I’d tracked down the truth about Smith. Yes, she had stories of Native American ancestors in her family, but like a lot of such stories, they weren’t based in fact.
… Even though most Native Studies scholars no longer work with Smith, she has begun publishing within adjacent fields, like ethnic studies, and has slowly built back a reputation.
It’s interesting what a large proportion of these Flight From White cases of whites pretending to be nonwhite (or vastly exaggerating their claim to be nonwhite), whether for the affirmative action benefits or for personal reasons, involve white leftist female academics, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Outside of that particular demographic, however, American whites have been strikingly honorable about not faking claims to be entitled to racial quotas.
Granted, a couple of generations ago, there was a case of two Boston brothers who scored on the fire department hiring test too low to be hired as white applicants. So the next year they took it and scored high enough to be hired as blacks. It became a big scandal and they were subsequently fired. But you don’t hear of many other cases of white men passing themselves off as nonwhite for the racial preference benefits in police and fire jobs.
In contrast, in Brazil, there are constant controversies over whether claimants racially deserve their affirmative action benefit.
But white Americans, other than leftist female academics, seem much more honorable about race.
From a comment:
Runs with scissors
Los Angeles, CA 2h ago
Let’s recap: This is now 2021. By the early 1990s, Andrea Smith knew she was not Native after hiring tribal genealogist David Cornsilk, who comprehensively traced her lineage and told her what she didn’t want to hear: she had no Native descendants, much less Cherokee. Turns out her mom grew up in an educated, middle class family, and dad was a nuclear physicist for the Pentagon. In other words, Andrea Smith grew up with all of the comforts and advantages afforded to highly educated, economically prosperous whites. She then used those advantages to continue to pass as Native; aggressively diss others whom she deemed fake Indians; and secured $100,000s in fellowships and grants intended to assist disadvantaged students to earn her PhD and secure jobs while continuing to enjoy opportunities that she essentially stole from others. Those who have called her to accountability have suffered more for doing so, than Smith has suffered for lying and continuing to do so. The article does not mention it, but Smith also recently earned her JD from UC Irvine’s law school, where she gained admission and funding as a self-identified Native student–all while still earning a paycheck as a tenured professor at UC Riverside. Her enabling colleagues at UC Riverside continue to bury their heads in the sand. Once again it will fall to their students to read this piece, and others, to shed light on this now-decades-long case of academic fraud.