Andrea Smith: Wanting to Be Cherokee
I don’t really want to wade into the battlefield that is the discussion of Andrea Smith’s identity; but, given my very strong response to Rachel Dolezal’s misrepresentation last month, I feel I needed to say something. I mean, if I can write about a woman misrepresenting herself as a race I do not belong to, then surely I must have something to say about a woman misrepresenting herself as Native American, right? So here goes: Without linking to the many, many articles and blog posts on opposite sides that are discussing and debating this issue (seriously, there’s a LOT out there if you do even a cursory search) it looks pretty clear to me that Smith doesn’t have any legal or ancestral ties to an existing Cherokee community.
Where this case seems to differ the most from Dolezal's is that Smith has done quite a bit of work that is/was highly influential for the Indigenous feminist community. Her book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, is still taught as a part of many Native American Studies curriculums. It has been cited as a resource by Native scholars. Many Native women and men have written and spoken about the impact her work had in empowering them, including Native women scholars who are actively writing and teaching today.
I’ve been hesitant to write anything about Smith because: 1) I’m not personally familiar with her work, and 2) She, unlike Dolezal, has a very active community of supporters who are backing her in the face of this scandal. I assumed that if there were that many people—including some of my own friends on social media—who believed in her, then I should give her the benefit of the doubt and do my own research about what was going on.
Well, I’ve done some reading and seen what both sides have to say. I don’t believe that there is any credible evidence that Smith has any Native ancestry. Her apologists, along with Smith herself, complain that this is “violent identity-policing,” but, as with Dolezal, she is quite clearly misrepresenting herself as something she is not. Wishing you are Cherokee does not make it true. Again, as with Dolezal, this misrepresentation is something I take issue with. She is taking valuable attention and space from actual Indigenous feminist scholars, something she did not have to do in order to be able to produce meaningful academic work, including work for and about Indigeous women.
And what of her work? Someone asked me on Twitter recently what they should think of her book. They had ordered a copy prior to this most recent media controversy and hadn’t yet read it. I wasn’t sure what to say beyond suggesting that they still read the book and consider taking it with a grain of salt. (I haven't read it, so it may be an entirely factual historical summary, or it may be riddled with questionable anecdotes. I'm really not the best person to ask!) I’m personally now curious about her work and would like to read Conquest myself, but I wonder, is it possible to objectively read anything she has written? Or more to the point: Is it possible to support her work while also finding her conscious misrepresentation of her identity to be unacceptable?
I remember when I had run across an old copy of a book by Jamake Highwater in a used bookstore. Everything I read in that book, I loved! And then, upon further research into discovering who this author was, I learned he had misrepresented his identity. He wasn’t Native, he was Greek. (Fuck you Jay Marks/Gregory J. Markopoulos!) And he was gaming the system, using a false identity for his own personal and professional gain. This whole scenario of mine probably played out over the course of a week. I can only imagine how difficult it is for those who have respected, idolized, and adored Andrea Smith for years, or even decades. Especially those who personally know her. But that doesn't mean she should get a pass.
Smith’s recent non-apology reminded me a lot of Rachel Dolezal’s. There was no acceptance of any responsibility for her own actions, no sense that there might be any victims here beside Smith herself. I could accept it if she came clean and said that she had grown up hearing about her Cherokee ancestry so she assumed it to be true and incorporated this information into her worldview. That she was now aware that she does not have any Cherokee heritage, but that it was still an important part of her personal identity. That she apologized for any misrepresentation, but that she still personally identified as Cherokee even if she was not, and could not become, an enrolled Tribal member.
Assuming it was true, a story along these lines this could make sense. To me, this would have been an understandable response to an unfortunate situation. It could even have been a way to let her previous work still stand without this current confusion and suspicion. Instead, she deflects all criticism by claiming that social media attacks against her are an affront to “all Native peoples who are not enrolled.”
Seriously? No Andrea. What is going on in the media is happening to you, and to you alone right now. I agree that some of what has taken place in the media has been abusive and I would apologize on behalf of those who have been disrespectful. But you are the one who is ultimately responsible for this situation.
Eventually, the furor surrounding Andrea Smith will die down (again). Barring any new dramatic information, I will probably not write about her again. Her work will either manage to remain being viewed as credible or it will fall out of favor. And new Indigenous feminist scholars will continue to build on the successes of their predecessors. So, in that spirit, I would direct anyone who is interested to review this list of Cool Indigenous feminist scholars to check out put together by Annita Lucchesi (Southern Cheyenne).
"The simple fact of the matter is this: It is the absolute right of the Cherokee Nation to determine its own members. It is a sovereign right of each Indigenous nation to do so. The Cherokee Nation is saying that she has no connection, and no heritage. Period. End of discussion." - Laura Grabhorn (Tlingit/Haida)