I’m not an Indian. It’s okay.
By now, many of us have been confronted with the tangled ways to think about identity shifting in light of the Rachel Dolezal affair. Some attention has been rightfully paid to the long history of people “playing Indian” as well, both in the world of politics and the world of entertainment. And as Ward Churchill’s tribulations made very clear, the academic world is not immune to those who are either intentionally misleading others or deeply confused about their own identity. As all of these various cases point out, identity is in fact a confusing matter, sometimes designated by blood, other times by language, or heritage, or cultural performances. Now a parallel case, that of Professor Andrea Smith, has emerged from the blogosphere to hit the news, specifically yesterday’s piece in The Daily Beast, “Meet the Native American Rachel Dolezal.”
Reading many of the blogs and news sources over the last few weeks, both about the African American and American Indian cases of fraud, I can’t help but notice a lingering sense that people should not ‘police’ (a truly overwrought word in academic circles) other people’s identity. Though, to be sure, that is a particular form of individual based rights thinking to come to the conclusion, ‘Who am I to tell another person who they are or not?’ It doesn’t make it any easier to have these cases situated along side the breaking news of transgendered and transsexual benchmarks in American society, or at least in the American celebrity-sphere.
I was both an undergraduate and graduate student in American Indian Studies, particularly within Religious Studies at Arizona State University. This was the 1990s and identity politics had the type of traction leading to scholarships, financial aid, and preferential hiring. Being both in Religious Studies and Indigenous Studies provided a doubly difficult balancing act: in Religious Studies we struggled to be non-believers simply studying the how people were religious.
In Indigenous Studies, we were expected to learn and help a particular community, learning language and culture when invited to do, essentially dance along the border of cultural insider and outsider. Many of us were taught that scholarship offered limited practical help to Indigenous communities, but that we could ideally do both, produce research that helped counter the centuries of written misrepresentations and collaborate with Native peoples in local ways. Our success in these challenging goals varies across my generation.
Where these two paths crossed were the instances when our value to the academic world was based upon our racial, ethnic, and national identities. Was my work with the Yoeme (Yaqui) people better, more useful, more reliable, etc. if I was a Yoeme person? While they were very challenging (more than words can ever convey), those years as a graduate student were incredibly valuable for how they led me to learn how to say something so very simple and powerful: “I’m not an Indian.”
Those words are powerful because they enable both the speaker and listener to then determine if a path forward is of interest and of value to everyone involved. In my case, it helped that I was beginning to work with one the most highly Hippiefied tribes, thanks to Carlos Castaneda. At the age of 22, I was practicing Buddhist meditation and showed up to the Yaqui pueblos in northern Mexico uninterested in converting or adopting their ways. I was working on my own sense of self-less self. And while I’ve spent some time in Blessing Ways on the Navajo reservation and NAC meetings across the Southwest, those times were as an invited guest, not seeking to become Indian or appear more Indian. (Okay, I did try to pull off turquoise jewelry for a few years).
Perhaps, coming from a confusing bloodline of not knowing who my biological grandfather was, but being raised in vaguely Hispanic, Mexican, mixed-German immigrant and Catholic cultures, and regularly visiting reservations since childhood (as both tourist and neighbor), you might say that I was prepared in life to find the power in saying “I don’t necessarily know what I am.” My family has the pictures and names of Comanche and Cherokee women who ended up in the early New Mexican ranching family as adopted laborers, wives, or lovers. But I have no relation to those communities, so why would I ever say I’m one of them?
I knew I wasn’t Indian because I didn’t have an indigenous community calling me one of theirs. And I learned that it was important to many leaders and colleagues in my academic fields if I was Indigenous, more so than if I wasn’t. All around me I could see scholars prefer to quote, publish, and invite Indigenous academics. Perhaps of that “missing” grandfather, many people in native communities have said, “you look Indian.” But I think those claims helped them justify working with me, or were meant to compliment me. Or at least I took them that way.
I could have Indigenous blood beyond the Mexican bloodlines and the couple of grandmothers so far back that a few “greats” wouldn’t get there; but that’s not identity for me. I have learned much of Yoeme language, but that doesn’t make me Yoeme in even the slightest way. I have been taught much about Indigenous people, been taught ways of being that have changed my life in unbelievably wonderful ways; but I’m still a respectful guest on their land. And while I’ve spent many years, actually decades, trying to improve Indigenous rights and vitality in mostly academic ways (there are many fronts to this work), I’ve learned first-hand the danger of trying to speak for Native people rather than simply supporting their being heard. There lies the difference.
Andrea Smith surely thinks she is Cherokee; or she did at some point. She has been asked repeatedly to either stop claiming Cherokee identity or to either authenticate her claims through a reliable kinship, through ties to a specific family, or through the Cherokee Nation’s official process for enrollment. And she’s smart enough to know that in many tribal cultures, identity is not who you claim but who claims you. She has done incredible theoretical work in the academic field of Indigenous Studies and has even been recognized internationally for her broad and groundbreaking anti-violence coalition building. So does it matter that she did all of that in Red Face?
Yes it does.
Andy Smith did not just appear out of an egg, as a fully formed “woman of color” advocate, validated as an Indigenous scholar, and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. She got there by grabbing the microphone, keeping others away from it, and deciding to speak both “as” and “for” a group of people. While writing my ethnographic works, I do sometimes speak “for” Yoemem; but I’ve also gone to great lengths to simply translate and when possible, amplify Yoeme people’s claims. But, I’ve never spoken “as” a Yoeme person.
For every scholarship she received as a Native person, for every honorarium she has received as an Indigenous speaker, for her book sales that a publisher sold as coming from a “Cherokee” author, those recognitions came at the expense of some student who wasn’t funded, some speaker who wasn’t invited, or some book by an Indigenous author that wasn’t bought.
She spent years cultivating relationships with other powerful women of color to ensure her insider status. And as I personally know, she pushed others out of her way by not only playing an insider, but also playing the gatekeeper. One only needs to visit this Tumblr page (http://andreasmithisnotcherokee.tumblr.com/) to see her strategic use of “we” when talking about Indigenous experiences and “them” when talking about colonizers. Andy and I both went to a graduate program, History of Consciousness, a place that excelled at theorizing the strategies of exactly such representations within social movements.
Lisa Aldred wrote a great scholarly article that methodically shows why people want to be Indian. In “Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances,” she demonstrated that non-Indians are unconsciously motivated to become or affiliate as Indigenous because doing so alleviates them of their guilt about colonization. This essay is powerful in the classroom because it shows the sheer power of this motivation, from headdresses, to sweat lodge tourism, to the entire market for anything smacking of Indian spirituality.
I hesitate to give a “why” about Andrea Smith’s fraud. But I have some inclinations based on “imperialist nostalgia” as Aldred, Renato Rosaldo and others used that term. Having shared space with Andrea (or “Andy”) on multiple occasions, I want to believe she was motivated most by her desire to make the world better for Native people. Has she done a few wrong things, then, for all the right reasons?
Well, she has secured a comfortably middle-class profession and a position of respect. Moreover, she has gained the support, friendship, and camaraderie of some of the most intelligent Indigenous scholars and feminist activists I know. Were those made possible due to her claim of Indigenous identity? If so, then we shouldn’t only be pointing fingers at Andrea Smith. The problems lie with the standards of authenticity and authority that rest upon something as shifty, fragile, and falsifiable as identity.
The problem also lies with the people who believed Smith’s claim in the face of contradictory and reliable evidence. Obviously, my pondering all of this publicly doesn’t solve the problem. But the value of the conversation will only emerge if we must start first with honesty. That’s the power of saying what we know to be true.
So, to Andy (and Elizabeth Warren) and all the others out there saying they are Indians, just say it: “I’m not Indian.” It’s okay. We’re not so horrible that we can’t also do really great work at the same time as being afflicted with this condition of being non-Indian.
David Shorter is Professor and Vice Chair of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at the University of California Los Angeles. He is also affiliated with their American Indian Studies Program and Research Center. He has worked primarily with the Yoeme (Yaqui) people of Mexico in his writing and filmmaking, and is most recently the creator of the Wiki for Indigenous Languages.