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Russell: Fighting the Ferengi Clan

Ward Churchill’s case brings it up in our collective face, but most Indians in academia have had the problem of persons who “self-identify” as Indian without anything to back up the identity beyond alleged family oral history.

I have always wondered what difference it makes if the proverbial Cherokee grandmother exists? In what sense is somebody Indian who has to hire a genealogist to find an ancestor? I’m not saying that an adult onset Indian cannot belatedly form tribal ties, but connection to a tribe for such people is the exception rather than the rule.

My own position is that Indian identity is not about what you claim, but rather about who claims you.

My own position is that Indian identity is not about what you claim, but rather about who claims you. This is diametrically opposed to Churchill’s idea that self-identification is what counts.

I will leave the question with a gentle suggestion for non-Indians who wish to employ Indians. Few Indians are offended by being asked if they are enrolled in connection with a non-tribal employment application. If they are in fact enrolled, that should shift the burden to anybody who claims they are not Indian. If they are not enrolled, the burden should be on them to prove they are Indian by reference to some existing Indian community. Is this rocket science?

But what is to be done about the fakes, particularly fakes who have tenure in academia? I have participated in many conversations about this, particularly with Cherokees, who seem to be the most common victims. It’s odd to say this, but in my experience Cherokees are most likely to get their identity purloined, but Lakotas are most likely to get their culture stolen – often by the same people.

There should be a clan for these fakers in each tribe: The Ferengi Clan. Ferengi live by the Rules of Acquisition, the number of which is subject to controversy in the Star Trek universe, but the following are relevant to the present discussion:

10. Greed is eternal.

52. Never ask when you can take.

60. Keep your lies consistent.

97. Enough. … is never enough.

99. Trust is the biggest liability of all.

181. Not even dishonesty can tarnish the shine of profit.

284. Deep down everyone’s a Ferengi.

You get the idea, and I hope that deep down everyone is not a Ferengi, but I have had some passing strange conversations with faux Indians that leave me at a loss to understand what they do in terms other than profit.

Affirmative action is on its last legs, but there is still an advantage to claiming Indian identity if you want to teach in an Indian studies program. Your tribal ties make research partnerships with tribal colleges easier and you might be able to attract and mentor Indian students, the least successful group in higher education.

It’s easy to justify hiring a qualified Indian, but if that person is a fake the advantages quickly fade away. The university can only hope to discover the truth before they grant tenure.

What about Indians? Aren’t we harmed by the fakes, when they suck up the limited job opportunities and when they misrepresent us to the non-Indian world? Well, in a word, yes, but it’s not an Indian problem. It’s a tribal problem.

Affirmative action is on its last legs, but there is still an advantage to claiming Indian identity if you want to teach in an Indian studies program.

Tribes in modern times are in charge of their own rolls, and they can certainly in some cases make it easier to check out somebody who claims tribal citizenship. But until recently, I was at a loss to suggest how tribes could do anything proactive to discourage fakes.

I wish this idea were mine, but it belongs to Stacy Leeds, a Cherokee law professor at the University of Kansas. I mention it with her permission.

A tribe could bring a lawsuit in tribal court for an injunction against a fake who claims to be a tribal citizen. This kind of fraud harms the tribe’s reputation.

Whoa, the lawyers will say – the tribal court has no jurisdiction. That is true only if the faker is a fake. If the faker challenges tribal jurisdiction on the grounds the faker is not part of the tribal community and not bound by tribal law, there’s the self-admission of fakery. If the individual is a tribal citizen, jurisdiction can be founded both on tribal citizenship and on the fact that misrepresenting the tribe is a tort that has an impact where the tribal court is located. But if the individual is a tribal citizen, chances are we are not having this conversation.

Or, if the faker ignores the tribal court proceedings, the same result follows. The tribe gets a default judgment declaring the faker to be a fake.

Leeds’ idea is nothing short of brilliant. Court orders are public records. These kinds of lawsuits can create public documents that prove to anyone’s satisfaction that an individual is nothing but a member of the Ferengi Clan of the Wanabi Nation. Hire a Ferengi at your own risk.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and an associate professor of criminal justice at Indiana University. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today. He lives in Bloomington and can be reached at