Why Cherokees? Why do they always claim to be Cherokees? Over five hundred tribes to choose from and the redface bandits always come looking for us. Culturally, they’re usually faux Lakota, because tipis and war bonnets are all they know about being Indian, but they still claim to be Cherokee.
Lakota in particular and Plains Indians generally don’t embrace the stereotypes peddled in cowboy and Indian movies and they get really fired up about the sale of sweat lodges, vision quests, and Sun Dances by and to gullible citizens of the two largest modern Indian nations, the Newager and the Wanabi.
At least, Cherokees reply, you really do have sweat lodges. You just don’t sell seats in them, and pretending that you do is offensive. But faux Cherokees make the same sales when, for real Cherokees, a sweat lodge is not a sacred purification ceremony at all.
Wherever ethnic frauds get noticed, they are picking on the Cherokee Nation. Jamake Highwater was not a Cherokee. “The Venerable Dhani Ywahoo” AKA Diane Fisher claims to be a Cherokee chief. Ward Churchill embarrassed the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees by trading on an honorary document. Jimmie Durham has made a career of being Cherokee with no known ties to any Cherokee community, although he’s claimed to be Wolf Clan and to have been raised with Cherokee as a first language.
Elizabeth Warren, bless her heart, is like virtually every white person born in Oklahoma in believing she had an Indian ancestor and naturally she wound up claiming Cherokee. No reputable researcher has been able to verify her claim and she seems to have piped down about it, but there are still at least half a dozen very well known academics who claim to be Cherokee but have no apparent ties to any Cherokee community.
If you believe the important issue is not who you claim but rather who claims you, lack of a Cherokee community would make them fakes, but the world does not work that way. One real Indian ancestor is a public opinion defense to ethnic fraud. This brings us to the defenseless Andrea Smith, who persists in representing as Cherokee in the face of all the evidence.
Back in 2008, I signed a petition favoring her tenure at the University of Michigan and subsequently published a column here saying the same thing and saying why. I did not recant my opinion that she has produced serious scholarship when she was outed as not Cherokee about a month later because I do not believe ethnicity can be or should be a condition for academic employment.
Still, fraud is fraud, and professors are to some degree, whether we like it or not, role models. When I had personal contact with Andrea Smith, I came away with the same impression many people have had after personal contact with Rachel Dolezal: this is a deeply disturbed person.
How can you be an Indian without knowing which of your relatives is Indian? How can you be an Indian with no ties to an Indian community? How can you “mistake” whether or not you are tribally enrolled?
By seeking grants and honoraria and academic positions as a Cherokee, she does harm both in the sense of denying these things to real Cherokees and in the sense of representing a Cherokee culture about which she knows little. Still, I can sense that she wants to be Cherokee as desperately as Rachael Dolezal wants to be black.
When the dust settled over the outing of Andrea Smith half a dozen years ago, she had agreed to quit representing as Cherokee and several Cherokees, myself included, agreed to quit harping on the fraud already committed.
Years later, I found out she never quit playing Cherokee and, worse, her sister Justine joined what is beginning to appear to be a family scam, reportedly going so far as to submit a Cherokee Registry card with her name and somebody else’s number on it to a prospective academic employer.
I proceeded to have several emails back and forth with Wikipedia about Andrea Smith’s ethnic fraud, which was endorsed on her Wikipedia profile, to no avail.
South End Press maintained both the Andrea Smith and the Ward Churchill frauds long after they were common knowledge. When South End went south in 2014, Duke University Press picked up Smith’s book but not the claim she is Cherokee. City Lights has picked up several of Ward Churchill’s books but not his fake identity.
Then came Rachel Dolezal, who wanted to be God’s gift to African Americans but may be remembered in Indian country as the unwitting scourge of the Wanabi Nation. Dolezal started a conversation from which few fakers who dare to participate will emerge unscathed.
That Dolezal is phenotypically white—in spite of her best efforts to tan her skin darkly and reverse engineer kinky hair—was never a problem because of the One Drop Rule. Any African ancestry—any—has been sufficient to label a person “Negro,” with all the pertaining disadvantages. The purpose of this rule is to make sure the products of slave rape (for how could a slave validly consent to intercourse with her master?) would be slaves.
I am aware of only one short-lived attempt to apply the One Drop Rule to Indians, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 in Virginia, in which an amendment emerged nicknamed the “Pocahontas Exception.” This was because too many members of the First Families of Virginia (FFV) claimed descent from Pocahontas, whose son with John Rolfe, Thomas, did indeed return to the New World to seek his fortune.
The Pocahontas Exception allowed a person to be white with up to 1/16 Indian blood. The sponsors of the Racial Integrity Act attempted an amendment in 1926 to remove the Pocahontas Exception and subject Indians to the One Drop Rule. This attempt failed to overcome the opposition of the FFV.
The Racial Integrity Act required “race” to be noted on every birth certificate, but recognized only two races, “white” and “colored.” This was no threat to the alleged descendants of Pocahontas because of their miniscule blood quanta. All Indians who could “pass” did so, because “colored” meant you could not marry whites or attend white schools and, in some documented cases, persons determined posthumously to be “colored” were dug up and moved out of white cemeteries.
Virginia was the exception. While laws against interracial marriage most often applied to Indians as well as African-Americans, the One Drop Rule did not. The expressed purpose of the colonial governments in tracking blood quantum was to minimize the number of Indians, which made it less expensive to separate them from their property.
Combine this troubled history of African-American and American Indian legal identities with apparently disturbed individuals and it’s amazing there are not more Rachel Dolezals and Andrea Smiths.
The challenge for the rest of us is to avoid cruelty to these people without endorsing their fantasies and to mitigate the harm that they do, whether or not they intend harm. The Dolezal affair has opened up conversations that are long overdue. It also kicked off a collection of evidence on the Andrea Smith fraud collected here, that would have never gone viral if Smith had kept her word to cease and desist or if Dolezal had not breathed life into the debate over ethnic fraud and why it matters.