Russell: When does ethnic fraud matter?

In my last column, I talked about Andrea Smith’s tenure case at the University of Michigan. I am Cherokee, and Smith has in the past claimed that same tribal affiliation. Her e-mail handle, I have learned, is ”Tsalagi.”

In my last column, I mentioned 15 refereed articles, two books written, book chapters written and books edited. These are the currency of academia: what you have done rather than what you are born.

We academics claim to rule a meritocracy. That is why article and book referees do not know the names of authors. The authors might be professors from another field, graduate or even undergraduate students, or current residents of the state hospital for the criminally insane.

If we hold the truth to be self-evident that all persons are created equal, then that equality ends in the nursery. This baby is fussy and that baby seems content. Some adults are drawn to the fussy baby and others to the quiet one with the knowing smile. Depending on which adults work in the nursery, the babies get more or less human interaction based on what they have done, although I hope we agree that a baby’s cry is not calculated; not the first few times, anyway.

We disagree about the relative importance of nature and nurture, but most Americans, Native and non, find the notion of hereditary royalty quaint and the idea that we gain nobility by birth absurd. On this continent, before and after the white man, we gain nobility by being noble.

So we come to the question whether Smith is an ethnic fraud like Ward Churchill. My position is that even though not Cherokee, she cannot be a fraud of Churchill’s stature. He made public statements that no tribal person I know would endorse. He then abused Hannah Arendt’s work when he claimed that her study of Eichmann supported the idea that some undocumented worker washing dishes in the Windows on the World restaurant deserved his fiery death on Sept. 11, 2001. Or, for that matter, some newly graduated kid who was learning to trade stocks because her goal in life was wealth.

Who among us had fully formed values in our early 20s? Kids grow up, and all Indians I know believe that kids should have the opportunity to grow, to make mistakes, to become wise elders. Churchill’s proper response to his insult of the dead would have been to apologize. His moral failure gives tribal Indians understandable reason to reject his invented Indian identity. His outrageous conduct led to a close reading of his work and it did not stand up to the vetting it never had at the front end, and that gave the University of Colorado cause to fire him.

Another problem with Churchill is that he was hired without the Ph.D., the customary union card, a lack that could be cured by a lengthy record of refereed publications. His publication list is lengthy but not refereed, mostly at political presses. If Churchill’s lack of qualification was overlooked because of his claim to be an Indian, then my claim that Indian work is devalued is suspect. Whether I am right or wrong about academia generally, the University of Colorado violated the normal rules and got what it deserved.

South End Press continues at this writing falsely to state that Churchill is ”Keetoowah Band Cherokee” and to peddle his ”From a Native Son,” knowing full well that Churchill is not claiming to be a native son of Illinois, which would be true. Apparently South End Press has not suffered the harm visited upon the University of Colorado, so I can’t claim that ethnic fraud harms publishers, at least when they participate in it.

Now, if Smith or Churchill or any other professor was hired because of a claimed privilege of birth, shame on the university. But sometimes you want an Indian for other reasons, not the least of which is to mentor Indian students. Or, when a person claims esoteric knowledge of tribal matters (a rare claim), he opens himself to a charge of fraud if he has not lived in an Indian community. This has less to do with tribal enrollment than with life experience. They don’t check your card at the stomp grounds in either the Cherokee or the Creek nations – those two being my limited experience.

So I do not play the identity police with academic judgments. Academia claims not to practice Indian preference. When I say academia stacks the deck against Indian work, I am talking about the work rather than the Indians, who are just caught up in a prejudice rooted in history. That prejudice has a heavier impact on people who are Indians by birth because we are more hesitant to step back from the issues than those who are Indians by fantasy or affirmative action fakers.

When there is reason to hire an Indian, the process is not rocket science. If the individual is tribally enrolled, the burden of proof should be on anybody who claims that individual is not Indian. If a person who is not tribally enrolled claims to be Indian, the burden should be on the claimant. The test of being Indian is not who you claim, but rather who claims you.

If the University of Michigan wants a researcher and teacher, it would appear by objective criteria they have one. If they want a Cherokee, not.

Smith’s record does not appear to require augmentation by hereditary advantage. Ethnic fraud is harmful to tribes and sometimes to individual real Indians if they are passed over for a fake in a job that really does call for a tribal person. Ethnic fraud is not harmful to universities unless they allow it to be. The University of Michigan should articulate its values and rule according to those values.

That’s the university. That is not me. I’m not sure I would want to associate with an ethnic fraud, as some I have met are truly disturbed individuals. How can somebody choose to insult his or her real relatives so gravely? Often, these people are outed by offended relatives. If they do take something meant for real Indians, they are no better than any other thieves. That’s my moral judgment. That’s not a judgment that is open to a public university unless ethnicity was a bona fide qualification for the job.

If the purpose of Indian studies is to create jobs for incompetent Indians, let alone incompetent fakes, Indian studies has no business existing. It breaks my heart to hear Indian scholars claim their scholarship would not stand up to the level of scrutiny that Churchill’s antics drew. Pray tell, why not? Are we scholars or, as the Rush Limbaughs of the world would say, ”race pimps?”

Indian studies, conducted as rigorously as any other program at a research university, have a great deal of value. For Indians, solutions to their many social problems. For non-Indians, a window on the origins of their privilege. For both, an opportunity to study some very exciting writers and visual artists whose work demands different critical skills.

Inconvenient truths from Indian history are true without regard to the identity of the person who documents them. This is important work that deserves more respect than it gets. The work, by its nature, has no ethnicity, any more than, say, Jewish studies requires Jewish scholars. Anybody can learn Hebrew. Offensive as Indians may find ethnic fraud, combating it vigorously is at war with the idea of Indian studies as a legitimate academic discipline. We, like the University of Michigan, need to clarify our values.

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

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