The Indigenous Feminist Killjoy

I write in conversation with Sara Ahmed‘s “Feminist Killjoy,” Mimi Thi Nguyen‘s “On Losing ‘Andrea Smith,'” and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson‘s “Land as Pedagogy” and Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back.

“We begin with a table. Around this table, the family gathers, having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up. Someone says something you consider problematic. You are becoming tense; it is becoming tense. … The family gathers around the table; these are supposed to be happy occasions. How hard we work to keep the occasion happy, to keep the surface of the table polished so that it can reflect back a good image of the family. So much you are not supposed to say, to do, to be, in order to preserve that image. If you say, or do, or be anything that does not reflect the image of the happy family back to itself, the world becomes distorted. You become the cause of a distortion. You are the distortion you cause.” — Sara Ahmed, “Feminist Killjoys” (2010)

The Indian Happy Place

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“Growing up in Oklahoma, we have come into contact with Native American culture institutionally our whole lives — something we are eternally grateful for… With age, we feel a deeper and deeper connection to the Native American culture that has surrounded us. Though it may not have been our own, this aesthetic has affected us emotionally in a very real and very meaningful way.” Christina Falin, daughter of Oklahoma Governor, defending her portrait (2014)

Imagine a world where everyone gets to be Indigenous. It’s a world of happy.

Everyone walks around–from music festivals to Anytown, U.S.A.–in headdresses or headbands, animal skins, moccasins, with braided hair and war paint, carrying spears or bows and arrows or tomahawks. When people aren’t in what they think of as costume, they wear “tribally-inspired” lingerie and shoes. Fringe and suede and turquoise and feathers are every where.

Music videos, fashion shows, and “pro-Indian” Hollywood movies–from No Doubt to Victoria’s Secret to Adam Sandler and beyond–include lots of Indian warwhoops and comedic puns about slutty squaws and drunken warriors and we all dance and laugh cause it’s fun(ny). We wear our sports mascots with pride, and tomahawk chop ourselves silly at half-time shows.

We enjoy free access to every public and tribal land area so we can celebrate and explore our inner, natural spirituality. Oftentimes while naked and intoxicated.

And anyone, everyone, is able to claim either Indian or a tribally-specific identity–as descent or ascent–because that’s how they feel. They have always felt themselves to be Indian or Cherokee or whatever and so they must be. And anyone who says otherwise is mean, violent, and/or racist.

And we are all happy about it.

Because in the Indian happy place there is no longer any U.S. empire, colonialism, racism, sexism, or homophobia. There are no class divisions between us. There is no history of imperial dispossession, slavery, genocide, or oppression. All of those things might have existed a long time ago–we barely even remember them–but they certainly do not exist any longer. We have evolved.

We believe in ourselves as being evolved, at peace with ourselves and with one another, and having a damn good time of it besides.

11800253_10207725824208749_8357248191579677160_nThe Indigenous Feminist Killjoy

And then Indigenous people’s show up and spoil everyone’s happy.

Not all Indigenous people, of course, and not everyone’s happy. Because there is no monolithic Indigenous perspective or everyone affect.

So let’s say some Indigenous people show up and muck-up the happy affect for some others. And let’s be even more specific and say that it is some Indigenous women–many of whom identify as feminists–who have shown up and those whose joy they have killed include not only those who benefit from the social forces of white heteronormative capitalism that appropriate and misrepresent Indigeneity (the ones being called out to respond), but unexpectedly those who understand themselves to be aligned with, and have even worked alongside, Indigenous women against the exploitations and oppressions of white heteronormative capitalism.

And this is where it gets odd.

Because all of the seats at the table are full–family, friends, colleagues, allies, strangers, those with whom you do and do not share your politics and concerns. And some Indigenous women, some of whom identify as feminists, are perceived to have played a mean, violent, racist game of musical chairs to unseat others. Not only those who have committed years and years of cultural appropriation or misrepresentation, not only those implicated or benefiting from the appropriation and the misrepresentation, but other Indigenous scholars, activists, and artists and those who have seen themselves as naturally aligned with Indigenous women, perhaps especially those who identify themselves as feminist, against state (sanctioned) violence and oppression.

Indigenous feminists are represented as having done it all carelessly and callously, not so much with their talk of the role of cultural appropriation and identity fraud within the U.S. empire and its structural, systemic forms of colonialism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. That talk is dismissed as liberal, progressive, leftist gobbledegook by those who benefit from the empire. That talk is embraced by others disenfranchised.

Rather, it is the talk of Indigenous governance, territorial rights, belonging, and responsibility that is figured by feminists and anti-racist activists (not necessarily different people or organizations), both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, as careless, disingenuous, assimilationist, and statist. (Because decolonization means anyone can claim, or “good work” their way into, Indigeneity?)

The Indigenous Table

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Individual affiliated with the Cayuga Nation

There is a table where Indigenous people’s sit. Heterosexuals, queers, trans, others. Wealthy, middle class, working, poor. Urban, rural, reservation. Democrat, Republican, Green, leftist, progressive. Traditionalists, Christians, atheists. Feminist, non feminists, anti-feminist. It is a table many of us have written about.

And yet, in this moment, in the not-new revelations concerning “Andrea Smith,” the Indigenous feminist scholar at the table is vilified for advancing colonialist, assimilationist tools of state violence and discrimination. For reifying racist tools of identity and identification. For attacking and bullying a woman. For personal jealousies and grudges.

The table is as intimate and familiar as the tribal. Where “feminism” bears the burdens of being anti-traditional (not culturally authentic) and anti-sovereignty. Where Indigenous women, queers, trans, and others are asked to shut up about, or set aside, their experiences and criticisms of tribal sexism and homophobia for the sake of “the tribe” and its ever fragile legal status under the empire’s rule.

The table is also where the trauma of identity fraud and the complex histories of brutal, violently enforced cultural assimilation programs run as deep as the interpersonal conflicts that can so often play out over a family meal. All of the anger, fear, and confusion over ongoing histories of dispossession, genocide, and erasure bear down on how we see and eat with one another. It is painful and raw. And it makes us feel vulnerable and exposed. It reminds us of our feelings of vulnerability and exposure. We are vulnerable and exposed.

And how dare the Indigenous feminist bring it all up. Speak it out loud. Make it here where otherwise it could be held at bay and turned into something else. A different kind of happy, to be sure, but a happy-as-comfortable place where the pain is not present or marked. Where we don’t talk about the frauds we eat with. Where we don’t talk about fraud at all. Where we sometimes feel like frauds ourselves.

UnknownThe Feminist, Anti-Racist, Progressive Table

“As feminists we have our own tables. If we are unseated by the family table, it does not necessarily follow that we are seated together. … It is not just that feelings are “in tension,” but that the tension is located somewhere: in being felt by some bodies, it is attributed as caused by another body, who comes to be felt as apart from the group, as getting in the way of its enjoyment and solidarity. The body of color is attributed as the cause of becoming tense, which is also the loss of a shared atmosphere. As a feminist of color you do not even have to say anything to cause tension! The mere proximity of some bodies involves an affective conversion. We learn from this example how histories are condensed in the very intangibility of an atmosphere, or in the tangibility of the bodies that seem to get in the way. Atmospheres might become shared if there is agreement in where we locate the points of tension. … The woman of color must let go of her anger for the white woman to move on.” — Sara Ahmed, “Feminist Killjoys” (2010)

“So it might be that the disclosures about Smith produce a profound ambivalence among those who cite and even love her scholarship or activism, and who are now confronted with the anxious question of whether her scholarship or activism remains usable; and it might be that such ambivalence also encompasses what her defenders know about themselves as scholars and activists. One could also feel this as a loss of self, and such loss might account for the reactive idealization of Smith against challenges to it. It would be understandably difficult to admit to unknowing (or partial unknowing) participation in the duping of whole fields of scholars and activists, or to admit that oneself has been duped; such that one might willfully misread, for example, the years-long timeline during which Smith’s friends, colleagues, and others sought to resolve her false claims in private, to then describe the tempo of these last weeks as an ungenerous demand.” — Mimi Thi Nguyen, “On Losing ‘Andrea Smith” (2015)

Ahmed and Nguyen help me think about the act of being unseated, of unseating, and the act of recasting through an affective conversion of the Indigenous feminist into not merely the obstacle to happiness–the killer of joy–but the tool of the liberal state. They help me think about the kinds of political, intellectual, and emotional attachments and identifications with “Andrea Smith” and her work across and between critical ethnic, race, and Indigenous studies as well as gender, sexuality, and feminist studies that might inform various processes of social formation and the more specific acts of reconstituting the tables at which we sit together (or apart). They help me think about the way these various actions necessarily demand that Indigenous feminists be relocated on what Nguyen calls “a continuum with the colonial state,” as violent racists, pro-assimilationists, in order not merely to unseat them but to mute them and mutate them into agents of violence and racism. Otherwise comfortable, maybe easy, citational practices mark what Nguyen calls political and intellectual “due diligence” and otherwise absolve us of having to think about what decolonization might actually mean and demand.

Without attention to Indigenous governance and territorial rights, not only is decolonization impossible but any assertion of social justice and transformative politics is rendered anti-decolonial. Anti-Indigenous.

Here, in the very moment of the the call to responsibility to/at the Indigenous feminisms, the feminist, anti-racist, progressive table, the table is transported into the political forum over which Indigenous feminists demand Indigenous governance and territorial rights be respected. Demand their cultural protocols for relationship and responsibility be respected. Demand a legal, cultural space, a place, not under the juridical regime of the empire.

The unseating, the recasting, the conversion happens precisely in order to suppress not merely the Indigenous feminist at the table but the table itself–the place through and over which Indigenous feminists demand treaty rights, environmental justice, and respect for Indigenous cultural reckonings of relationship, in ways that challenge the “heart and soul” of both radical politics and the promises of a liberal multicultural state of inclusion. It is the table where Indigenous feminists reject the state’s promises of inclusion and claims of political solidarity and futurity that are not based on genuine forms of decolonization.

Territory

Image credit: Ange Sterritt (Gitxsan)

Image credit: Ange Sterritt (Gitxsan)

In “Land as Pedagogy,” Nishnaabeg writer and activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson argues that,

“A resurgence of Indigenous political cultures, governances and nation-building requires generations of Indigenous peoples to grow up intimately and strongly connected to our homelands, immersed in our languages and spiritualities, and embodying our traditions of agency, leadership, decision-making and diplomacy. This requires a radical break from state education systems – systems that are primarily designed to produce communities of individuals willing to uphold settler colonialism. This paper uses Nishnaabeg stories to advocate for a reclamation of land as pedagogy, both as process and context for Nishnaabeg intelligence, in order to nurture a generation of Indigenous peoples that have the skills, knowledge and values to rebuild our nation according to the word views and values of Nishnaabeg culture.” (2014)

Indigenous knowledges and ways of being in the world, and their inherent “reclamation of land” as the ground upon which Indigenous governance, rights, and cultures are built, must be the starting point for any genuinely radical or progressive political strategy or action that wants to claim itself as decolonial or in alliance with Indigenous struggles. Land as pedagogy is not merely for the classroom, it is for any political movement that envisions itself as calling for genuine social transformative justice. There is nothing “transformative” about a non-decolonial political agenda or an alliance with Indigenous struggles that does not actively engage the question of Indigenous governance and territorial rights.

In Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence, Simpson explains that the work of social revolution begins with the need for Indigenous peoples to engage their unique cultural teachings in how they theorize and work against state oppression and for Indigenous empowerment.

“[W]e need to engage in Indigenous processes, since according to our traditions, the processes of engagement highly influence the outcome of the engagement itself. We need to do this on our own terms, without the sanction, permission or engagement of the state, western theory or the opinions of Canadians. In essence, we need to not just figure out who we are, we need to re-establish the processes by which we live who we are within the current context we find ourselves.” (2011)

Simpson argues that these traditions are not static, biblical dictates from the past— “rigidity and fundamentalism” understood to belong to colonial ways of thinking. Rather, they are living and lived and so ever-changing understandings of how to honor the unbroken importance of elders, languages, lands, and communities in Indigenous flourishment, transformation, and resurgence. By engaging these teachings within processes of opposition to state oppression, Simpson maintains that ethical values of land-based relationships and responsibilities ground practices of “self-actualization, the suspension of judgment, fluidity, emergence, careful deliberation and an embodied respect for diversity.”

Mindful of the state’s claims to offering democratic inclusion through a liberal multiculturalism, and its commensurate call for resolution by inclusion and reconciliation, Simpson’s work points to the relevance of Indigenous epistemologies and histories for reordering Indigenous governance, territories, and social relations. That reordering calls us back to the table with one another, to all our (non)human relations and kin, to an ethics of relationship and territorial-based responsibility.

Extending the Call and Response to Progressive Allies

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From where I write.

1. Where do you live? Where do you work? Where do you labor on social justice issues?

2. On whose historical lands does your residency, work, and labor happen? Who is the Indigenous nation, peoples, of that territory? Who are the Indigenous nations, peoples, who claim that territory? (See UNDRIP.)

3. What have you done to educate yourself about that Indigenous nation’s histories–legal, economic, social?

4. In what ways are you currently supporting that Indigenous nation’s struggles? When was the last time you and/or the organizations with which you work attended, co-sponsored, or otherwise labored in support of that Indigenous peoples’ political and legal concerns, social and cultural events?

5. If you are affiliated with or working through a community organization, church, neighborhood group, union: how have you educated yourself on how the issues you/they care about relate to or concern the Indigenous nation on whose lands it occupies? How have you/they actively supported Indigenous peoples community organizing or labor concerns? How have you worked to establish links between your organization, church, group and Indigenous peoples in your region?

 

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Map of Reservations

 

Questions and Questioning

I really wasn’t going to say anything else publicly except through the collectivities of which I am a part. But Andrea Smith’s non-response response and the INCITE! statement compel me to comment again. I would rather not.

The Fray

My point of entrance into all of this craziness started in this moment because an Indigenous (Southern Cheyenne) graduate student, a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault (whom I will refer to as Alannis), posted a tumblr comment in shock at having just learned that Andrea Smith is not Cherokee.

The tumblr comment circulated on twitter–through the accounts of many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. I was one of those who retweeted her comment. I also posted a meme that had been forwarded to me a week earlier by a Cherokee person who lives in Oklahoma. The “original” meme juxtaposed Elizabeth Warren and Rachel Dolezal; the “redo” juxtaposed Andrea Smith and Rachel Dolezal. In other words, Indigenous people were making comparisons between Warren, Smith, Dozelal and a lot of others between themselves. Dolezal felt like an old story. And, unfortunately, a lot of comparisons are available. (I think I posted the meme as a comment to someone else–not that the particular matters.)

Part of why I re-circulated and re-tweeted Alannis’ tumblr comment and posted the meme was in order to publicly demonstrate my support for Alannis and for Cherokee self-determination. I know all too well from my own professional and interpersonal experiences how vicious things get when you even suggest a criticism of Smith and/or her work, or address her too-many years of contradictory statements about who she is. It didn’t seem right to me, knowing what I did, to allow an Indigenous woman graduate student who was speaking what I perceived to be the truth to stand out there on social media on her own, without back-up. The experience of going viral was, for Alannis, so horrible that she wrote a subsequent comment asking to be left alone.

Meanwhile, in reaction to Alannis’ comment, the meme, and the circulation of both on twitter, several others, including one who identifies as a Lakota queer activist started criticizing–as fiercely as one can in 140 characters–Alannis and those of us posting Alannis’ comment and the meme on twitter as mean-spirited, uninformed hacks who didn’t know what we were talking about. Those criticisms were circulated further on Facebook and in Lakota.

It felt to me that as those criticisms reached a crescendo, or my experiences of them, a new confidential tumblr page appeared called andreasmithisnotcherokee. I don’t remember the exact timing of that appearance but it certainly shifted my attention to what I already knew.

The page gathered for everyone mostly Cherokee sources, documents, and testimonies demonstrating the years of Smith’s self-contradictions about who she is and where she is from: her father is Cherokee, her mother is Cherokee, her maternal grandparents are Cherokee, (all enrolled), she is not enrolled because her ancestors were not on the Dawes Rolls because of Cherokee identity politics or adoption or custody, she is a descendant of Redbird Smith, she cannot say who she is a descendant of for confidentiality reasons, et cetera. It told us of four different instances with at least five different individuals–four of whom were Cherokee–that Smith admitted she had no lineal descent claims and agreed to no longer publicly identify as an enrolled citizen.

If not for the social media criticisms of Alannis, and the andreasmithisnotcherokee page, I would not have said anything on my own. But bravely or stupidly, I entered the fray of public debate with two blog posts. Given the circulation of those posts, attention shifted on me as the one “originally” outing and calling out Smith. It’s a misguided perception based on the circulation of my posts and a lack of attention to the history demonstrated on the tumblr page (and many other histories not recorded there but I know to be forthcoming). But it is a powerful way to re-narrate the issues away from the issues.* I have since been accused of being professionally jealous, holding personal grudges, unethically using social media as a forum for public shaming, and conforming to statist models of identity policing, bullying, and ‘calling out.’

In response to the vitriol, I had decided I would not say one more thing on my own about any of this. That I would only speak through the communities and collectivities of which I am a part. So I was part of the group of Indigenous women scholars who issued an open letter. And now the vitriol has spread to all of us and others who share our concerns and perspectives about Smith. We are all being accused of conspiring, coordinating, informing, policing, bullying, “lateral violence,” and the like.

(*I find the accusations about the use of social media as a non-transformative social justice model especially odd since Smith, until she closed her accounts, INCITE!, and many other social justice advocates use social media as a form of activism and criticism. Anarchist groups like Anonymous and the progressive emergence of what some are calling “black twitter” against police violence would certainly disagree that social media is an inherently statist form of political intervention.)

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The Storm(s)

It is challenging to disengage and reflect on a tornado when you are inside the funnel cloud, being hurled at record speeds up and up the funnel to be eventually, randomly spit out like a piece of broken garbage or the branch of an uprooted tree. I am still committed to thinking out loud about and with others–Indigenous and non-Indigenous–through the broader issues of what Andrea Smith represents and not only her specific case. To be sure, there are many others and there have been since the colonists appropriated the Lenape leader Tammanend in creating a nativist–anti-immigrant, anti-Indigenous–society in 1789. But I see the productive potential of political alliances and collaborations around issues of racialized oppression and social justice work as the promise out of all of this.

The mostly-private and confidential demand for accountability from Andrea Smith has been going on since 1993. It has involved many different communities (professional, activist, etc.) and Cherokee officials and citizens. It even resulted in confidential agreements between Smith and Cherokee that she would no longer publicly identify as an enrolled Cherokee citizen because she is not one. It occurred professionally but privately between Indigenous women scholars and activists who were, at first, trying to support her. But nothing worked. Smith’s claims remain contradictory and problematic and she never once honored a single agreement that she had made with Cherokee people. That fact alone is because she does not hold herself accountable to Cherokee people.

So. What is our responsibility as Indigenous women in the academy who know, who have known? What are we supposed to do when an Indigenous woman graduate student and colleagues get vehemently attacked on social media for sharing her and their concerns? Are we supposed to remain silent? What does the expectation of our silence represent as a politic of complicity, endorsement, legitimation?

What does it mean when we follow our shared cultural protocols for holding someone accountable–women to woman–and are accused of being statist conspirators? Bullying identity police? Engaging in crass political attack?

I don’t have any answers to these questions but I have gotten very tired of the underlying message and frustrated with the broader implications of it: Indigenous women attempting to hold a self-identified Indigenous woman who is not one accountable is not invited and will be misread and misconstrued into a thousand other tales of conspiracy upholding Indigenous erasure and dispossession.

On the Politics of Distraction

“The accusation that indigenous feminists are engaged in a violent politics of disposability is remarkable (and ridiculous), since it seems the ones who are rendered disposable in just that accusation are –wait for it, wait for it!– indigenous feminists.” ~ Mimi Thi Nguyen (responding to this.)

@tequilasovereign: It’s not about blood quantum. It’s not about blood quantum. It’s not about blood quantum. It’s not about blood quantum.

 

So very many comments swirling, whirling around social media and news sites about Andrea Smith. So very many comments that distract us from the core issue. Here are a few of my own responses to the makers of distraction.

 


 

The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (CNO), Cherokee representatives and employees, and Cherokee citizens have known about Andrea Smith’s false claims to enrollment status and lineal descent since the early 1990s. They have been the most generous, the most empathetic, the most kind in their responses to her. They have confronted her privately, when made they have kept their agreements not to keep harping on her publicly, they have left her alone even when she hasn’t honored her agreements with them to stop identifying as an enrolled citizen. They even, to my understanding, counseled her that she could identify herself as “Cherokee by descent” if she had Cherokee relations and simply couldn’t satisfy enrollment/citizenship criteria in the CNO. This includes Richard Allen, Patti Jo King, David Cornsilk, and Steve Russell, but also many, many others.

The “bottom line” is that Andrea Smith presented the genealogical records she had to a Cherokee genealogist she hired at two different times–when she was trying to establish proof of a matrilineal claim in 1993 and when she was trying to establish proof of a patrilineal claim in 1999 (or thereabouts). Both attempts failed to pan out in establishing Cherokee descent. They both panned out in establishing her Euro-American descent. (In other words, there wasn’t an absence of genealogical records.)

Smith was, herself, so convinced of the validity of the results–accepting of the conclusions–that she stated to people that she had no legitimate lineal descent claim (in 1993, 1999, 2007, 2008) and that she would stop falsely claiming she was an enrolled Cherokee (in 2007 and 2008).

 


 

I find it troubled and troubling that people equate the politics of racial authenticity with the expectation of integrity and ethics in how someone identifies themselves in their work.

Forgive the bluntness but I could give a fuck (maybe even more) about whether or not Andrea Smith is enrolled or what her blood quantum is, nor do I care whether or not she conforms to stereotypical, phenotypical expectations of physical appearance (skin, hair, eye color etc.). I don’t care if she has thousands of years of documented affiliation or whether or not she looks Indian to non-Indians.

When I published an article in 2003 on the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, I got into trouble with some Native scholars, artists, and community members (including Cherokee) for arguing that it–like so many other federal, state, and tribal laws–relies on official enrollment status in a federally recognized tribe in order to allow someone to represent their work as “Indian made.” As I also argue in other publications, federal recognition and even tribal enrollment criteria often rely on and so perpetuate racialized notions of identity and cultural authenticity through blood quantum criteria. These criteria are embedded historically in the administration of the General Allotment Act of 1887 and the dispossession of Native peoples from their territories. We need other ways of reckoning Native legal status and rights.

Many Native people disagree with me. Many Cherokee and other southeastern people whose tribes were removed into Indian Territory (Oklahoma) argued that they produced their own documentation during allotment and have better genealogical records than just about anyone else in the United States (excepting, perhaps, the Mormons). I feel conflicted about these claims when I think with the historical work of Angie Debo and Theda Perdue. But I also know that the CNO and other tribes in Oklahoma have fairly damn good genealogies that do not rely on the documents of federal, state, or church institutions.

To stay on point, the CNO, unlike most other tribes in the United States, does not require a particular blood quantum in order to be enrolled or a citizen. They do require that you are able to demonstrate lineal descent, in whatever degree or way that may come. The CNO has taken (and again, please excuse the bluntness) a lot of shit for that criteria. They have born the brunt of SCOTUS decisions (Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, 2013) and social media mockery for “letting anyone” into their tribe–even someone with “3/256th” blood degree (to quote SCOTUS).

And then, of course, there are the problems the CNO have had with respecting their own treaties with regards to the legal status and rights of Cherokee Freedmen (Black-Indians).

My point is that expecting Andrea Smith–or anyone else–to be honest, to have integrity, in how they identify themselves and their work is not the same thing as policing their/her identity through the standards of racial authenticity. No one I know has ever asked her what her racial quota is or whether or not she can produce her CDIB.

Equating “identity policing” with the expectation of integrity with how someone presents themselves as Native is part of the trouble–anticipating that kind of racialized equivalence is exactly why Cherokee people and Native scholars who have known about Smith’s fraud for 7 to 24 years have never come forward.

And this might be where the comparison of Rachel Dolezal and Andrea Smith both helps and doesn’t help non-Natives understand the issues. I’m still trying to think this through but in watching how dynamically people have misunderstood the comparison, I have come to believe that Dolezal’s “racial shifting” is perhaps not the best way to help non-Natives understand Smith’s fraud. I am rethinking this comparison in relation the work of Native scholars like David Wilkins and Heidi Stark. They demonstrate that Native/Indigenous is a legal category indicating a certain status and set of rights under international and extraconstitutional law. Native/Indigenous is not a race/ethnicity or minority status. (See David E. Wilkins and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark. American Indian Politics and the American Political System. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010.)

Perhaps Dolezal’s race shifting illuminates Smith’s fraud only in the sense that Dolezal and Smith have laid claim on a social experience of racialized oppression that they do not have. For Dolezal’s blackface this was enacted through the alteration of her personal appearance and social behavior. For Smith’s redface it was enacted through a legal claim on status and rights in the Cherokee Nation. But much more informed, thoughtful work through these issues are needed. Beginning with the understanding that expecting people to be honest about how they identify is not the same thing as asking people to conform to racist notions of authenticity.

 


 

If an anti-racist feminist politics is not grounded in integrity and ethics, what is it good for? If someone’s scholarship and political work is based on a fraudulent misrepresentation not only of who they are but what they have experienced based on who they are, then what happens to anti-racist feminist theoretical interventions and political organizing? How does the fraud work itself in and through the practice of confronting racist, sexist ideologies and the insidious way those ideologies structure state, social, and interpersonal forms of oppression and violence?

The difficult history not being talked about yet is how fraudulent claims to Cherokee citizenship, enrollment, and identity have worked in concert with federal and state efforts to undermine and dispossess Cherokee governance and territorial rights. The fraud, in other words, doesn’t operate in an historical vacuum. It didn’t just appear in the 1990s or “get outed” in 2015. It has a complicated, largely erased history of establishing and protecting state claims on Native governments, lands, and bodies. That is why, all throughout these conversations, the integrity and ethics of how one defines and represents oneself as Native is so deeply important and so deeply feminist in relation to one’s political practice.

 


 

4. All I know is this. Andrea Smith and I went to graduate school at UCSC at the same time (me 1992-2000 and her 1997-2002). Smith told me then that it was her father who was Cherokee, a descendant of Redbird Smith, and some difficult stories about her mother which I won’t divulge here. Actually I learned very quickly not to ask her too many personal questions.

It wasn’t until 2007-2008 that I heard Smith was telling other people during her time at UCSC and then within the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) and CNO that it was her mother and her mother’s parents who were enrolled Cherokee. She was also telling people that she was enrolled. I was confused and assumed that I had misremembered what she told me.

After Steve Russell’s ICT editorials in March/April 2008, a group of about a dozen Native feminist scholars involved in a contracted book project with Smith (who was a co-editor) attempted to talk to Smith about Russell’s editorials. Smith had already told the other co-editor of the book that she had no lineal descent claim. When we all got on the conference call together, Smith refused to talk with the rest of us about it. She got on the call, bursted into tears, said “I can’t do this,” and hung up.

I can’t even begin to tell you how difficult and painful and vexing this has been for us as scholars and friends. We have worried and disagreed and struggled with one another over what the right and honorable thing to do is. There has been nothing easy about it. Nothing.

I share this because in the blogosphere of reactions to what seems like new information about Smith for a lot of people, people are speaking as if those of us who have known, who have tried to think out loud about the issues in the last few days and weeks, are spiteful and mean-spirited and hateful people. That has not been my experience. The Native feminists and NAIS allies, UCSC alum and others, who have known and who are just beginning to speak up about the issues are compassionate, generous, empathetic, and smart and have been genuinely distressed about Smith–and for Smith’s health and well-being–and what the right thing is to do and to say for years and years and years. It has required a lot of spiritual, emotional, professional, and intellectual energy to work through. And we are only just beginning.

 


 

My challenge to everyone is to stay focused. There are too many distractions in conversations about these issues–too many accusations of papergenocide, lateral violence, cruelty. They have seemed, to me, disingenuous. A way to refocus the question and alleviate Smith of any kind of responsibility or accountability.

My favorite of these distractions so far has been accusations of me and others who have spoken up of being members of COINTELPRO or secret FBI-agents out to destroy a revolutionary (and you know who you are). I really have nothing to say other than “good one.” You’ve made me/us really important if somewhat inept for outing ourselves so easily.

Update: I stand corrected. My new most favorite thing in all of this is that I am a jealous, irrelevant scholar advancing a politics of disposability. Because the Cherokee are sovereign. (https://againstpoliticsofdisposability.wordpress.com/).

 


Please note that this post is a reflection on the reactions to my previous post, “Rachel Dolezal and Andrea Smith: Integrity, Ethics, Accountability, Identity.” 

 

 

Rachel Dolezal and Andrea Smith: Integrity, Ethics, Accountability, Identity

AnonNDN

The politics of racial shifting in anti-racist feminist organizing has been made anew in recent debates over the cases of Rachel Dolezal (formerly known as Black) and Andrea Smith (formerly known as Cherokee).

I want to think—out loud— through these cases together and the incredibly different ways that people have responded to them. For myself, I am trying to understand the differences in the cultural and social expectations and claims on Blackness and Indigeneity that they mark and how those expectations and claims operate so differently within and for Black and Native communities. I have more questions than answers.

Dolezal Today

Dolezal’s parents, Ruthanne and Lawrence (Larry), reveal to local journalists and NBC news anchors that their daughter, Rachel, has been lying about her ancestry (see reports from June 15June 16, and June 17). On June 15, under pressure from the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal resigns as President of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, and subsequently loses her faculty position in the Africana Education program at Eastern Washington University. According to some reports, linked above, she is being investigated by the City of Spokane’s Ethics Commission for ethics violations in misrepresenting herself as Black on an application to serve on the City’s Police Oversight Board.

In a June 16 interview with Matt Lauer on the Today Show, Dolezal attempted to counter her parent’s statements by asserting her right of “self-identification.”

“Dolezal: Well, first of all, I really don’t see why they’re [her parents] in such a rush to whitewash some of the work that I have done, and who I am, and how I’ve identified, and this goes back to a very early age, with my self-identification with the black experience as a very young child. Lauer: When did it start? Dolezal: I would say about 5 years old. Lauer: You began identifying yourself as African-American? Dolezal: I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon and black, curly, hair, you know, yeah. That was how I was portraying myself. Lauer: So it started way back then. Rachel, when did you start—and I’ll use the word, you can correct me if you don’t like it—when did you start deceiving people and telling them you were black when you knew their questions were pointed in a different direction? When someone said to you, back then, “Are you black or white?” and you’d say “I’m black,” you wouldn’t say, “I identify as black,” you’d say, “I’m black.” When did you start deceiving people? Dolezal: Well, I do take exception to that, because it’s a little more complex than me identifying as black or answering a question of “Are you black or white?” I was actually identified when I was doing human rights work in north Idaho as, first, trans-racial, and then when some of the opposition to some of the human rights work I was doing came forward, the next day’s newspaper article identified me as being a biracial woman, and then the next article when there were actually burglaries, nooses, etcetera, was, this is happening to a black woman. And I never corrected— Lauer: Well, why didn’t you correct it if you knew it wasn’t true? Dolezal: Because it’s more complex than, you know, being true or false in that particular instance. [After questions about the ways she has changed her appearance.] Dolezal: Absolutely. Absolutely. I have a huge issue with blackface. This is not some freak, Birth of a Nation mockery blackface performance. This is on a very real connected level, how I’ve actually had to go there with the experience, not just the visible representation, but with the experience, and the point at which that really solidified was when I got full custody of Izaiah. And he said, “you’re my real mom,” and he’s in high school, and for that to be something that is plausible, I certainly can’t be seen as white and be Izaiah’s mom. [After questions about misrepresenting her father as a Black man.] Dolezal: Albert Wilkerson is my dad. Every man can be a father, not every man can be a dad. Lauer: Your lawsuit in 2002 against Howard University, where you claim you were discriminated against because you were a pregnant white woman. Do you understand how people could hear that and say, “Here’s another example—she says she identified herself as being African-American or black from a young age, but here’s a case where she identified herself as a white woman because it worked for her under the circumstances.” Dolezal: The reasons for my full-tuition scholarship being removed and my teaching position as well, my TA position, were that other people needed opportunities and you probably have white relatives that can afford to help you with your tuition. And I thought that was an injustice. … Dolezal: Well, as much as this discussion has somewhat been at my expense, recently, in a very sort of viciously inhumane way—come out of the woodwork, and—the discussion’s really about what it is to be human, and I hope that that can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency, and ultimately empowerment. . . . Dolezal: I actually was talking to one of my sons yesterday and he said, “Mom, racially you’re human and culturally you’re black.” And, you know, so we’ve had these conversations over the years, I do know that they support the way  that I identify, and they support me. Ultimately, we have each other’s back. We’re the Three Musketeers.”

Criticisms, however, of Dolezal had flooded social media, news, and community forums, accusing her of blackface, opportunism, appropriation, and privilege. Dolezal responded to these criticisms by claiming to be “transracial” (also of Native American descent—growing up in a tipi, hunting with a bow and arrow), identifying as a bisexual, claiming to have been sexually abused by her brother, and claiming to have been raised in a too-strict Christian home. In the end, none of these claims dissuaded her critics and only enraged them further with calls of accountability. Dolezal was forced to resign on June 15 from her position at the NAACP and from her faculty position at EWU.

Smith Tumble

About two weeks ago, Annita Lucchesi (Southern Cheyenne) posted a comment on her tumblr page entitled “Andrea Smith is not Cherokee.” In Lucchesi’s biography for an article she wrote for Last Real Indians in honor of Loretta Saunders, it says, “Annita Lucchesi is a Southern Cheyenne survivor of sexual and domestic violence. She is a graduate student in the Critical Culture, Gender, & Race Studies department at Washington State University, and also works at the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, which is dedicated to reclaiming the sovereignty of Native nations and safeguarding Native women and their children.” Her comment on tumblr about Smith begins:

“Andrea Smith is not Cherokee. omg. this is not new information. this is what bugs me about how Natives are treated by non-Natives in academia!!! most Native scholars that are connected to their cultures/communities have questioned her for a very long time. but non-Natives get so comfortable using their one token go-to Native Feminist to quote that those questions don’t get heard or understood.”

IMG_2347

For clarification: This is not an image I created. It circulated on twitter a couple of weeks ago, after the one comparing Elizabeth Warren with Rachel Dolezal was posted, and after Lucchesi’s comments.

A day later, Lucchesi posted a comment entitled “cool indigenous feminist scholars to check out.” Both of her comments generated close to 6,000 replies, including likes, reposts, and remarks. The overwhelming majority of the respondents express some form of shock, dismay, pain, and outrage over the news about Smith and gratitude for the recommended reading list.

As Lucchesi’s comments were circulated on twitter and Facebook by Native and non-Native academics, activists, and community members, they provoked a diverse intensity of responses, including criticisms of those who did the circulating as witch-hunters, mean-spirited, lacking logic, not knowing what they were talking about, and the like.

Within a few days, a new tumblr page appeared: andreasmithisnotcherokee. With multiple Cherokee and other sources and primary and secondary documentation dating back to 1991, the page tracks a 24-year history of Smith misrepresenting herself as an enrolled Cherokee citizen, of being confronted on the validity of her claims and agreeing with the Cherokee Nation to no longer publicly identify as Cherokee, and of subsequently allowing others to misrepresent her as a Cherokee intellectual and activist.

Smith’s admissions to multiple Cherokee people in 1993, 2007, and 2008 that she has no lineal descent claims as a Cherokee is as striking as the fact, as noted on tumblr, that, “To date, no member of the Redbirth Smith family or any other Cherokee family has acknowledged Andrea Smith’s claims of descent/belonging.”

In the two weeks since Lucchesi’s posts, the twitter and Facebook flurry, and the appearance of andreasmithisnotcherokee, not a single national media outlet or professional institution or association to which Smith is a member has remarked on Smith’s case. And neither has Smith responded–to refute, to acknowledge, to apologize. In fact, it appears that all she has done in response is to close her twitter account (@andrea366, though one she seems to be affiliated with @NativeChristian remains active) and her Facebook account (Andy Smith).

[Insert the sounds of crickets here.]

In my albeit limited worlds of social media–wordpress, twitter, Facebook–I have watched as many Natives and non-Natives in and outside of the academy have posed questions about the timing and motivations of the tumblr posts/pages. These questions have oftentimes assumed that it has been common knowledge, certainly within Native studies since 2008, that Smith is a fraud, so why bring it all up (again) now?

Instead of assuming that “everybody knew/knows,” particularly within Native studies since 2008, which is clearly not the case given the responses to the tumblr posts and circulation mentioned above, a more productive place to begin might be to ask why there has not been any noticeable difference in professional or political expectations of Smith—in her self-presentations, speaking engagements, professional service, and publications? There are certainly many people who knew/know, so why have her ethics and integrity not been questioned or challenged in the same or similar way to those of Dolezal? Why does Smith’s fraud get excused on the grounds of “her good work” but Dolezal does not?

Obviously I am not suggesting that Dolezal and Smith have the same kind or volume of professional publications or that they do the same kind of political work.

But it seems to me that the ethical issues swirling around Smith are so viscous and thick for Native and non-Native academics (and) activists (especially those aligned as anti-racist feminists) that it is impossible to wade through them without taking any kind of action whatsoever. Like trying to stand nonchalantly in quick sand or to sit comfortably in a pot of water as it comes to a boil.

Moving, Forward

If the past 24 years are any indication of the future, I fear what will happen in regards Smith is this:

  1. non-Native academics (and) activists will eventually dismiss the sources and documentation of Smith’s fraud as crass or too-complicated identity politics, something that they can’t possibly understand or take a position on, as the advancement of oppressively racial state normativities, or as an example of problems unique to Native people that Natives have to sort out for themselves.
  2. Native academics (and) activists will turn on one another, will go mute, or will ignore the information (again) in the name of not advancing racism, not doing harm to Smith, or showing respect for her “good work” in “the community.”

Meanwhile, we’ll all fail to ask why, as Dolezal and Smith present themselves through such complicated personal stories of childhood abuse and family dysfunction, we respond so differently to Dolezal’s blackface and Smith’s redface. We’ll avoid the opportunity to think out loud together about why it seems the entire nation demands accountability of someone pretending to be Black–of literally altering her physical appearance to conform to racist expectations of Blackness–but doesn’t seem to give one iota of concern about those who pretend to be Indian.

Is this because, at the end and beginning and middle of Smith’s fraud, “we” would all like to claim or have already claimed to have been raised in tipis, hunting for our food, feeling Indian since we were kids, shifting out of ourselves into the Indian’s pains and successes? Is it that “we” all, secretly, want to be Indian like her? Or perhaps that “we” all, secretly, already claim to be Indian ourselves?

 

 


Please see, “On the Politics of Distraction,” which reflects on the reactions to this post.

My Comments for the NAISA Presidential Plenary Session, “Feminism, Gender, Queerness, Sexuality: Keywords for Indigenous Studies?”

Presidential Plenary Session, “Feminism, Gender, Queerness, Sexuality: Keywords for Indigenous Studies?” with Mark Rifkin (NAISA President), Jodi Byrd, Lisa Kahaleole Hall, Mishuana Goeman, and Craig Womack

President Rifkin prompted us with a set of questions about the analytic work of gender and sexuality within NAIS scholarship. Without wanting to be surly or argumentative, my response is “why?” Why do we need to have a conversation about the relevance of gender and sexuality within and to NAIS(A)? Why are gender and sexuality not taken for granted—as is race, ethnicity, class, and nationalist politics—as core analytics of NAIS(A) scholarship?

To be clear, I am not asking why they are not topics of analysis any more than I would suggest that feminist analysis is only possible if gender or sexuality are topics. Rather, I am wondering about the social conditions on which conversations about the relevance of gender and sexuality are articulated. What are the conditions informing NAIS that make it possible, even “normal,” for someone to say “I do not do gender and sexuality” or “I do not need to do gender and sexuality.” (These were, by the way, conversations I had when I solicited contributions to a volume of original essays I am editing with Duke UP from those outside the usual suspects of GSF scholars in NAISA.)

Because if it is possible, even rational or normal, to say these things, then it is also possible to deflect, to minimize, or to pathologize the work of those who “need” “to do” “gender and sexuality.” In other words, if relevance/irrelevance is the shadow cast over the analytic work of gender and sexuality within NAIS, then it is not a question about analysis. It is about how gender and sexuality inform the terms and conditions of social relationality within which NAIS is produced, where some work matters and others does not, at least not on equal terms. (How many of our departments, programs, or journals still have the course or special issue on women, gender, sexuality, or feminism and otherwise expect no attention to these matters within the curriculum or the scholarship it produces? How many books and articles about Native/Indigenous social movements still ignore gender and sexuality politics in the grander narrative interest of more serious—i.e., political, racial, class—matters?)

Obviously, I contend that gender and sexuality are core to Native/Indigenous histories, cultures, and politics; to processes of imperial formation and violences of colonial domination; to interpersonal and communal governance; to land-based epistemologies and pedagogies. If you are not engaging that core, it is not because gender and sexuality do not matter. It is about constructing their irrelevance, articulating them as unimportant. And that is an ethic of relationship and responsibility, not merely to humans of various genders and sexualities but to the land, to the water, and to nonhuman relations. It is an ethic deeply embedded within the social politics that inform Native/Indigenous histories, cultures, governments, and territorial rights struggles; within ideologies and violences of cultural authenticity and legal claimant legitimacy; within the violences and discriminations of sexism and homophobia.

Some brief observations, or provocations, for discussion:

  • Gender and sexuality are about the ethics and responsibilities of relationship—to land, to non-human beings, interpersonally, within Native/Indigenous governance.
  • Our relationships demand accountability to Native/Indigenous forms of governance and territorial rights which are themselves grounded in land-based epistemologies and their genealogies. Questions of affiliation are questions of answerability—who do you answer to?
  • Lastly, instead of thinking about people who do and do not do gender and sexuality, perhaps we can think about how we are engaging gender and sexuality whether or not it is a category/topic of analysis as an ethical articulation of our relationships and responsibilities—an ethics of how we are with one another and the people, lands, and nonhumans we belong to.

Further Reading

“Gender.” In The Indigenous World of North America. Robert Warrior, ed. (New York: Routledge Press, 2014).

Indigenous Feminisms.” In Handbook on Indigenous People’s Politics. José Antonio Lucero, Dale Turner, and Donna Lee VanCott, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming; chapter available on-line as of January 2015).

Editor, Critically Sovereign: Indigenous Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies (Durham and London: Duke University Press, forthcoming).

13 Observations in 3 Parts

Anti-Racist Feminist Allies and the Politics of Indigeneity

Part I

1) Everyone has a basic human right to identify themselves (who they are) and their membership in groups and polities (who they belong to). But self-definition and governance do not operate in a historical or political vacuum.

  • What it means to claim or be perceived as Indigenous is historically, socially, culturally, and spatially politicized.
  • Historically, individuals who identified as or were perceived to be Indigenous were targets of gang rape, physical assault, harassment, discrimination, and murder. Groups who identified as or were perceived to be Indigenous were sexually assaulted, enslaved, forcibly removed from their lands and homes, and subjected to brutal assimilation programs.
  • Historically, non-Indigenous individuals claimed Indigenous identity in order to stake a claim on Indigenous lands and resources. These fraudulent claims were often supported by U.S. government officials and the courts as a means to strip Indigenous peoples of their treaty, land, and resource rights.

2) Indigeneity is not about blood quantum or enrollment status. It is about relationship (lineality) and responsibility (ethics).

  • Just as no one would think someone could claim to be African American, Asian American, Arab American, or Latino/a and yet have no family who is African American, Asian American, Arab American, or Latino/a, no one who claims to be Indigenous cannot also identify their Indigenous family or kin.
  • Indigenous family and kin, or genealogy, defines not only who you are related to (parents, siblings, etc.) but the non or other-than-human relations and territories to whom an individual belongs and is responsible.
  • Indigenous identity, family, and genealogy are historically and culturally tied together by/in territories. It does not mean that legally or politically Indigenous people always have land rights. It does mean that their social responsibilities and expectations are grounded.

3) Indigeneity is about genealogy and territory.

  • Land-based epistemologies and ontologies inform the cultural expectations among and between Indigenous people of an individual’s lineal (clan) affiliations and responsibilities, ceremonial participation, and social activities.
  • These expectations do not only apply to individuals belonging to land-righted groups or recognized tribes. Land-based epistemologies and ontologies are not dependent on recognition policies which are arbitrary and punitive and hinder or disrupt ceremonies and other activities on the land.

4) Indigeneity matters.

  • If you say you are Indigenous, you should be able to identify who your nation/tribe/band is (Cherokee, Tlingit, etc.) and who your family/clan is (by name). This identifies you within a set of relationships but also within a set of responsibilities to/within the nation/tribe/band you claim. These responsibilities are political, ceremonial, and social.
  • If you cannot identify your nation/group/tribe/band, then you should have a transparent explanation (adoption, for instance).
  • Because of the histories of misrepresentation of Indigeneity in territorial dispossession and violence, there are deep ethical responsibilities in identifying oneself as Indigenous.

5) “Academic freedom” is a deeply troubled and important category.

  • It has been used by some archaeologists and anthropologists in justifying their possession and control of Indigenous human remains and cultural objects against the expressed wishes of Indigenous people.
  • There is no situation in which a person can claim “academic freedom” or any other kind of freedom without also taking on the responsibilities they inherit with that freedom. An archaeologist cannot claim “academic freedom” in studying Indigenous human remains without taking on the legal and ethical responsibilities of NAGPRA.
  • Similarly, a scholar cannot claim “academic freedom” in identifying as Indigenous without also addressing their ethical responsibilities to the Indigenous communities with whom they identify or claim affiliation. A scholar cannot advocate tribal sovereignty in their work without holding themselves accountable to the nation/tribe/band with whom they claim affiliation.

6) All things considered, it is imperative that Indigenous scholars and scholars in Indigenous studies identify themselves in as transparent, unambiguous ways as possible.

  • It is imperative that anti-racist feminist allies–in the academy and elsewhere–not reject as mere “identity politics” the concerns of Indigenous peoples about how a particular individual identifies themselves and their work as Indigenous if they are not. Indigeneity is not about blood quantum or enrollment status. It is about integrity and social ethics.

Part II

7) If you identify as Indigenous and are a scholar of Indigenous studies, it does not necessarily mean your scholarship is good or radical, just as if you identify as a woman it does not automatically make you a feminist or if you identify as a man it does not automatically make you a sexist.

8) If you identify as an anti-racist feminist ally to Indigenous peoples, you are also identifying a set of relationships and responsibilities to Indigenous communities. Anti-racist feminist allies are necessary to the decolonization projects of Indigenous nations as partners—our decolonization is tied together.

9) People who say “privilege” doesn’t matter are like people who say chocolate doesn’t matter—it’s probably because they own a cocoa plant.

10) Nobody wants to condone histories of U.S. or Canadian imperialism, colonization, racism, or sexism. But legitimating the misrepresentation of someone as Indigenous who is not is a complicity with the ongoing social forces of those histories.

Part III

11) Why is it that so many in the academy—faculty, staff, students—who misrepresent themselves as Indigenous do so through personal stories of emotional abuse within their families? How does Indigeneity get figured as inherently violent and yet liberatory within these stories? A way, a means, to escape family trauma?

12) Why do so many anti-racist feminist scholars and activists have difficulty in taking ethical public positions on Indigeneity?

13) No, seriously, why do so many anti-racist feminist scholars and activists have difficulty in taking ethical public positions on Indigeneity?