By Jacqueline Keeler. This article was originally shared on Pollen Nation. We share it here with permission of the author.
On Tuesday, The New York Times Magazine published a piece, “The Native Scholar Who Wasn’t,” written by Sarah Viren, a white nonfiction writing professor from Arizona State University, which examined the 30-year ethnic scam perpetrated by “Cherokee/Ojibway” Professor Andrea Smith. Smith, an already debunked fraud, teaches in the Ethnic Studies department at the University of California, Riverside. The paper of record in this country was not breaking news, but several years late to the story. In July 2015, Andrea “Andy” Smith had been publicly outed in an open letter published in Indian Country Today signed by Indigenous women scholars from across the United States. The issue was revisited during the 2017 coverage of NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal’s false claims to Black identity in national publications like The Daily Beast.
And indeed, The New York Times is late to the story and was caught out in January of this year when it published an op/ed written by a white woman, Claudia Lawrence, falsely claiming her late husband’s tribal identity. She was outed as a fraud by her stepdaughter. Even worse, the editorial titled “Deb Haaland Is Our Hero. Here Is a Warning for Her,” was celebrating the nomination of Deb Haaland, one of the first Native women to be elected to Congress as Interior Secretary. Lawrence, speaking in the voice of a Native woman, advised Haaland, a citizen of Laguna Pueblo, on how she should do her job as Secretary of the Interior if she were confirmed (she was). The New York Times failed to fact-check Lawrence’s claims to tribal identity. It is unclear how she was chosen to write the editorial as she has few publishing credits outside of local media outlets in the Seattle area.
Despite my investigation of false claims to Native identity detailed in the Alleged Pretendians List (begun in response to The New York Times publishing Pretendian Claudia Lawrence to mark an important milestone in Native women’s achievements), I was not interviewed for the article, and my work not mentioned. Although, many who were interviewed told me they repeatedly brought up my investigation to both the Viren and The New York Times researchers and fact-checkers. But I know from experience being interviewed does not always mean research done exposing frauds is presented fairly by the Times. Last year, I was interviewed by a writer for the New York Times Book Review section for an article titled in part “We’ve Already Survived an Apocalypse” that featured fantasy/science fiction writer Rebecca “Roanhorse” Parish. She had already been exposed via reporting done by Native news site Indianz.com as having no ties to the tribe she claimed, the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo. And in a podcast I had done for Pollen Nation Magazine, I demonstrated that Parish’s birth mother’s family tree had no connection to any U.S. tribe either. Her mother was the descendent of Spanish colonists, and her family tree was filled with Conquistadors who sought to enslave and Christianize Native people in New Mexico and Arizona. In The New York Times article, the author glossed over the issue and gave a platform for Parish to falsely restate her claims.
And I’ve been told The New York Times has received many emails concerning two of the folks quoted in the article. Annita Lucchesi, who maintains a full-blown Cheyenne persona, but I revealed she is of 6th generation descent in a Pollen Nation podcast. This fact places her actions, outing Andrea Smith as a fraud in the same light as Smith’s activities calling out tribal identity theft. As simply a way of shoring up her claimed Native identity by throwing other alleged scam artists under the bus. And also, Professor Andrew Jolivette, whose “tribe” is cited without the context of its questionable nature and how this may have fed into his defense of Smith. However, some included in the article calling out Andrea Smith have histories of collaboration with Pretendians in academia. In my forthcoming series of articles on Pretendians and book, I will detail the history of how the efforts of leading Dakota/Lakota scholars in 1993 which included my uncle Vine Deloria, Jr., Bea Medicine, and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn to force universities to demand proof of tribal enrollment of faculty hires were sidelined by a “big-tent” American Indian and Indigenous studies organization. As a young Native scholar working with known ethnic frauds, one of the folks quoted in this article was instrumental in scuttling demands for proof and thereby opening the floodgates to the widespread fraud we see today in academia.
Why the List was Released
But I know there is another reason my work is not mentioned, and that’s because I released the Alleged Pretendians List in January before the investigation was complete. I believe this is a valid critique. It was raised in an essay “Playing Indian Constitutes a Structural Form of Colonial Theft, and It Must be Tackled,” published by Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Professor Kim TallBear. From a mainstream dominant society journalism perspective, my action must look very concerning. Still, I’d like to explain why I felt it was necessary, especially in light of The New York Times’ actions in January published a fraud.
Yes, I hear that. I made that call, and I truly feel it was necessary. The list represents the collective work of generations of Native people—many who paid the price with the shriveling of their prospects. After the whole New York Times/Claudia Lawrence debacle, I was fed up and tired of tiptoeing around frauds because of the power they wield.
The list has a lot of already published material linked in it. A lot of these folks were already exposed. We just didn’t know or forgot about it. The list is an invitation to look at the already published evidence of challenges to an individual’s stated tribal claims and articles/interviews where the claimant describes how they are Native American.
Verification of Claims
We do not use blood quantum in this investigation. We verify stated claims of tribal identity. So when we find a positive, it means we have confirmed that their claims as stated can be verified. The citations on the Alleged Pretendians list contain links to the individual’s on-the-record descriptions of their tribal identity. These are what we are verifying. Not enrollment or blood-quantum.
Astoundingly, we have only been able to confirm four claims to tribal identity out of 195. One was Redwolf Pope, a convicted rapist and sexual predator, who is of Shoshone descent. Another rightwing Republican Governor Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma. We verified his claim to Cherokee identity if he is referring to his right to Cherokee Nation citizenship under their constitution because he has an ancestor on the Dawes Rolls. However, if he is claiming Cherokee identity by blood, reporting done by High Country News in conjunction with The New York Times has called that seriously into question. However, the “by blood descent requirement” was recently eliminated with the support of Principal Chief Chuck Hoskins, Jr. at the request of Cherokee Freedmen descendants.
I included Anita Lucchesi as verified with a caveat: she’s a 6th-generation descendant of a woman of an unverifiable tribe. Yet, as mentioned earlier she exhibits a full-blown Cheyenne woman persona. Her ancestor of an unknown tribe lived 200 years ago and married a white man in 1835, leaving behind all ties to her tribe and family. Lucchesi’s ancestors have solely married and lived as part of the white settler colonial community ever since. This means they enjoyed the fruits and spoils of occupation of Native lands and have been identifiably white (thereby enjoying white privilege) since the 19th century.
What this investigation reveals is that unverified and heavily curated identity claims should be treated with extreme skepticism. Verifying their claims should have already occurred decades ago. We all have to prove who we are. Tribal enrollment itself requires this. Suspected ethnic scam artists make these claims as the basis of their careers and for personal clout—many for decades now.
Motivations for Fraud
We also are collecting data to test and measure the extent to which these frauds are more successful at monetizing our culture than actual Native people are.
Why would this be so? One theory is that they have none of the baggage Native people do. They do not bear the scars of the trauma, and the self-doubt that plague members of Native families. They are like Trump, utterly confident in their presentation and their right to speak for us with absolutely no basis for such confidence. There is in their actions the stench of narcissism. For most of us, we know what we don’t know, and for the vast majority of people, this gives us pause. Con artists have none of the issues of accountability to our communities and families. But since Pretendians are play-acting, none of this matters. The assumed identity is a form of escapism from their real lives and their real families. It is, if you will, a form of live-action role-playing. It is a fantasy they can spend their free time embroidering to their hearts’ content. This is why they are so effective at monetizing Native peoples’ suffering for their benefit. Pretendians are also mostly white, so their cultural capital as white people and white institutional bias in their favor propel them to the front of any issue of ours.
And, of course, it goes without saying this playing field, framed by White Supremacy and colonial institutions of domination, is in their favor. Hence why the vast majority on the Alleged Pretendians list are white.
And so, why did I dare “break the rules” by releasing the list? Because we will never win playing by the rules they dictate to us. We were meant to lose on that playing field, so we have to move the goalposts or change the field or the parameters of the discussion. This data does that. So far, the aggregated data clearly documents widespread fraud and white institutional bias in favor of frauds.
And tell me, why do Native people—even Native journalists—be shamed into keeping the secrets of already debunked frauds? Why have they made us part of their scam? Colonial structures, even journalism, seem to contribute to this. This list belongs to all Native people. As I mentioned before, Native people made huge sacrifices to create this list. It is ours by right and that’s why I released it in January of this year.
Claims of Paper Genocide
Often suspected ethnic frauds will claim their seemingly white ancestor refused to be a “treaty Indian,” as they derisively call us. Their ancestor, a superior Indigenous rebel, signed no documents that would indicate they were Native and instead assumed an entirely white identity to survive. Living entirely in white communities and marrying only white people. Waving goodbye to their Native family, grandmothers, young defenseless toddlers, as they were force-marched on the Trail of Tears. Choosing to stay behind and make their lives as white people. This did happen, but for the most part, these folks were forced to sign documents explicitly giving up their tribal citizenship for themselves and their descendants and swearing allegiance to the United States.
So, who do we verify this claim? We do it by building out the claimant’s family tree to include their extended family, cousins, and grandparents. We look for someone, anyone at all living in a Native community, marrying other tribal members, buried in a tribal cemetery, marking the US Census as an Indian, or on Indian Census rolls—anything at all. We exhaust all possibilities by tracing every branch of their family tree to when they got off the boat from Europe. For someone who has a real tribal connection in the past two to five generations, confirming this takes literally minutes. With most, we investigate we spend weeks combing every part of their tree to no avail.
So far, those claiming descent have no ties with any tribe 96% of the time. What do we find? For the most part, just more and more white people joyously moving west, taking and occupying Indian lands, and profiteering from the enslavement of the ancestors of Black Americans. We build these trees out to include as many as 9,000 people going back 400 years. When you see that many white people taking and pillaging their way across the continent, the idea this Pretendian has any right to speak for Indigenous people and build their careers on a non-existent ancestry quickly dwindles to a very small flame indeed.
This is also why Native studies being taught by frauds to our young people in college and graduate school is so problematic. Pretendian academics are often promoting ahistorical arguments as cover for their scam. Certainly, paper genocide happened, but I doubt that explains the large numbers of people claiming a tribal identity that cannot find a single Native ancestor at all in their entirely white family trees. It certainly cannot account for the 96% we’ve investigated with unverifiable Native ancestry. (This percentage doesn’t include those who cannot enroll or prove their descent due to adoption. There were two such cases.)
Unless we accept the idea that the vast majority of Native people in the US cannot find a single Native ancestor in their family tree, this is evidence of a widespread scam.
Why This Matters
That’s why I am also mapping out the relationship networks and financial takings of frauds. So, we have a better idea of the landscape we are trying to negotiate for our people.
I think any of us making money off our identity should make claims that are within reason. That accurately reflects our cultural basis. Overblown representation is not helpful either because it involves the performance of identity, which is corrosive. And I believe white colonial demands for Native people to perform our identity to their satisfaction is a cause of depression and a sense of low self-worth in Native people.
As Kim TallBear wrote, others can quietly walk through the very heavy door I’ve wedged open—but she won’t do that without acknowledging what I did. That takes courage. I do this work to honor all those who saw their careers derailed because they spoke up. I’ve been attacked for this investigation in a very public way, but what about all those who were blackballed? All those whose names we don’t even know? Whose work: books, art, research we have been denied for decades now? Who can’t even prove how they were blackballed? How would our world as Native people look, feel, even our legal-political status be different if white institutions hadn’t been investing in and centering mostly white play-actors? We’ll never know, but we can fight for that for future generations. Just like Vine, Bea Medicine and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn fought for us back in 1993. We got to pick up that baton and carry it on. Maybe this time it will work.