Last week, Indian Country Today Media Network published an open letter, in response to the notoriety surrounding controversial scholar-activist Andrea Smith’s contradictory claims of having Cherokee identity through both enrollment and lineal descent. The article was written by indigenous women scholars from a number of different indigenous nations, communities, academic disciplines, and geographies who are committed to working for gender, sexual, and racial justice in the context of decolonization.
The signatures on the article did not include the Cherokee voice, but given that Andrea Smith is claiming to be Cherokee, it is imperative that we, as female Cherokee scholars and activists make a statement as well. The article published speaks to a “profound need for transparency and responsibility in light of the traumatic histories of colonization, slavery, and genocide that shape the present. Andrea Smith has a decades-long history of self-contradictory stories of identity and affiliation testified to by numerous scholars and activists, including her admission to four separate parties that she has no claim to Cherokee ancestry at all. She purportedly promised to no longer identify as Cherokee, and yet in her subsequent appearances and publications she continues to assert herself as a non-specific “Native woman” or a “woman of color” scholar to antiracist activist communities in ways that we believe have destructive intellectual and political consequences.” (Indian Country Today, July 7, 2015)
In an “open letter” to the defenders of Andrea Smith, David Cornsilk, a professional researcher specializing in Cherokee records emphasized that “Cherokees are among the best documented people in the world. We probably come in 3rd after royalty and Mormons. Very likely, we are claimed by many more. Our blood quantum’s range from 4/4 to 1/8192. All are embraced as equal, though not 100% Indian, they are 100% Cherokee. What all real Cherokees have in common is proof of ancestry whether they can enroll or not.” (Indian Country Today Media Network, July 10, 2015)
I’ve not met Andrea Smith, but I’ve met others like her, claiming a heritage and history that isn’t theirs to claim. Just as colonizers stormed in taking land, and changing history to suit their needs, people who steal our bloodlines perpetuate the role of colonizer. I’ve heard throughout the media that Smith’s supporters say, “Why is it important if she’s doing good work?” It’s important because the work is dishonest. It’s based on an untruth that negates any “good intent”. Had she written as an ally, honesty would be woven into the thread. Other scholars have written as allies and their work has been honest and valued. In Smith’s case, it has been established that she is not Cherokee, and therefore has not been honest about, nor does she intend to be honest about her lineage.
She could, however, be called an opportunist. When there’s a position to be gained, a scholarship to be acquired, a grant to be pursued, then, it’s not only convenient, but profitable to claim a Native bloodline. This ethnic fraud undermines and steals from Natives, with Native history, who could bring greater and more in-depth insight of the Native experience if given the opportunity.
Is there a solution to this continued appropriation of an ethnic heritage by non-Natives? It’s been a challenge for decades, however, with the advent of social media, the opportunity to call people out publicly is the equivalent of shaming or turning ones back to the speaker. Social media affords us the opportunity to demand transparency. We can only hope that a learning emerges from the Andrea Smith issue. In spite of the fact that colonization continues in many forms, non-Native allies are appreciated, honesty about who you are and your experiences in life is honored, transparency in intent and action is essential but cultural fraud is on its way out.
Pamela Jumper Thurman, Ph.D. Cherokee
Senior Research Scientist; Affiliate Faculty
National Center for Community Readiness, Ethnic Studies Department
Colorado State University
Andrea Smith is NOT Cherokee
Claiming to be a Cherokee woman is serious business. A true Cherokee identity is not something easily or readily bestowed upon someone. Our identity is sacred. First and foremost, Cherokees are traditionally a matrilineal and matriarchal society. When one makes the claim of being Cherokee, one must be able to stand behind that claim and substantiate it. Upon meeting someone who makes claim of being Cherokee, I ask them two important questions: WHO is your family? WHICH Cherokee community do you come from? I take pride in the fact that MY MOTHER, MY GRANDMOTHER, MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER, and the female ancestors before them were Cherokee. It is my role to honor them.
Andrea Smith and her sister, Justine Smith are NOT Cherokee. I first met Andrea and Justine Smith in Chicago, circa 1992. The two of them had infiltrated the Chicago American Indian Center and fooled a great number of Native folks, myself and my family included. In retrospect, the two of them were very snake-like in their dealings with Chicago Native folks. The two of them always clung to one another and were very secretive about themselves and their family. The two of them claimed their Cherokee blood through their estranged mother, who at that time allegedly resided in California. Shrouded in the veil of activism for Native people, the Smith sisters found an “in” to the various tribal nations represented within the Chicago American Indian Center.
I will admit that I was blinded by the strong sense of activism promoted by Andrea and Justine Smith. Heck, they started a Chicago chapter of Women of All Red Nations (WARN). Goodness, they invited notable Native folks to WARN events. I remember standing with them protesting the Chicago Columbus Day Parade in 1992. I recall being spat on while trying to educate frenzied fans about Chief Illiniwek at the University of Illinois. Who could forget sitting down to dinner with the Smith sisters and Ward Churchill in 1992 and him being insulted when I asked him his views on the Cherokee Nation administration? (Who knew I was breaking bread with a group of wannabes who had all denounced all other wannabes?) It hurts my heart and spirit knowing I was duped by the Smith sisters. I had invited them into my home, into my life, even held Justine’s baby in my arms, and genuinely wished the best for them at that time back in the 1990’s.
Hindsight is 20/20 and I could kick myself for not doing the following: WHY didn’t I ask them for proof of their CDIB card? WHY didn’t I ask them for proof of their blue Cherokee Tribal Membership card? WHY didn’t I dig deeper to validate their claims of Cherokee identity? WHY didn’t I question them about familial and tribal connections? Well, twenty odd years ago, this Cherokee from Stilwell living in Chicago simply didn’t push the envelope.
So, I am writing these words for the many Cherokee women who have encountered non-native women who have made the claim of being Cherokee. I am writing these words for Cherokee women who know the price that we have paid and continue to pay for being a Cherokee woman. Andrea Smith and her sister have never had to pay any dues, as they are NOT CHEROKEE. I am writing these words for my Ancestors who fought long and hard to uphold sovereignty. Being a Cherokee woman entails a great amount of responsibility. As a Cherokee woman I will always embrace that responsibility. That is something neither Andrea Smith nor her sister will ever be able to rightfully claim. Andrea Smith and her sister, Justine Smith, have only reaped the social, and financial benefits of making an UNTRUE claim of being Cherokee. In essence, they have committed fraud against Cherokee citizens and other native folks. It is time for Andrea Smith and her sister to revoke their claim because they are not and shall never be Cherokee.
Ellen Guttillo Whitehouse, Cherokee
(Currently a Social Worker for Oregon Veterans’ Home in The Dalles, OR; and previously an Indian Child Welfare Specialist for my tribe, The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma)
The Dalles, Oregon
Andy Smith is NOT my Cousin.
I met Andrea (Andy) Smith in 1989 at a Native women’s reproductive rights conference in Rapid City, SD. I was speaking on a panel and Andy was a student in the audience. She came up to me afterward and said she was from Chicago, participated in WARN and was Cherokee. I’m not the identity police, so I said, “Which family are you from? My great grandmother was a Smith – we must be cousins” (I’m just that way, much more likely to hug you than ask for your card). I only remember her shy giggle and a mumble and “yeah”. But, this is how we introduce ourselves to each other, by family, clan and tribe. I’ve never asked anyone for proof.
In 2000, I was the Executive Director of the Indigenous Women’s Network and had raised funds to take a group to the United Nations in Durban, South Africa. We hosted an IWN conference prior to the trip and Andy attended. There she was interviewing Native women for her first book, Conquest. I agreed to be interviewed about my organizing strategies in shutting down a uranium conversion facility, and other noted activists did the same. When we got to South Africa, Andy had travelled with another feminist group, but I offered her some stipend funds to cover costs. When their hotel was raided, we brought Andy to our apartment to stay with us. I always wondered why she didn’t hang out with our Indigenous crew. This is the event where she again recorded my words to the African American contingency wanting reparations in the form of the state of Georgia. Another chapter in her book.
A few years ago, David Cornsilk messaged me about Andy being on my Facebook friends list and he told me she wasn’t Cherokee. I believed David (cause he is the “effing High Commissioner of Cherokee genealogy”) but again, I gave her a pass. Please note that I mention genealogy – not enrollment. This isn’t about enrollment. But, I gave her a pass. Now that I read the history between David and Andy, I am ashamed I did not step up earlier. I gave her a pass. Why?
By unknowingly providing national and international platforms for Andy to stand with us Native activists, to write our stories, I/we gave her credibility and freely shared our knowledge – filling her book pages and providing background to her claims.
Cherokee people are the most misunderstood and appropriated culture in this country and it takes a lot of time and energy to educate people about our long history. Many people believe our tribe “gave in to the colonizers” and “sold out”, but we negotiated and survived. Cherokee people have always been very independent – family names were recorded in the Cherokee language at our own printing press as early as 1828. As a matrilineal society, our women have always been leaders in our clans and communities. We know who we are. Who are you, Andy?
Beyond the personal and cultural side of this fiasco, I am very disturbed by the statement made by Andy and her stubborn disregard for tribal and cultural sovereignty. In reading comments and statements by her defenders and notably “Incite” face book, they call our questions of Andy “violent identity policing”, which again denies the real violence against women, especially Native American women, and places these academics as victims. I work on this issue and I don’t see any of these isolated academics addressing any real world problems with us. There is plenty of work to be done by all of us, so let’s not waste any more time and energy on theory and fractured identity.
Pamela Kingfisher, Cherokee, born to the Bird Clan; Consultant and Lifelong Activist; Shining Waters Consulting, Moodys, Oklahoma.
The Cherokee people, whether as a loose confederacy of tribal towns or later as a unified Nation, have always recognized their tribal members by their kinship. It is this kinship, spanning generations and hundreds of years that forms the foundation of being Cherokee. Cherokee sovereignty has maintained the authority to recognize belonging to the tribe in many ways, from matrilineal relationships to descendancy from their final rolls. The tribe is a community of known individuals linked in a critical way. This kinship caused families to stay together during the forced removal process from the Southeast to Oklahoma. Those who no longer placed priority on that kinship or for another reason, chose to leave the group, i.e. cut their kinship ties. That was their choice. They left the group, the tribe.
It has been well established that Andrea Smith has no Cherokee kinship. And there are others who commodify Cherokee kinship as “identity” without that kinship. Andrea Smith is merely the tipping point for a change that needs to occur yesterday.
I take a pretty radical perspective on people who claim Cherokee without kinship because most of the time they do it to claim privilege or benefits earmarked by institutions for “native people”, such as jobs, grant opportunities, and educational opportunities. Alternately, they seek to speak for a people with whom they have no history. Too often, a fake Cherokee voice is substituted for an authentic one in academic and public discourse. This constitutes fraud against bona fide Cherokees and an assault on Cherokee sovereignty.
My opinion is that it is time to bring the questions about a person’s tribal affiliation out of the closet. We should no longer be reluctant or embarrassed to ask whether a person claiming to be Cherokee is a member of one of the three Federally-recognized tribes. Yes, I go beyond mere genealogy. If your ancestor retained those kinship ties, then they stayed with their family, stayed with the community, stayed with the tribe. They would be on the rolls. If they chose to leave, then their ancestors bear the weight of that decision. Today, sovereignty by the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Keetowah Band of Cherokee or the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is exercised by deciding who has retained the kinship ties necessary to be a part of the tribe. Others may have a Cherokee ancestor, i.e. Cherokee heritage, but are no longer part of the tribe.
All tribal members have the responsibility to protect tribal sovereignty that includes cultural and intellectual sovereignty. Institutions who distribute funds earmarked for Indigenous people, who count employees among a tribal group for status or authenticity, and who publish works by authors who claim a tribal affiliation should be held accountable to verify tribal membership. An ancestor only verifies heritage and should be so stated.
It’s very black and white. Simple to enforce. Separates the authentic from the fake in less than a minute. Access to tribal services, student grants and scholarships and minority small business status all already use this method for granting access to privilege meant for indigenous peoples.
The people who would be Cherokee have been draining and diluting our sovereignty too long. Fake “tribes” and other faux-Cherokee “membership” groups profane our history, culture and treaty rights every day. We know who we are and it’s time to say so and expect others to do so as well. We are Cherokee and we couldn’t be prouder!
Carol Patton Cornsilk, Cherokee
Department of Media Arts
I am writing, not only as an academic, but also as a Cherokee woman. I resent the implications that some of Andrea Smith’s supporters have been bandying about; that those of us who have chosen to step up to the plate and speak openly about her identity fraud are “vicious maligners” and “race police” or are discrediting a caring scholar after all of the hard work she has done on behalf of Indian women.” I have even read comments wherein her supporters call us racists “clinging to the blood quantum rule.” While it is true that the notion of blood quantum is founded on racial bias, not all tribes employ it including the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. All that aside, blood quantum has nothing to do with this controversy. This is about honesty and integrity.
It’s quite one thing to say that one has Native heritage, meaning that somewhere back in your lineage you have a relative that was part Indian. In Smith’s case, she claims to have Cherokee heritage, but she also has claimed to be a member of our federally recognized tribe, and that is quite a different matter. Tribal citizenship is a political affiliation, therefore members of tribes must meet whatever criteria their particular tribe has set up as a qualifier in the same way that an American, in order to become a U.S. citizen, must meet a certain criteria and pass a test. For Cherokees, that means you must be able to trace your ancestry back to an enrolled member. There are literally thousands of people who can claim heritage- many legitimately, but without some kind of membership qualifier, tribal enrollment would swell to such an excess that governance would be impossible. Worse yet, the new tribal members would largely consist of men and women without a single clue about what it means to be Cherokee. In my mind, Native culture is a verb. It means knowing, being, practicing, fellowshipping, and doing, and since Andrea Smith has never been affiliated with any of our communities, she is a cultural outsider.
Tribal citizenship carries certain rights and privileges with it that non- members are not afforded. But at the same time, it also carries certain responsibilities- most importantly, to carry on and protect cultural integrity for our future generations. While Andre Smith’s claims to be Cherokee and thus, a spokeswoman for Cherokee women may have begun as an innocent or naive mistake on her part (she has been on our radar since around 1992), it has certainly evolved into a deliberate and calculated agenda for career and salary advancement, self-aggrandizement, and popular support for her work and book sales.
I and an authorized tribal official personally met with Andrea back in 2007. The meeting was not negative, vitriolic, or accusatory in any way. We had coffee and talked. I told her I admired some of her early writing, which is true. She stated that her mother had told her she was Cherokee and that she was enrolled, though she admitted she had never seen a membership card. Back then she also claimed to be a member of a prominent Cherokee family, but that family has denied this, and it was confirmed through all three Cherokee tribes that she was not an enrolled member. I basically spoke to her about the differences between heritage and citizenship, and she apologized profusely, vowing that she would clear the matter up and stop making her fraudulent claims.
Nevertheless, she has gone right on with her masquerade. At one point, she even got into a dispute with an employer who for one reason or another denied her tenure. Then of course, she whined to the heavens that she was a victim of racial discrimination as a “Cherokee”. Her trusting, well-meaning supporters rallied to her defense and the matter received a great deal of publicity. Although the maneuver did not save her job, she ultimately parlayed her alleged ‘victimization’ into another lucrative academic job, and her reputation as a marginalized Indian advocate and expert was set.
Since that time she has continuously accepted large sums in speaking honorariums as an expert Indian spokesman for ‘her people’ while legitimate Indian scholars and representatives have been passed over for lack of such glamorous drama.
Smith writes about the pain and suffering of Indian women. We Cherokee women understand the pain and suffering she writes about so easily. Our grandmothers, subjugated and marginalized, were thrown from their homes, raped, beaten, and were forced to walk hundreds of miles to Indian Territory. Our mothers carried their mother’s painful scars for them after they journeyed on, and we carry that pain dearly now, not to assume a victim’s role, but to remind us and our future generations of the cost of our sovereignty and self-determination. Andrea may know the painful words, but she does not know the pain. I have very little sympathy for her over the pain she has caused herself.
Andrea Smith is not the only professional Indian fraud out there, but one whose 15 minutes of fame may have suddenly ended abruptly through no one’s fault but her own lies and deception.
Dr. Patti Jo King
Bacone College, Int. Chair, American Indian Studies
Director, Bacone Center for American Indians