The recent appointment by Dartmouth College of Susan Taffe Reed, President of the Eastern Delaware Nation, a non-profit entity, to the position of Native American Program director at the college has been met with shock that the head of a purportedly ‘fake tribe’ has been put in charge of the well-being of Native American students at one of the country’s preeminent Native American programs.
Historically, the Ivy League program founded in 1972 has had one of the highest retention and graduation rates of Native students in the country. The program director’s role has been to support the students through counseling, programming and as an advocate in the administration. The position has largely been filled by Native American alumni in the past due to their experience navigating the often alien environment of an isolated white, New England community marked by wealth, privilege and conservative politics.
Taffe Reed’s non-profit group, the Eastern Delaware Nation, was founded by her grandfather who claimed to be a descendent of a secret Lenape community that hid in plain sight by pretending to be white in Pennsylvania for 200 years after the Lenape people (the Delaware) were forced to leave. However, a website called FakeIndians aka www.ancestorystealing.com ran an exposé on February 12 just one day after Taffe Reed’s appointment that showed her great-great grandparents were born in Ireland.
In a 1993 Times Leader article, Taffe Reed’s late uncle, Michael “Medicine Shield” Taffe, who held the title of Supreme Chief of the Eastern Delaware, claims they are descendants of a Michael Taffe, a trader and interpreter who married an American Indian in 1735. Taffe says, “We know Taffe never left Pennsylvania.”
However, the genealogical records show they are descended from a Thomas Taaffe (surname has an extra ‘a’), a tailor born in 1808 in Ireland who according to ship manifests did not emigrate to the U.S. until he was 40 years old—more than a hundred years later. They are not related to a Michael Taffe who records show lived in the Philadelphia area in the late 18th century.
In response to these findings, Dartmouth media director, Diana Lawrence told ICTMN, “Susan Taffe Reed’s status as a Native American is not a job requirement. She has been transparent about her background and activities during both her application and search process. We are aware that some alumni and students have concerns about her connection to the Eastern Delaware Nations, Inc. and we welcome their questions and feedback.”
In The Daily Beast Professor Bruce Duthu, a Native American alumnus of Dartmouth, professor of Indian Federal Law and Houma tribal member, questioned FakeIndians blogger Keely Squirrel Denning’s reliance on death certificates asserting that they are “notoriously unreliable sources of information about personal background.”
Denning, who is Shawnee and has been actively using her genealogical researching skills to disprove the claims of would-be Shawnee tribes that have been springing up in Ohio, took up Duthu’s challenge and published another blog on February 18 with more records proving that the Taffes are recent Irish immigrants with no connection to the Delaware (Lenape) or her own tribe the Shawnee, which is also listed on the EDN website as a tribe from which members claim descent.
Taffe Reed’s ancestors’ records show them not just as “white,” but as actually born in specific villages in Ireland. In Indian Country Today Media Network’s examination of the records available on Ancestry.com, these accounts are backed up by records in Ireland. Records in both countries are in agreement with each other and show the Taffes are Irish with no admixture.
Dr. Nicky Michael, a tribal councilwoman for Delaware Tribe of Indians in Oklahoma and Stanford alum was surprised to have her post questioning Taffe Reed’s appointment deleted from Dartmouth’s Native American Program Facebook page. She wrote, “Her [Taffe Reed’s] identification and your promotion of her as a Delaware is appropriation and cultural theft of our language, culture and identity. When people make false claims to Lenape heritage, those of us fighting in our own communities lose out on those same opportunities. I am saddened, disturbed and shocked at this decision.”
There are three federally-recognized Lenape tribes in the United States. However, there has been a proliferation of claimant tribes the past 30 years like the Eastern Delaware Nation who claim to be descended from Lenape who hid and remained. They claim all records on their ancestors are not reliable because they pretended to be white.
However, a recent statement titled “NAISA Statement on Indigenous Identity Fraud” released this past week by the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association asserts that it is possible to tell the difference between genuine tribes that lack recognition and fake tribes. The NAISA points to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues statement on indigenous identity that emphasizes not only self-identification but acceptance by an indigenous community as their member. NAISA goes further asserting: “Falsifying one’s identity or relationship to particular Indigenous Peoples is an act of appropriation continuous with other forms of colonial violence. The harmful effects of cultural and identity appropriation have been clearly articulated by Native American and Indigenous Studies scholars over the past four decades and it is our responsibility to be aware of these critiques.”
Michele Leonard, former executive director of the Urban Indian Center in Philadelphia, a Shinnecock tribal member, saw the confusion over who is a “real Indian” close the doors to funding to actual Native people in Pennsylvania who sought services at the Indian center. She told ICTMN, “I’ve sat in funding meetings where funders would tell us, ‘If we can’t figure out who is a real Indian and who isn’t then we won’t fund anyone.’”
President Kerry Holton, of the federally-recognized Delaware Nation in Oklahoma, was quoted in The Daily Beast saying that his calls to the Dartmouth president’s office were not returned. Holton took issue with Dartmouth’s description of Taffe Reed’s work for her non-profit as “leadership roles in her Delaware tribal community,” which he felt was “misleading” because EDN is a 501(c)3 non-profit entity—not a Delaware tribe.
As it turns out, Taffe Reed’s non-profit owns the land of a Lenape sacred site. Efforts to reach her (she has not responded to requests to communicate), led ICTMN to a relative, David Chamberlain, the Chief of the Big Horn Lenape Nation who said, “I’ve known Susan since she was a young girl. We are real upset here in the Eastern Lenape. Susan’s been working hard with the Munsee language. I knew her dad, her grandfather.” Chamberlain is related to the Taffe through his cousin’s half-sister who is Susan’s half-sister. He also admitted he cannot prove any Native American ancestry, he told ICTMN that the EDN and his group have been involved in the reburial of remains in Pennsylvania. When informed that unless they worked with a federally-recognized tribe this would constitute a NAGPRA violation under federal law, he backtracked and claimed they had worked with the Onondaga. Chamberlain’s website offers enrollment in the Big Horn Lenape Nation for $5 or wampum.
Leonard also told ICTMN that the University of Pennsylvania put on a museum exhibit with another claimant group, the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania despite protests by federally-recognized Delaware tribes. Leonard claims members of this group were allowed by the university to take home sacred dolls from their collection and perform ceremonies over them. Michael says Shelly DuPaul, the LNP’s Assistant Chief, who helped put together the exhibit cannot prove Lenape ancestry.
The creation of these ‘tribes’ also apparently lends itself to abuse. As reported in Indian Country Todaytwo decades ago, sub-chief and head of the EDN Medicine Society, David “Two Wolves” Smith was found guilty of 45 counts of sexual misconduct with a 12-year-old girl while on probation between 1995 and 1996. Some of these sexual assaults occurred while he was conducting adoption ceremonies in a sweat lodge. Smith is also listed in EDN elder Carl “Wayandaga” Pierce’s obituary as his “spiritual son.”
All of this is painful to the Delaware tribal members in Oklahoma who were driven from their homelands in Pennsylvania. They have since opened two NAGPRA offices in Pennsylvania to prevent further abuses.
“When I see those tears coming down those elders faces,” Michael said, “you are livid with anger for the sacrifices they made for us. I would not have my PhD without their support. I have their faces in my head, I have those tears and then to have the last remnants of what we have left stolen from us that is too much.”
Jacqueline Keeler is a Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux writer living in Portland, Oregon and co-founder of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, creators of Not Your Mascot. She has been published in Telesur, Earth Island Journal and the Nation and interviewed on MSNBC and DemocracyNow and Native American Calling. She has a forthcoming book called “Not Your Disappearing Indian” and podcast. On twitter: @jfkeeler