Indigenous woman scholars join in open letter to denounce Andrea Smith

Historians in the News
tags: Native American, Andrea Smith



Andrea Smith

We write to respond to widespread public discussion of well-known scholar-activist Andrea Smith’s history of contradictory claims to Cherokee identity through both enrollment and lineal descent. While concerns about her claims have been known and discussed within various indigenous women’s circles for years, many people are hearing details about them for the first time. The news has provoked a variety of responses from those committed to antiracist, antisexist, and anticolonial analyses and actions, including shock, incredulity, fear, anger, denial, and great sadness. Thus, differing and sometimes conflicting assumptions about the meanings and intentions of this discussion are circulating on social media. A prominent fear is that the discussion is motivated by a desire to undermine, police or ostracize an individual; another is that the work people find important in developing their understandings of colonization and sexual violence might now have to be jettisoned.

We hope to reframe this discussion and to collectively clarify what we believe to be core issues at stake. We are 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. We write with the intention to open up discussion. We hope to elicit productive dialogues about deeply fraught and painful issues, and to suggest paths forward for continued and complex analysis of the roles identity plays in the work we do. We do not claim to represent all indigenous women in Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) or a monolithic indigenous feminism. There is diverse work within NAIS and Native/Indigenous gender, sexuality, and feminist studies, and also diverse perspectives within Native/Indigenous academic and activist communities about feminism. We respect that diversity. Additionally, we want to acknowledge the kinds of professional vulnerabilities that NAIS scholars are subject to, especially intergenerationally, through the politics of race, gender, and sexuality. Therefore, we did not invite untenured or adjunct faculty to sign this statement.

We call first and foremost for accountability to the communities in which we claim membership. This is not a call for the punitive or the exclusionary. This case evokes people’s fears and vulnerabilities about very real histories of disenfranchisement, expulsion, discrimination, and normative policing in Indian Country and beyond. Thus it bears repeating: our concerns about Andrea Smith do not emerge from statist forms of enrollment or non-enrollment, federal recognition or lack thereof. They are not about blood quantum or other biologically essentialist notions of identity. Nor are they about cultural purity or authenticity, or imposing standards of identification that those who would work for or with indigenous communities must meet.

Rather, our concerns are about the 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. Presenting herself as generically indigenous, and allowing others to represent her as Cherokee, Andrea Smith allows herself to stand in as the representative of collectivities to which she has demonstrated no accountability, and undermines the integrity and vibrancy of Cherokee cultural and political survival. Her lack of clarity and consistency in her self-presentation adds to the vulnerability of the communities and constituents she purports to represent, including students and activists she mentors and who cite and engage her work. This concerns us as indigenous women committed to opening spaces for scholars and activists with whom we work and who come after us.

Asking for accountability to our communities and collectivities is not limited to Andrea Smith. Asking for transparency, self-reflexivity, and honesty about our complex histories and scholarly investments is motivated by the desire to strengthen ethical indigenous scholarship by both indigenous and non-indigenous scholars. This is one of the core guiding values of indigenous feminisms, and we believe that the long history of indigenous feminisms cannot and should not be reduced to Smith’s work as representative or originary, even as we recognize that her work on sexual violence and colonialism has had a profound impact on a wide range of constituencies. ...

Respectfully,

Joanne Barker (Lenape [Delaware Tribe of Indians]), Professor of American Indian Studies, San Francisco State University

Jodi A. Byrd (Citizen of the Chickasaw Nation), Associate Professor of American Indian Studies, English, and Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Jill Doerfler (White Earth Ojibwe), Associate Professor, American Indian Studies University of Minnesota-Duluth

Lisa Kahaleole Hall (Kanaka Maoli), Associate Professor of Womenʻs and Gender Studies, Wells College

LeAnne Howe (Enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), Eidson Distinguished Professor in American Literature, University of Georgia, Athens

J. Kēhaulani Kauanui (Kanaka Maoli), Associate Professor of American Studies and Anthropology, Wesleyan University

Jean OʻBrien (White Earth Ojibwe), Distinguished McKnight University Professor, History, University of Minnesota

Kathryn W. Shanley (Nakoda), Professor of Native American Studies, University of Montana

Noenoe K. Silva (Kanaka Hawaiʻi), Professor of Hawaiian and Indigenous Politics, Department of Political Science, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

Shannon Speed (Citizen of the Chickasaw Nation), Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of Native American and Indigenous Studies, University of Texas at Austin

Kim TallBear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate), Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Texas, Austin

Jacki Thompson Rand (Citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Iowa




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