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Native “Identity” Fraud is not Distraction, but the Final Indian Bounty
Opening Remarks, Unsettling Genealogies Forum
These are the notes from a talk I gave on March 17, 2022, opening remarks in the first of the Unsettling Genealogies panels organized by Gordon Henry (White Earth Anishinaabe), Professor of English at Michigan State University. I was the third in this panel of three speakers. I spoke alongside George Cornell (Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa), founder of the Michigan State Native American Institute and long-time faculty member, and Chief Ben Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe.
This is not a verbatim account of my talk, but the notes that guided me. In the talk, I provide more personal background and expanded explanation of the main points reflected in these notes. The panel ended with a lengthy Q&A with all three panel speakers and with symposium organizer, Gordon Henry (White Earth Anishinaabe), Professor of English at Michigan State University. Because you can view the talk below, I have not posted audio of me speaking this post. My talk begins at minute 40:15 in the video and ends at 1:06:40.
I am a Native/Indigenous Studies and Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholar who has analyzed race shifting cases in both the US and Canada since the early 2000s, particularly as they relate to genetic research and testing. My publications on the topic include my 2013 monograph Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, multiple academic journal articles and chapters in edited volumes, as well as popular publications and many invited lectures at universities, museums, and Indigenous community venues in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and in Europe.
I came to study this topic not in and of itself, but because I regularly get called by media—and have since I did my first interview with the New York Times in 2005 on the application of DNA testing to determining “Native American identity.” I’ve been called on to help media analyze the claims of high profile “pretendians” or “race shifters” in US and Canadian academia, in politics, TV and film, and in literature. Often those cases involve people claiming to be Native or Indigenous, especially Cherokee in the US and Métis in Canada, but who must turn to the archive—especially alleged long-ago ancestors—in an attempt to justify their claims. These are people without living relations among Native communities.
I want to offer a word of caution about the term “identity,” and ask us to think very carefully before we pull it off of our word shelf. Is it the best term for what we are trying to say? It is usually an individualistic word that pertains to our individual bodies and things we consider our bodies’ property: “My ancestors, my genealogy, my ancestry, who I am, my rights.” Can we instead use more collective terms that get at what is at stake for Native nations or Peoples in combatting this problem? Relatives, relations, citizenship, kinship, and who we are or become together as collectives? I listen closely when we Native people use the identity word; I understand, we are operating in English and it is a much-loved word in this language. But in almost every instance when I hear us use “identity,” we could instead use another term that more closely reflects what we really mean. We do not want to reinforce the individualism that roots often false claims and help further erase the fact that we are making collective claims and asserting collectively-forged ideas and cultural and political authorities.
To return to my own social science research: I do not investigate the race shifting phenomena directly as an anthropologist. I am instead an anthropologist of science. Therefore, I analyze “pretendian” cases that have already been researched by others—be they social scientists in the academy or investigative journalists. I analyze and comment on them in relationship to the topics I am an expert on: DNA testing, ancestry claims versus tribal citizenship formations, and also ideas of Indigenous relationality. I incorporate the details of such cases into my research only after those cases have been broken to the public, again either by other social scientists or by extensive journalistic investigation, e.g. by the New York Times, CBC, the LA Times, or Aboriginal Peoples’ Television Network (APTN).
Finally, I bring critical race theory legal analyses to understand the role of settler state racial categories and US law in helping further white appropriation of Indigenous resources, including treating our “identities” as Indian bounty. I have, for example, applied Cheryl Harris’s important “Whiteness as Property” concept and Khaled A. Beydon’s and Erika K. Wilson’s “Reverse Passing” analysis.
Background on “Pretendianism” or “Playing Indian”
With that, let me provide a bit of background on the phenomenon sometimes also called “pretendianism” or “playing Indian.” Phil Deloria’s 1998 monograph by the same name helps contextualize this widespread problem. Playing Indian is the increasingly common practice of non-Indigenous (most often, not always white) people making especially public claims to Indigenous identity, sometimes for great financial gain and career advancement.
Race shifters across Canada and the US have become some of the most prominent spokespeople for Indigenous peoples’ histories and contemporary lives. Race shifters are a problem not only in the Canadian and US academies, but also in countries like Australia. Several edited volumes destined for academic and trade presses are in the works on this topic by authors in and beyond these four countries. A panel at the 2021 Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAISA) annual meeting showed the global reach of race-shifting by highlighting the problem in Scandinavian (Sami), Australian, and Latin American as well as US and Canadian contexts.
University of Texas anthropologist, Circe Sturm wrote an important book about groups of white people who “race shift” Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the Twenty-first Century (2011). Sturm wrote about whites across the US south who shift into an identification as Cherokee based on recent discovery or even undocumented suspicions of having a Cherokee ancestor. There are only three recognized Cherokee tribes, but race shifters have organized over 200 self-identified, so-called Cherokee organizations. The race shifters Sturm wrote about understood their whiteness as “guilt, loneliness, isolation, and a gnawing sense of racial, spiritual, and cultural emptiness.” In their search for fulfillment, they focused on their actual or perceived and very often “thin” Cherokee ancestral lines as informing their total identities. They sought “transcendence” and conversion from their whiteness (83 and 87). Sturm, I, and others (Andersen 2015, Leroux 2019) have written academic monographs on why self-identification as Native alone often bolstered by claims to biological markers or an alleged or actual long-ago ancestor does not stand in for lived or reconstituted relations with living Indigenous communities. Actual relations—both kinship and/or citizenship in an Indigenous nation—are the markers that Indigenous communities care about.
The race shifting problem is now being taken more seriously by the Canadian public as well as within academia and arts organizations, including the Indigenous Screen Office. Last week, on March 9-10, 2022 we had a national forum organized by First Nations University of Canada to discuss Indigenous nations’ own criteria for determining kinship and citizenship—such criteria go far beyond claims to distant or alleged ancestry and do not allow for simple self-identification. We also discussed systemic and pragmatic policy responses by universities to curtail the epidemic of race shifting, especially universities’ misguided self-identification policies and widespread lack of regard for tribal, First Nation, and other Indigenous citizenship policies and kinship norms. The National forum was opened by former Canadian senator and Chair of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Chancellor of Queen’s University, Justice Murray Sinclair. It brought together Indigenous elders, chancellors, staff, students, scholars and academics from across Canada to discuss practices for validating Indigenous identity for Indigenous specific university opportunities.
At the National Indigenous Identity Forum, I spoke on a panel with my Dean of the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, Chris Andersen and with University of Manitoba Associate Professor of Native Studies, Niigaanwewidam Sinclair. There will be follow-up meetings. Recorded panels from that symposium are available here. We want universities to follow our lead in this and on the policies we are working to develop within the Canadian academy.
Race shifters/”pretendians” aid structural damage to actual Indigenous communities
A question I am always asked by reporters who investigate race shifting cases, and by members of the public, and even sometimes by Indigenous community members, is “What are the actual harms done by race shifters? Isn’t this just a distraction from the more serious issues facing Native people? And those who resist calling race shifters to account and who sometimes even defend them are especially assertive in giving examples of the “more important” issues: poverty, police profiling, racism in medicine and poor health outcomes, MMIW, etc. I always remind people that a long series of acts of theft and appropriation (of our lands, “resources,” relatives, cultural artifacts, remains, blood and DNA) and the extinguishment and replacement of our governance systems with settler governance systems produced their “more important” examples. And the supposedly more important issues are entangled with the final act of appropriation and Native governance that is Indigenous identity fraud.
Having been asked what harm race shifters do so many times, and having done tens if not hundreds of media interviews, and having followed this issue for ten years in a focused academic way, and for my whole life as a Native community member, I’ve gathered some good responses to that question. Following is a dynamic list of harms done. I will continue to add to it. This list of harms is also constructed by listening to other Native community members talk and write about the harms they’ve experienced.
Race shifters steal our stories to the material and psychic detriment of Indigenous peoples
Non-Indigenous people with non-Indigenous community standpoints who pose as Indigenous and who rise through the professional ranks falsely represent our voices. They theorize Indigenous peoplehood, sovereignty, and (anti-)colonialism. They become “thought leaders,” institutional decision-makers, and policy advisors to governmental leaders with regulatory and economic power over our peoples and lands. They shape academic and public discourse about who we allegedly are, what our lives allegedly look like, and what they think should be done about and to us. Race-shifters grabbing the mic and taking space has real-life consequences for our well-being.
Race-shifters appropriate the real-world problems of disconnection that actual Indigenous people have experienced through colonial adoptions, forced assimilation through mandatory attendance at boarding schools, and relocation. Race-shifters conflate their lack of Indigenous status with the cases of our relatives without tribal status or enrollment, but who are our known family.
When race-shifters steal Indigenous people’s stories, they may make it harder for actual Indigenous people to reconnect to their communities. Disconnected, but actual Indigenous people with clear and close relations among us, are trying to reconnect to Indigenous community, and commonly express fear that their own efforts and legitimacy are undermined. They worry that they will be questioned or conflated with frauds.
Race-shifters theft of our stories and histories makes a mockery of our history and trauma.
Indigenous colleagues and friends of race-shifters feel deceived, embarrassed and complicit in the fraud when they find out. They question their own judgement and ethics.
Students of academic race shifters fear damage to their own reputations and careers when they have been mentored by and cite extensively in their theses and dissertations committers of identity fraud. And like the colleagues of race-shifters, they suffer trauma and embarrassment from that deception. They question their own judgment and ethics.
Race-shifters rob Indigenous people of the opportunities they took advantage of—jobs, admission to competitive university programs, scholarships and fellowships.
Race-shifters who did not face the disadvantages and barriers of being Indigenous skew statistical data on Indigenous well-being, making us look wealthier and healthier than we are. This risks de-prioritization and effectiveness of public policy that targets Indigenous education, economic, and health outcomes.
Harassment of and reputational damage to whistleblowers
Indigenous critics who call out such people are harassed and maligned in real life and on social media, thus resulting in damage to our own reputations.
At the National Indigenous Identity Forum in March 2022, it was noted and noticeable in the panels and in the demographic representation of participants at this Indigenous- and invitation-only meeting, that Indigenous whistleblowers are often women who are at risk of career and therefore financial damage for calling out race shifters.
When whistleblowers are subject to ridicule and harassment by race shifters and their defenders, the ridicule often takes the form of accusations that Indigenous critics are engaging in “lateral violence” and “jealousy.” Whistleblowers are disparagingly compared against the supposedly more talented, intelligent, accomplished, and superior race shifters. Thus, usually white race shifters and their defenders perpetuate racist civilizational discourses common in earlier centuries that portrayed Indigenous people as less evolved and therefore less deserving of their land, resources, and autonomy than the superior whites who sought to appropriate and control. Today, arguments that race shifters are superior seek to portray them as not only superior humans, but superior and more noble Indians who are more deserving of the wealth and resources they lay claim to and who are more qualified to speak on behalf of us. It’s a new twist on a centuries-long settler-colonial strategy, a final act of colonial theft of our very identities and the resources that accompany them.
Race shifting is structural racism that transfers yet more wealth to white individuals and society
When race-shifters take leadership and accompanying economic opportunities, leadership capacity building and resources are not going back to Indigenous individuals, families, and communities. A key feature of structural racism in the US is the historical and institutional siphoning of material wealth from Indigenous and other people of color and its redirection to white individuals, families, and communities. White race shifters thus serve white supremacy.
Race shifters who are not white, though relatively small in number, are still complicit in structural appropriation of resources from Indigenous communities. They help shore up a non-Indigenous power structure that seeks to eliminate our social and cultural authorities upon this land. They aid white supremacist Indigenous elimination.
Race shifters reinforce anti-Indigenous structural racism beyond economic aspects. They appeal to the white power structure that finds it easier to deal with Indigenous people who are actually white people socialized in ways more comfortable and familiar to that power structure. Race shifters direct conversations with that power structure away from the priorities of Indigenous collectives, e.g., the critical importance of upholding treaties and tribal sovereignty (including rights to determine our own kinship and citizenship structures), and the intersections of race and Indigenous nationhood rather than privileging analyses that over-focus on Indigenous peoples as a racial category.
Race shifting or “reverse passing,” is both encouraged by and serves a multiculturalist agenda of “diversity and inclusion” that directly undermines Indigenous sovereignty and meaningful anti-racism. When whites self-identify and reverse pass as Native, and universities and other institutions not only allow such fraud but encourage it, they choose to protect whites who have not actually suffered systemic exclusion as Indigenous people. Such institutions consequently defacto reject decolonization, which requires the restitution of resources to Indigenous nations and respect for their governance authorities.
In addition to harming Native people, Indigenous identity fraud is a form of academic dishonesty no less problematic than falsifying research results or lying about educational credentials or publications. US and Canadian institutions have tolerated for years individuals’ flagrant misrepresentations of their identity as Indigenous. My hope is that we are turning a corner on this issue in academia and that universities are coming to understand that race-shifting is a serious ethical breach and systemic toleration or even encouragement of it is a form of anti-Indigenous university policy.