tequila sovereign

On the Politics of Distraction

“The accusation that indigenous feminists are engaged in a violent politics of disposability is remarkable (and ridiculous), since it seems the ones who are rendered disposable in just that accusation are –wait for it, wait for it!– indigenous feminists.” ~ Mimi Thi Nguyen (responding to this.)

@tequilasovereign: It’s not about blood quantum. It’s not about blood quantum. It’s not about blood quantum. It’s not about blood quantum.

So very many comments swirling, whirling around social media and news sites about Andrea Smith. So very many comments that distract us from the core issue. Here are a few of my own responses to the makers of distraction.

The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (CNO), Cherokee representatives and employees, and Cherokee citizens have known about Andrea Smith’s false claims to enrollment status and lineal descent since the early 1990s. They have been the most generous, the most empathetic, the most kind in their responses to her. They have confronted her privately, when made they have kept their agreements not to keep harping on her publicly, they have left her alone even when she hasn’t honored her agreements with them to stop identifying as an enrolled citizen. They even, to my understanding, counseled her that she could identify herself as “Cherokee by descent” if she had Cherokee relations and simply couldn’t satisfy enrollment/citizenship criteria in the CNO. This includes Richard Allen, Patti Jo King, David Cornsilk, and Steve Russell, but also many, many others.

The “bottom line” is that Andrea Smith presented the genealogical records she had to a Cherokee genealogist she hired at two different times–when she was trying to establish proof of a matrilineal claim in 1993 and when she was trying to establish proof of a patrilineal claim in 1999 (or thereabouts). Both attempts failed to pan out in establishing Cherokee descent. They both panned out in establishing her Euro-American descent. (In other words, there wasn’t an absence of genealogical records.)

Smith was, herself, so convinced of the validity of the results–accepting of the conclusions–that she stated to people that she had no legitimate lineal descent claim (in 1993, 1999, 2007, 2008) and that she would stop falsely claiming she was an enrolled Cherokee (in 2007 and 2008).

I find it troubled and troubling that people equate the politics of racial authenticity with the expectation of integrity and ethics in how someone identifies themselves in their work.

Forgive the bluntness but I could give a fuck (maybe even more) about whether or not Andrea Smith is enrolled or what her blood quantum is, nor do I care whether or not she conforms to stereotypical, phenotypical expectations of physical appearance (skin, hair, eye color etc.). I don’t care if she has thousands of years of documented affiliation or whether or not she looks Indian to non-Indians.

When I published an article in 2003 on the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, I got into trouble with some Native scholars, artists, and community members (including Cherokee) for arguing that it–like so many other federal, state, and tribal laws–relies on official enrollment status in a federally recognized tribe in order to allow someone to represent their work as “Indian made.” As I also argue in other publications, federal recognition and even tribal enrollment criteria often rely on and so perpetuate racialized notions of identity and cultural authenticity through blood quantum criteria. These criteria are embedded historically in the administration of the General Allotment Act of 1887 and the dispossession of Native peoples from their territories. We need other ways of reckoning Native legal status and rights.

Many Native people disagree with me. Many Cherokee and other southeastern people whose tribes were removed into Indian Territory (Oklahoma) argued that they produced their own documentation during allotment and have better genealogical records than just about anyone else in the United States (excepting, perhaps, the Mormons). I feel conflicted about these claims when I think with the historical work of Angie Debo and Theda Perdue. But I also know that the CNO and other tribes in Oklahoma have fairly damn good genealogies that do not rely on the documents of federal, state, or church institutions.

To stay on point, the CNO, unlike most other tribes in the United States, does not require a particular blood quantum in order to be enrolled or a citizen. They do require that you are able to demonstrate lineal descent, in whatever degree or way that may come. The CNO has taken (and again, please excuse the bluntness) a lot of shit for that criteria. They have born the brunt of SCOTUS decisions (Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, 2013) and social media mockery for “letting anyone” into their tribe–even someone with “3/256th” blood degree (to quote SCOTUS).

And then, of course, there are the problems the CNO have had with respecting their own treaties with regards to the legal status and rights of Cherokee Freedmen (Black-Indians).

My point is that expecting Andrea Smith–or anyone else–to be honest, to have integrity, in how they identify themselves and their work is not the same thing as policing their/her identity through the standards of racial authenticity. No one I know has ever asked her what her racial quota is or whether or not she can produce her CDIB.

Equating “identity policing” with the expectation of integrity with how someone presents themselves as Native is part of the trouble–anticipating that kind of racialized equivalence is exactly why Cherokee people and Native scholars who have known about Smith’s fraud for 7 to 24 years have never come forward.

And this might be where the comparison of Rachel Dolezal and Andrea Smith both helps and doesn’t help non-Natives understand the issues. I’m still trying to think this through but in watching how dynamically people have misunderstood the comparison, I have come to believe that Dolezal’s “racial shifting” is perhaps not the best way to help non-Natives understand Smith’s fraud. I am rethinking this comparison in relation the work of Native scholars like David Wilkins and Heidi Stark. They demonstrate that Native/Indigenous is a legal category indicating a certain status and set of rights under international and extraconstitutional law. Native/Indigenous is not a race/ethnicity or minority status. (See David E. Wilkins and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark. American Indian Politics and the American Political System. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010.)

Perhaps Dolezal’s race shifting illuminates Smith’s fraud only in the sense that Dolezal and Smith have laid claim on a social experience of racialized oppression that they do not have. For Dolezal’s blackface this was enacted through the alteration of her personal appearance and social behavior. For Smith’s redface it was enacted through a legal claim on status and rights in the Cherokee Nation. But much more informed, thoughtful work through these issues are needed. Beginning with the understanding that expecting people to be honest about how they identify is not the same thing as asking people to conform to racist notions of authenticity.

If an anti-racist feminist politics is not grounded in integrity and ethics, what is it good for? If someone’s scholarship and political work is based on a fraudulent misrepresentation not only of who they are but what they have experienced based on who they are, then what happens to anti-racist feminist theoretical interventions and political organizing? How does the fraud work itself in and through the practice of confronting racist, sexist ideologies and the insidious way those ideologies structure state, social, and interpersonal forms of oppression and violence?

The difficult history not being talked about yet is how fraudulent claims to Cherokee citizenship, enrollment, and identity have worked in concert with federal and state efforts to undermine and dispossess Cherokee governance and territorial rights. The fraud, in other words, doesn’t operate in an historical vacuum. It didn’t just appear in the 1990s or “get outed” in 2015. It has a complicated, largely erased history of establishing and protecting state claims on Native governments, lands, and bodies. That is why, all throughout these conversations, the integrity and ethics of how one defines and represents oneself as Native is so deeply important and so deeply feminist in relation to one’s political practice.

4. All I know is this. Andrea Smith and I went to graduate school at UCSC at the same time (me 1992-2000 and her 1997-2002). Smith told me then that it was her father who was Cherokee, a descendant of Redbird Smith, and some difficult stories about her mother which I won’t divulge here. Actually I learned very quickly not to ask her too many personal questions.

It wasn’t until 2007-2008 that I heard Smith was telling other people during her time at UCSC and then within the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) and CNO that it was her mother and her mother’s parents who were enrolled Cherokee. She was also telling people that she was enrolled. I was confused and assumed that I had misremembered what she told me.

After Steve Russell’s ICT editorials in March/April 2008, a group of about a dozen Native feminist scholars involved in a contracted book project with Smith (who was a co-editor) attempted to talk to Smith about Russell’s editorials. Smith had already told the other co-editor of the book that she had no lineal descent claim. When we all got on the conference call together, Smith refused to talk with the rest of us about it. She got on the call, bursted into tears, said “I can’t do this,” and hung up.

I can’t even begin to tell you how difficult and painful and vexing this has been for us as scholars and friends. We have worried and disagreed and struggled with one another over what the right and honorable thing to do is. There has been nothing easy about it. Nothing.

I share this because in the blogosphere of reactions to what seems like new information about Smith for a lot of people, people are speaking as if those of us who have known, who have tried to think out loud about the issues in the last few days and weeks, are spiteful and mean-spirited and hateful people. That has not been my experience. The Native feminists and NAIS allies, UCSC alum and others, who have known and who are just beginning to speak up about the issues are compassionate, generous, empathetic, and smart and have been genuinely distressed about Smith–and for Smith’s health and well-being–and what the right thing is to do and to say for years and years and years. It has required a lot of spiritual, emotional, professional, and intellectual energy to work through. And we are only just beginning.

My challenge to everyone is to stay focused. There are too many distractions in conversations about these issues–too many accusations of papergenocide, lateral violence, cruelty. They have seemed, to me, disingenuous. A way to refocus the question and alleviate Smith of any kind of responsibility or accountability.

My favorite of these distractions so far has been accusations of me and others who have spoken up of being members of COINTELPRO or secret FBI-agents out to destroy a revolutionary (and you know who you are). I really have nothing to say other than “good one.” You’ve made me/us really important if somewhat inept for outing ourselves so easily.

Update: I stand corrected. My new most favorite thing in all of this is that I am a jealous, irrelevant scholar advancing a politics of disposability. Because the Cherokee are sovereign. (https://againstpoliticsofdisposability.wordpress.com/).

Please note that this post is a reflection on the reactions to my previous post, “Rachel Dolezal and Andrea Smith: Integrity, Ethics, Accountability, Identity.” 

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