Questions and Questioning

I really wasn’t going to say anything else publicly except through the collectivities of which I am a part. But Andrea Smith’s non-response response and the INCITE! statement compel me to comment again. I would rather not.

The Fray

My point of entrance into all of this craziness started in this moment because an Indigenous (Southern Cheyenne) graduate student, a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault (whom I will refer to as Alannis), posted a tumblr comment in shock at having just learned that Andrea Smith is not Cherokee.

The tumblr comment circulated on twitter–through the accounts of many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. I was one of those who retweeted her comment. I also posted a meme that had been forwarded to me a week earlier by a Cherokee person who lives in Oklahoma. The “original” meme juxtaposed Elizabeth Warren and Rachel Dolezal; the “redo” juxtaposed Andrea Smith and Rachel Dolezal. In other words, Indigenous people were making comparisons between Warren, Smith, Dozelal and a lot of others between themselves. Dolezal felt like an old story. And, unfortunately, a lot of comparisons are available. (I think I posted the meme as a comment to someone else–not that the particular matters.)

Part of why I re-circulated and re-tweeted Alannis’ tumblr comment and posted the meme was in order to publicly demonstrate my support for Alannis and for Cherokee self-determination. I know all too well from my own professional and interpersonal experiences how vicious things get when you even suggest a criticism of Smith and/or her work, or address her too-many years of contradictory statements about who she is. It didn’t seem right to me, knowing what I did, to allow an Indigenous woman graduate student who was speaking what I perceived to be the truth to stand out there on social media on her own, without back-up. The experience of going viral was, for Alannis, so horrible that she wrote a subsequent comment asking to be left alone.

Meanwhile, in reaction to Alannis’ comment, the meme, and the circulation of both on twitter, several others, including one who identifies as a Lakota queer activist started criticizing–as fiercely as one can in 140 characters–Alannis and those of us posting Alannis’ comment and the meme on twitter as mean-spirited, uninformed hacks who didn’t know what we were talking about. Those criticisms were circulated further on Facebook and in Lakota.

It felt to me that as those criticisms reached a crescendo, or my experiences of them, a new confidential tumblr page appeared called andreasmithisnotcherokee. I don’t remember the exact timing of that appearance but it certainly shifted my attention to what I already knew.

The page gathered for everyone mostly Cherokee sources, documents, and testimonies demonstrating the years of Smith’s self-contradictions about who she is and where she is from: her father is Cherokee, her mother is Cherokee, her maternal grandparents are Cherokee, (all enrolled), she is not enrolled because her ancestors were not on the Dawes Rolls because of Cherokee identity politics or adoption or custody, she is a descendant of Redbird Smith, she cannot say who she is a descendant of for confidentiality reasons, et cetera. It told us of four different instances with at least five different individuals–four of whom were Cherokee–that Smith admitted she had no lineal descent claims and agreed to no longer publicly identify as an enrolled citizen.

If not for the social media criticisms of Alannis, and the andreasmithisnotcherokee page, I would not have said anything on my own. But bravely or stupidly, I entered the fray of public debate with two blog posts. Given the circulation of those posts, attention shifted on me as the one “originally” outing and calling out Smith. It’s a misguided perception based on the circulation of my posts and a lack of attention to the history demonstrated on the tumblr page (and many other histories not recorded there but I know to be forthcoming). But it is a powerful way to re-narrate the issues away from the issues.* I have since been accused of being professionally jealous, holding personal grudges, unethically using social media as a forum for public shaming, and conforming to statist models of identity policing, bullying, and ‘calling out.’

In response to the vitriol, I had decided I would not say one more thing on my own about any of this. That I would only speak through the communities and collectivities of which I am a part. So I was part of the group of Indigenous women scholars who issued an open letter. And now the vitriol has spread to all of us and others who share our concerns and perspectives about Smith. We are all being accused of conspiring, coordinating, informing, policing, bullying, “lateral violence,” and the like.

(*I find the accusations about the use of social media as a non-transformative social justice model especially odd since Smith, until she closed her accounts, INCITE!, and many other social justice advocates use social media as a form of activism and criticism. Anarchist groups like Anonymous and the progressive emergence of what some are calling “black twitter” against police violence would certainly disagree that social media is an inherently statist form of political intervention.)

The Storm(s)

It is challenging to disengage and reflect on a tornado when you are inside the funnel cloud, being hurled at record speeds up and up the funnel to be eventually, randomly spit out like a piece of broken garbage or the branch of an uprooted tree. I am still committed to thinking out loud about and with others–Indigenous and non-Indigenous–through the broader issues of what Andrea Smith represents and not only her specific case. To be sure, there are many others and there have been since the colonists appropriated the Lenape leader Tammanend in creating a nativist–anti-immigrant, anti-Indigenous–society in 1789. But I see the productive potential of political alliances and collaborations around issues of racialized oppression and social justice work as the promise out of all of this.

The mostly-private and confidential demand for accountability from Andrea Smith has been going on since 1993. It has involved many different communities (professional, activist, etc.) and Cherokee officials and citizens. It even resulted in confidential agreements between Smith and Cherokee that she would no longer publicly identify as an enrolled Cherokee citizen because she is not one. It occurred professionally but privately between Indigenous women scholars and activists who were, at first, trying to support her. But nothing worked. Smith’s claims remain contradictory and problematic and she never once honored a single agreement that she had made with Cherokee people. That fact alone is because she does not hold herself accountable to Cherokee people.

So. What is our responsibility as Indigenous women in the academy who know, who have known? What are we supposed to do when an Indigenous woman graduate student and colleagues get vehemently attacked on social media for sharing her and their concerns? Are we supposed to remain silent? What does the expectation of our silence represent as a politic of complicity, endorsement, legitimation?

What does it mean when we follow our shared cultural protocols for holding someone accountable–women to woman–and are accused of being statist conspirators? Bullying identity police? Engaging in crass political attack?

I don’t have any answers to these questions but I have gotten very tired of the underlying message and frustrated with the broader implications of it: Indigenous women attempting to hold a self-identified Indigenous woman who is not one accountable is not invited and will be misread and misconstrued into a thousand other tales of conspiracy upholding Indigenous erasure and dispossession.

3 responses to “Questions and Questioning

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