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It was a Thursday morning last September, and J. Kehaulani Kauanui had just woken up. She was reading a story on her phone in bed, a confession written by a woman named Jessica Krug, when, quite suddenly, it yanked her into the past.
“To an escalating degree over my adult life, I have eschewed my lived experience as a white Jewish child in suburban Kansas City,” wrote Krug, a history professor who had for years identified — and published — as a Black and Latina scholar. “I have thought about ending these lies many times over many years,” she continued, “but my cowardice was always more powerful than my ethics.”
Kauanui checked the time. The confession was posted only minutes earlier, but already six friends had forwarded her the link. It was that kind of story, the kind that spreads so fast and so far it soon seems that everyone has read it, and everyone has had a reaction: shock, disgust, anger, amusement. But Kauanui wasn’t thinking about Krug; she was thinking about Andy.
“It was a fantasy piece,” she told me the first time we talked, last November. “When I read it, the very first thing that came to my mind was: Oh, my God. If only Andy would do this.”
Andy is Andrea Smith. She and Kauanui met almost 25 years earlier, when Kauanui was a 28-year-old graduate student in the history of consciousness program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Smith was a young divinity student who planned to go there for her Ph.D. Kauanui served on the department’s admissions committee that year, and she still vividly remembers Smith’s application: how passionately she wrote about gender politics but also how clearly she defined her ethnic identity. “She positioned herself as Cherokee,” she told me. “She had something in the application that talked about what it meant for urban Native Americans away from homeland.”
Kauanui is Kanaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiian. But she grew up in Southern California, and she knew what it felt like to belong ancestrally to one place but be raised somewhere else. Part of her eventual dissertation, in fact, would look at that question of identity within the context of Hawaii, specifically the state’s comparably strict rules regarding who counts as Native and who doesn’t. The thought of having not just another Native student at Santa Cruz but a student who understood how complex and complicated Native identities can be was thrilling to Kauanui, and she pushed for Smith’s acceptance and reached out to her as soon as she got in.
Over time, the two became good friends just as Kauanui had hoped, though she quickly realized that Smith didn’t want to talk about her family or her Native roots. For years, all she would tell Kauanui was that she was from Long Beach, Calif.; that her mother was Oklahoma Cherokee, as were her grandparents; and that her dad, though out of the picture, was Ojibwe. There was a Cherokee community in California, and Kauanui assumed for a while that Smith was part of that group. She assumed a lot, she realized in retrospect, filling in the blanks that Smith left in her story so that it would make sense.
Even 25 years later, when she knew that so much of what she first believed wasn’t true, Kauanui still grappled with what to make of everything Smith had said — or hadn’t said. When Krug confessed last September, her admission prompted the outings of a series of white people who had been masquerading in their fields over the years as Black, Latino or Indigenous — six in academia alone by the year’s end. And yet, unlike Krug or the others who confessed and then disappeared from the public eye, Smith never explained herself or the lies she told. She has never really had to.
Rereading Krug’s mea culpa later that afternoon on a laptop at her dining-room table, Kauanui thought about the reckoning that never took place. By then it had been years since she and Smith had been in touch. But on an impulse, she found Smith’s university email address and, with a click, sent her a link to Krug’s confession.
In the subject line, she wrote: “Now it’s your turn.”
A Harvard graduate with long brown hair and pale skin, Andrea Smith began to make a name for herself in the early 1990s when she and her younger sister, Justine, moved to Chicago and started a local chapter of Women of All Red Nations, an activist organization that grew out of the American Indian Movement of the 1960s and ’70s. (Neither sister responded to multiple requests for comment for this article.) Although the sisters stayed in Chicago for only a few years, they made an impression: They helped organize a protest of the Columbus Day Parade and flew in Native activists to speak at community gatherings. And they also, says Katie Jones, a Cherokee woman who protested and organized alongside them, called out Native activists they thought weren’t “legit.”
“I watched them both go after this woman named Constance,” she told me. “Constance had showed up, she’d been living in Champaign and came to Chicago and tried to plug in with us, and they were like, ‘She is Portuguese, she is Black, but she’s not one of us; she’s lying, she’s a fake.’”
Although the United States has a long history of white people “playing Indian,” as the scholar Philip J. Deloria calls it in his book of the same name, the 1990s saw the beginning of what would eventually be significant pushback by Native Americans against so-called Pretendians or Pretend Indians, including the successful passage of a national law prohibiting non-Native people from marketing their art as “Indian.” Smith found her voice within that protest movement in 1991 when she published an essay in Ms. Magazine calling out white feminists and New Agers for co-opting Native identities.
“When white ‘feminists’ see how white people have historically oppressed others and how they are coming very close to destroying the earth, they often want to disassociate themselves from their whiteness,” Smith wrote. “They do this by opting to ‘become Indian.’ In this way, they can escape responsibility and accountability for white racism. Of course, white ‘feminists’ want to become only partly Indian. They do not want to be a part of our struggles for survival against genocide, and they do not want to fight for treaty rights or an end to substance abuse or sterilization abuse.”
It was the kind of article that would have gone viral, if viral had existed back then, and it hinted at the forceful voice that would define Smith’s activism and scholarship. Patti Jo King, a Cherokee academic and later one of the first people to confront Smith about her identity, says she taught that essay in her university classes for years. Before questioning Smith about her ancestry at a private meeting in 2007, King actually opened by saying how much she had enjoyed her article calling out fake Indians.
Smith’s intensity and singularity of focus was obvious the moment she showed up in Santa Cruz in 1997. David Delgado Shorter, now a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, remembers that she was successful academically and quickly gained the ear of most of the professors, but she used that access to criticize a student Native Studies group that he was part of, complaining that it had no Native American leadership, and after that it fell apart. Kauanui said Smith’s zeal rubbed other students the wrong way. Simultaneously an “old guard Marxist,” a born-again Christian and an animal rights activist, Smith was the kind of person, Kauanui said, who once commented multiple times on the feelings of shellfish after someone ordered shrimp at lunch. But as the years passed, Smith mellowed. Kauanui thinks she realized that her dogma was off-putting. Easing up on her doctrinaire Marxism, she also developed a new fascination with celebrity gossip. “People in our program, they were doing cultural reads on Hollywood,” Kauanui said. “But to go from there to talking about which Hollywood star was bonking whom was totally another extreme. So she really went there and really committed. She knew about that stuff, and it was kind of her discussion fodder at conferences. And it made people laugh.”
It was in 2006, during their collaboration on a collection of essays by Native American women, that Kauanui first heard rumors about Smith’s identity. By then, the two had grown close, even as the trajectory of their careers had diverged. They had both graduated with doctoral degrees and landed jobs at well-regarded universities: Kauanui at Wesleyan University and Smith at the University of Michigan. But while Kauanui was developing a narrow expertise on Hawaiian indigeneity, Smith had become nothing less than “an icon of Native American feminism,” as the publication Colorlines later called her. She co-founded the national organization Incite! Women of Color Against Violence; was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy work; and aligned herself with prominent activists, including her dissertation adviser Angela Davis and Winona LaDuke, who later wrote the introduction for Smith’s first book.
That fall, a friend of Kauanui’s — aware of her friendship and ongoing collaboration with Smith — reached out and asked whether Smith was really Cherokee. “Oh, no, she’s totally Cherokee,” Kauanui told that friend. She wondered whether the concern was that Smith was “not Native enough” because she grew up off the reservation.
But the next year, Kauanui was shown confidential emails that complicated the narrative. In early 2007, an official from the Cherokee Nation began emailing Smith, asking about her connections to the Cherokees given that she wasn’t enrolled — a word used for citizens in a tribal nation. Smith’s responses were evasive, and reading them, Kauanui couldn’t figure out why she didn’t just clarify who her relatives were. It was, she came to realize, the first moment she really doubted Smith. But as so many others would later do, she brushed her concerns aside.
In the months that followed, Kauanui was distracted by her work helping to organize a conference that spring at the University of Oklahoma. The conference was a step toward starting a national organization to bring together scholars working on Native and Indigenous issues. Smith was at the conference, too, and one afternoon during a panel session, she pulled Kauanui outside, saying she needed to talk to her about something serious. “I just went home to Long Beach, and I found out from my mother that I’m not actually enrolled,” she said, according to Kauanui’s memory of the conversation. “I have to try to figure this out because there are people from the Cherokee Nation who are going to meet with me here.”
The two were on a bench on the Norman campus. Smith seemed anxious and Kauanui wanted to help, but again she was confused: From the emails, she knew that Smith had already been told she wasn’t enrolled. Kauanui couldn’t mention them — she’d been sworn to secrecy — and she still thought there had to be an explanation. She told Smith to share the names of her relatives with tribal officials, sure that they would be able to straighten things out.
But Smith told her that it wasn’t that simple. And indeed, it wasn’t. Being “enrolled” in an American Indian tribe essentially means being a legal citizen of that tribal nation. It’s a status that can be passed down by parents who are also enrolled but also one that can be claimed, depending on the citizenship rules of each tribe, if an individual can prove he or she is a child, grandchild or at times even great-grandchild of someone who was a tribal member. As the Cherokee genealogical researcher David Cornsilk would later tell me, Smith couldn’t even do that: She had known since the 1990s that her family had no identifiable Native American roots, because Smith had hired Cornsilk to look for them and he found nothing.
Although he can no longer recall the exact dates, Cornsilk says Smith first asked him to research her mother’s side of the family in the early 1990s, when she was working as a Native organizer in Chicago. Near the end of the decade, she hired him again to look into her father’s side — around the time she was starting graduate school at Santa Cruz and introducing herself as Cherokee and also after she accepted the first of two Ford Foundation fellowships then earmarked for underrepresented groups in academia.
After researching both sides of Smith’s family tree, Cornsilk concluded that she had no identifiable Native American relatives, enrolled or unenrolled or even living near those who were once enrolled. He says he sent off his report to her both times and never heard back. “She never said anything,” he told me. “But they usually don’t. Because most of the time they’re not getting the answer that they wanted.”
Kauanui knew none of this that day in Norman. All she knew was that, after Smith came back from her meeting with a tribal official and Patti Jo King, the Cherokee academic, she said she had agreed to stop identifying publicly as Cherokee. Smith implied that her enrollment status was a mistake and that she was still Cherokee, just not officially so. It was an explanation that made little sense to Kauanui, but she believed it because she didn’t want to consider the other option: that Smith was lying to her.
In the months that followed, however, Kauanui’s doubt grew into something harder, something she might have eventually verbalized if in February 2008 Smith hadn’t found herself in the middle of another crisis. She learned that the University of Michigan had denied her tenure, a decision in academia that is akin to being fired. The reasons were not stated — tenure decisions are confidential, and no one I’ve talked to knows why — but Smith’s supporters were outraged. They organized a petition to overturn the decision and held a one-day conference in Ann Arbor, with Angela Davis as a guest speaker, to highlight the difficulties faced by female scholars of color. At that point, very few academics outside of Kauanui knew of the rumors about Smith’s identity, and a conference news release described her as “one of the greatest Indigenous feminist intellectuals of our time.”
Their organizing didn’t change the tenure decision, but it did draw the attention of a Cherokee academic named Steve Russell, who learned that Smith was not enrolled. He decided to write about her in a column for Indian Country Today — the first of many times she would be “outed” over questions about her identity. He titled the column “When Does Ethnic Fraud Matter?”
Kauanui assumed that Smith would finally defend herself or at least explain her identity claims. At one point, she and another contributor to the Native book project even tried to sort out Smith’s genealogy themselves so they could help her respond. They’d heard that she once claimed a connection to a famous Cherokee named Redbird Smith, so they dug around to see if he might be an ancestor. They wondered if her mother might have been a product of rape, incest or something else that Smith didn’t want to talk about. “We were running these hypotheticals because we were trying to do the work for her,” Kauanui said. “We were trying to help her narrate, but she wouldn’t tell us what was going on.”
But eventually Kauanui could no longer suspend her disbelief. She called Smith and asked her directly how she knew she was Cherokee, and specifically Oklahoma Cherokee. Smith said she didn’t know. Kauanui asked her who her mother’s grandparents were, and she said she didn’t know. She said her mom didn’t know, either. “How can her parents both be Cherokee if you tell me that you mother doesn’t know who her grandparents are?” Kauanui asked.
Smith was crying by then, but Kauanui couldn’t let it go. “I had been so fed up,” she told me. “I was really interrogating her. There is no other word for it. I was grilling her. And she just kept saying, ‘I don’t know.’ She was whimpering, like a dog, like an injured animal. It was awful. It was a horrible phone call. I was crying, and she was crying, and I said: ‘You are basically telling me you don’t even have a lineal descendancy claim. You’ve got nothing.”’
After that conversation, their book project fell apart. It was originally conceived as a project written and edited solely by Native American women. It had been almost ready to go to press, but when it became clear that Smith wasn’t going to step down as one of the editors, Kauanui pulled out. She says that some of the contributors, many of them friends, supported her, but others were upset, and she felt as if they were blaming her, not Smith, for the fallout. One of them, the Diné/Navajo scholar Jennifer Denetdale, emailed Kauanui questioning the focus on Smith’s identity. “I’m biased, and I stand by [Andy’s] commitment to Indigenous peoples and recognize that she has done the footwork,” she wrote.
When I spoke to Denetdale recently, though, she told me she stayed with the project not because she supported Smith but because she didn’t want to let down the other contributors. “Some of them were junior scholars,” she said. “They needed this publication for their career.”
Robert Warrior, an Osage professor at the University of Kansas and a friend of Kauanui’s, remembers another scholar telling him afterward why she couldn’t abandon Smith. “She’s like an organ, you can’t get rid of her,” he recalled the woman saying. “She’s like an organ to what we do.”
“Nobody is an organ,” he responded. “We’re just people.”
If this were like the other cases of ethnic fraud in academia, Smith’s story would end at this point. These stories have become common enough now that we can predict their narrative arc: They begin with a confrontation that then leads to a revelation, followed by outrage and sometimes an apology before the guilty party slips into obscurity. But with Smith the story just keeps going. She was called out, yes. She retreated briefly and even told Kauanui that her new 10-year plan was to “live a private life and work church bake sales.” But then she came back.
By the fall of 2008, Smith had a new job as an assistant professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California, Riverside, and had turned her attention to a different book project, a collection called “Theorizing Native Studies,” with the Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson. Her chapter for that book critiques personal confession as a mode of truth-making and argues that accountability in academic and activist circles should favor the collective over the individual — an argument that essentially says personal identity shouldn’t matter within social-justice movements.
Simpson, now a professor of anthropology at Columbia University, told me that she stuck with that project even after Smith was confronted by Kauanui in part for the same reason Denetdale had earlier: to protect the work of the other contributors. But also because she, like Kauanui before her, kept thinking Smith would eventually tell the truth. “I want to be very clear that I do not support ethnic fraud,” she wrote in an email. “I assumed that she would sort herself out and/or make herself accountable to the Cherokee Nation and to all of us in the field at some point, but she did not.”
After 2008, Smith no longer identified as Cherokee in her official bios, but she continued to identify as such for the panels, interviews and lectures she often spoke as a representative of Native American views and causes. At the same time, her younger sister, Justine, had begun building a career of her own in academia based, in part, on claiming a Cherokee identity. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin — where she received support from the McNair Program, which helps college students from underrepresented backgrounds — Justine began a doctorate in religion at Harvard University. In 2010, she was offered a visiting faculty position at the St. Paul School of Theology. A news release announcing the hire identified Justine as Cherokee and noted, “It is believed that she also will be the first full-time Native American woman to serve in any full-time faculty position in theological education in North America.”
‘I assumed that she would sort herself out and/or make herself accountable to the Cherokee Nation and to all of us in the field at some point, but she did not.’
The Cherokee Nation reached out to St. Paul after learning about Justine’s hire and discovered, according to an email I reviewed, that she had “obtained a Cherokee Nation citizenship card and had altered it.” St. Paul said that Justine was suspended after the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma raised concerns regarding her identity claims and was employed by the college for only three months.
Richard Allen, then a policy analyst of the tribal nation, tried to contest Andrea Smith’s identity claims as well, but seemingly with less success. In 2012, before a lecture by Smith at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, Allen emailed the organizers and explained that “Andrea Smith’s claim of being Cherokee is fraudulent and [it] is likely that she is not American Indian at all.”
The lecture went on as planned. A spokeswoman for the university told me that faculty there did slightly adjust their introduction of Smith after the email, but only because they “didn’t want to direct energy toward that issue.” A faculty member from the university, who didn’t want to be named because of the sensitivity of identity issues, offered the following statement: “Andrea Smith is a valued educator who does important work. The room was full because of her work, and she is a really good speaker.”
Things might have continued that way — with Smith’s misrepresentations an open secret, known only by a small circle of Native American scholars — if, in June 2015, a TV crew hadn’t shown up to interview a little-known activist and part-time academic in Washington named Rachel Dolezal. When the reporter asked Dolezal on camera if she was African-American, she looked shocked, said she didn’t understand the question and then walked away. It was a confrontation that, as a news station in Houston later put it, “triggered a fascinating national conversation on race and identity.”
“It is a cardinal rule of social identity that people have the right to call themselves whatever they want,” wrote the author Gary Younge a few days later in The Guardian newspaper. “But with this right comes at least one responsibility: What you call yourself must be comprehensible to others.”
His comments were a nod to a common understanding of race as a social construct and thus the meaning and the consequences of our individual racial identities are largely determined by the collective. Yet the phrasing Younge used also raises an important question: When he wrote “comprehensible to others,” who counted as “others”? It was clear with Rachel Dolezal that “others” meant just about everyone. But with Andrea Smith, the majority of “others” still saw her as Cherokee — even though Cherokee officials and some Native scholars said she wasn’t.
A couple of weeks after the Dolezal news broke, a graduate student named Annita Lucchesi forced the issue when she posted about Smith on her Tumblr account: “Andrea Smith is not Cherokee,” she wrote. “omg. this is not new information.” Her small protest soon inspired a much larger and more prominent project: an anonymous Tumblr titled “Andrea Smith Is Not Cherokee” that collected stories and documentation disputing Smith’s identity as well as her sister’s. That attention prompted David Cornsilk to speak publicly about his genealogical work for Smith; and with him as a key source, The Daily Beast ran an article calling Smith the “Native American Rachel Dolezal.”
Kauanui remembers thinking, as she read those pieces, that people would finally “get it,” which is to say they would understand what she and others had known for years: that Smith had been lying, and not just to her colleagues and friends. Smith’s first book, “Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide,” had relied on stories of rape and sexual assault that Native women shared with her while she was identifying as Cherokee. Kauanui was sure that at least some of those women would have felt differently if they had known they were talking to a white woman. To her, Smith’s refusal to be honest about her “positionality,” as academics sometimes call it, meant that she was not only being dishonest to those within her social circle but was lying within her own work.
Enough people agreed with Kauanui this time that she and 11 other prominent Native American female scholars published an open letter in Indian Country Today about Smith, clarifying that the issue wasn’t about being punitive or exclusionary but about asking her and others like her to account for their identity claims. “Andrea Smith allows herself to stand in as the representative of collectivities to which she has demonstrated no accountability,” the letter read. “Her lack of clarity and consistency in her self-presentation adds to the vulnerability of the communities and constituents she purports to represent.”
Kauanui might have expected a real reckoning this time around, but not everyone did. That June, the Lenape scholar Joanne Barker, who also signed the open letter, predicted on her blog that Native academics and activists would disagree about what to do about Smith and non-Native people would “dismiss the sources and documentation of Smith’s fraud as crass or too-complicated identity politics.”
That’s more or less what happened. A second blog called “Against a Politics of Disposability” was created in July to defend Smith, and six scholars and students who identify as Native American argued there that the scrutiny of Smith was either premature, too late or inappropriate. “In the end it is up to our families and communities to determine our identities,” wrote Andrew J. Jolivétte, an Atakapa-Ishak scholar. “So let us elevate our discussion to focus not on individuals but rather on institutions and structural practices that continue to marginalize Native peoples.”
The University of California, Riverside, also issued a statement praising Smith as a “teacher and researcher of high merit,” noting that it could not, by law, consider ethnicity when making hiring or promotion decisions. In response to my request for clarification regarding that statement, a spokesman told me that the “university does not comment on the ethnic backgrounds of specific employees.”
Smith’s only response was a brief post to her personal blog in July, which was later taken down. “I have always been, and will always be Cherokee,” she wrote. “There have been innumerable false statements made about me in the media. But ultimately what is most concerning is that these social media attacks send a chilling message to all Native peoples who are not enrolled, or who are otherwise marginalized, that they should not publicly work for justice for Native peoples out of fear that they too may one day be attacked.”
By that point, Kauanui said it felt like 2008 all over again, only the blowback this time was worse. People were upset over legitimate issues — including the historically racist enrollment policies of some tribal nations and the oppressive role the United States played in deciding which tribes receive federal status — but those had no direct connection to concerns about Smith’s deception. “We were called ableist, anti-Black, jealous, Cointelpro, you name it,” she said. “I was an exposed nerve.”
When I began researching this article, I wanted to understand why stories like these seem to dominate one industry — my industry. As a white academic, I watched, aghast, as other white academics were outed for pretending to be scholars of color, both in real life and online. It seemed absurd to me at the time but also horrifying — in part because the outings coincided with a moment of national reckoning on questions of race and representation, and a number of universities, including mine, had recently committed to hiring more scholars of color. I kept wondering, as the former academic Ruby Zelzer posted on Twitter in September, “Academia, do we have a problem?”
It started last April, when the writer H.G. Carrillo, a former and much beloved assistant professor at George Washington University, died of complications from Covid-19. The Washington Post ran an obituary that recounted the story he always told others in his adult life: that at 7, he fled Cuba with his family and landed in Michigan. But after the obituary ran, Carrillo’s sister contacted the paper. He wasn’t Afro-Cuban, she said. He was a Black man from Detroit, and his given name was Herman Glenn Carroll.
A couple of months after that, BethAnn McLaughlin, a white former assistant professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University, apologized for pretending under the Twitter handle @Sciencing_Bi to be a bisexual, Native American scholar at Arizona State University, where I now work. @Sciencing_Bi had often Tweeted in support of McLaughlin’s career, including when she was denied tenure at Vanderbilt. She was also active in online discussions on sexual assault and social justice, and many of her followers realized she was an invention only in July when McLaughlin announced that @Sciencing_Bi had died of complications from Covid-19 and others on Twitter started looking for a public notice of her death.
‘These people kind of hide out in academia where the system is not dealing with them and the only way to deal with them is to shame them, to let them know that you know they are a fraud.’
Then in September, Krug posted her confession, which received by far the most attention, including write-ups in The New Yorker, The New York Times and eventually Vanity Fair, and was followed a few days later by the outing of a University of Wisconsin, Madison, graduate student, C.V. Vitolo-Haddad, who was white but had presented as Black for years. Later that month, Craig Chapman, a white assistant professor of chemistry at the University of New Hampshire, was outed for, like McLaughlin, creating a Twitter account purporting to be a woman of color that he used to criticize minority groups and social-justice arguments. Then, a few weeks after that, Kelly Kean Sharp, an assistant professor of African-American history at Furman University who had identified as Chicana, resigned after she was accused of having no Mexican ancestry at all.
All of this was a little bewildering to watch from the sidelines. Academia is an industry, like journalism, that defines itself in large part by its ethical standards; we’re supposed to educate people and produce knowledge. So what does it mean that we’re also a haven for fakes? Even more disturbing for me, as I began to learn about Smith’s story, was hearing similar stories that had gone untold — or, perhaps more accurately, unheard. Talking with Cornsilk, and with some of the Native scholars who signed the open letter, I learned about other academics falsely claiming to be Native American who came before or after Smith. It was the accumulation of such stories, not just Smith’s alone, that finally pushed many to speak out.
“There are so many fakes in academia,” said Kim TallBear, a Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate professor at the University of Alberta who said she was scared at first to sign the 2015 open letter. “It just felt like we needed to recognize the pervasiveness of the problem.”
It’s a problem that has been known at least since 1992, when, in an early use of the term “ethnic fraud” in a newspaper, The Detroit News published an investigation into what were then known as box-checkers: students who identify as Native American on their college applications. “Thousands of students misrepresent themselves to gain entrance and scholarships to U.S. universities, costing real American Indians access to higher education,” the article reported. It was accompanied by a shorter piece about similar lies by Native-identified faculty. Of the 1,500 university educators listed as Native American at the time, said Bill Cross, who helped found the American Indian/Alaska Native Professors Association, “we’re looking realistically at one-third of those being Indians.” The most prominent example of this is Senator Elizabeth Warren, who was listed as Native American by both Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania Law School when she was on the faculty at those institutions and has since apologized for claiming that identity.
Many academic administrators feel there’s little they can do to fix things without, as Daniel Schwartz, the history department chair at George Washington University and at one point Krug’s supervisor, put it, launching into a “new McCarthyism” of interrogating people’s race. Universities are also hesitant to start vetting identity claims, in part because of the fear of lawsuits but also, according to a number of scholars I talked to, because doing so would force them to confront the real problems they face when it comes to outreach and support of students and faculty of color. And yet academia also doesn’t make it easy for people with concerns to speak out, in large part because academia is a hierarchical industry, one in which a small minority of those with secure jobs or tenure have huge sway over decisions about job security for the remaining majority. And a vast majority of those making those decisions are white. According to a 2020 report by the American Association of University Professors, Black, Hispanic and Indigenous scholars are all grossly underrepresented in academia, especially the further up you go in the hierarchy. Black scholars account for only 6 percent of all full-time faculty; Native Americans less than 1 percent.
In the absence of any real policy for dealing with ethnic fraud, what academia is left with is a risky marketplace of accusations — one in which those doing the labor of researching someone’s background are often also those most harmed by the trespass in the first place, and their only real power to effect change is by means of what others then dismiss as cancel culture. Those who do speak out risk exactly what Kauanui gave up back in 2008: friendships and relationships with colleagues, but also opportunities for scholarship.
“These people kind of hide out in academia where the system is not dealing with them and the only way to deal with them is to shame them, to let them know that you know they are a fraud,” said Jacki Thompson Rand, a Choctaw professor at the University of Iowa. “That is the additional work that Indigenous scholars have to decide if they are going to engage in or not.”
Figuring out Andrea Smith’s family history wasn’t easy, but halfway into my reporting I became determined to do that work, if only to clarify the facts amid the larger political and cultural debates that at times overwhelm discussions of her identity. I had asked Cornsilk for help, but he said he no longer had records from the 1990s, and he didn’t remember either of her parents’ names. Neither Andrea nor Justine had written anything about their parents in the acknowledgment section of their dissertations, and then there was the issue of their maddeningly common last name: Smith. But eventually, I was able to figure out their mother’s maiden name — Wilkinson — and using census records, birth and death certificates and obituaries, I began to piece together the story Smith had for so long refused to tell.
Smith’s mother, Helen Jean Wilkinson, was born in a small town in Indiana to what appear to be middle-class parents: Her father was an engineer according to a death certificate, and her mother was at one point a trustee for Luce Township, a farming town of a little more than 2,000 on the Ohio River near Evansville. Their ancestors appear to have been mostly farmers and laborers in Kentucky and Indiana going back generations. Some of Helen’s Kentucky ancestors fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and a couple owned slaves. A great-grandfather on her mother’s side, Lyman V. Pierce, was one of the first police chiefs of Owensboro, Ky., a man whose story of killing a romantic rival was narrated recently in that city’s “Voices of Elmwood” tour. But neither Helen, nor her parents, nor her grandparents, nor her great-grandparents, nor her great-great-grandparents are listed in census records I found as anything other than white.
Helen went to Indiana University, where she worked on the yearbook staff and majored in business education. At some point after graduating, she moved to California, where she married a man named Donald R. Smith. They had two children, Andrea and then Justine, and divorced in 1968. Helen died in 2014, but as far as I could tell, Donald Smith was still alive. But finding him was even harder.
Then one day, Kauanui mentioned that someone once told her that Smith used to spend summers with her father in Virginia. I searched for people with his birth year who had ever lived in Virginia, and eventually found an obituary for the father of a Donald Smith who was survived by two granddaughters named Andrea and Justine.
I mapped out Donald’s family tree and found a relative with a working phone number. After I explained what I was looking into, the woman on the other end of the line exhaled. “Yeah, we heard about that,” she said, “and we just kind of shook our heads.”
Donald R. Smith is alive, the woman confirmed, and he isn’t Ojibwe. He is a white man from Chicago who, like his daughters, is very smart. He was a nuclear physicist with the Pentagon before he retired, the relative told me. He has a degree from M.I.T. His family are mostly of British ancestry, and no, he didn’t want to talk to me, but his relative wanted me to know that I was doing a good thing writing this article. “Honestly, integrity is everything in academics,” she said. “So let the truth out.”
But what is the truth? Or rather, what is truth enough to convince those “others” that Gary Younge referred to in his essay in The Guardian? After I had evidence that Smith’s genealogy was just as Cornsilk had claimed, I talked to a friend of mine, the feminist historian Emily Skidmore, and she pointed out that ethnicity listings on census records aren’t always accurate. That wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but if I was interested in clarifying the facts, I realized I needed to do more reporting.
So in March, I began calling people who had lived in and around Luce Township, the farming town where Smith’s mother, Helen, grew up, and eventually I found a cousin of Helen’s on her father’s side, a woman named Margaret Jane Wilkinson. She told me that Helen had never identified as Native American. But, she said, the family always claimed her grandfather on her mother’s side — the son of the police chief who shot a man in Owensboro — was American Indian.
Hearing that, I wondered if this was perhaps the proof of Native ancestry that Smith had never produced. But I also knew by then how common these family stories are, and so I began calling up the grandchildren of that grandfather. I recognized, as I left the fifth or sixth message, that I’d become a little obsessed, but I couldn’t let it go. I thought of Kauanui and how her concerns weren’t heard, and of Smith saying that the media got the facts wrong.
Eventually I found a woman named Barbara Smith, Helen’s cousin on her mother’s side, who remembered her grandfather — Mr. Pierce, as she called him. He wasn’t Native American, she said without hesitation, but there were rumors of Native ancestry in her family. She’d believed them, too, until she took a genetic test a couple years ago.
“We’re mostly Scandinavian,” she said.
When we hung up, I felt for a moment that I’d tracked down the truth about Smith. Yes, she had stories of Native American ancestors in her family, but like a lot of such stories, they weren’t based in fact. But then I caught myself. I’d done enough reporting and talked to enough Native American scholars by that point to know one thing: Native identity is not reducible to genetics. That’s a fallacy that tribal nations spend a lot of time trying to dispel. What it is about depends on whom you talk to, but it tends to boil down to this: Are you claimed by the community that you claim? If anyone needs proof that Smith wasn’t Cherokee, it has been there since 2008.
In Native Studies there’s a concept called “settler colonialism” that Smith has written about. It includes the conviction felt by non-Natives that the land, but also the knowledge, cultural heritage and identities of American Indians belong to the rest of us. In “Playing Indian,” the book by Deloria, he argues that white people in this country have been co-opting Native identities since the Boston Tea Party. “Playing Indian is a persistent tradition in American culture,” he writes, “stretching from the very instant of the national big bang into an ever-expanding present and future.”
In other words, this might feel like a new story, but it’s actually quite old. For Kauanui, that long history is part of what’s so dangerous about Smith and others like her. By refusing to acknowledge their identity theft, these people make invisible those they are stealing from. And by refusing to apologize, they imply that their trespass is not that big of a deal.
John Stevenson, a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told me that when his former colleague, the activist and academic Ward Churchill, was accused of ethnic fraud, the university couldn’t do anything because of a policy it had preventing it from considering ethnicity or race in hiring or firing decisions. This was true even after The Rocky Mountain News ran an article in 2005 reporting that Churchill’s family had no identifiable Cherokee connections. (Churchill still claims he is Native American and has criticized the newspaper’s genealogical research.) “If Ward proved anything,” Stevenson said, “he proved that if you wanted to say you were XYZ, the way you do it is keep saying that and don’t apologize.”
What eventually led to Ward’s firing, in fact, was not the small outrage about ethnic fraud in some Native circles. Instead it was a much larger outrage over something he wrote after 9/11 — an essay that referred to people killed in the Twin Towers as “little Eichmanns” because, he argued, they “formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of American’s global financial empire.”
“I’m thinking about what galvanizes the nation, but that happened here,” Stevenson told me before we got off the phone, and I said I’d been thinking about that recently, too: what outrages people, but also what galvanizes them to make change. And, by contrast, what we choose to ignore.
In researching Smith’s past, I talked at one point to a former high school classmate of hers, who told me she didn’t remember Smith’s ever identifying as Native American in high school, but added that “we wouldn’t have talked about that back then.”
The woman was white, and we had a brief conversation about identity and ethnicity, including forays into 23andMe and how that genetic test has challenged and possibly expanded modes of self-identification. But later she wrote asking that I not use her name, because, despite being in a club with Smith in high school, she didn’t think she knew her that well; she also questioned, it seemed to me, the premise of the story itself. “As important as this issue is, there are so many millions of people, mostly men, who are church leaders, school presidents, clergy leaders, philosophy professions, theologians … who have molested their children and grandchildren,” she wrote. “Their pictures still hang on the walls with the other, primarily white, men. These atrocities seem more pervasive.”
When I asked sources why Smith’s story turned out differently than those of Krug or Dolezal or others, many of them said it was because she faked a Native identity instead of a Black or Latina one. We care less as a culture about Native Americans, they argued, so the theft of Native identities means less, too. Others said we romanticize American Indians and that so many people have stories of a long-lost “Indian” ancestor (again, think of Elizabeth Warren) that we’re not shocked when someone claims a Native identity under dubious grounds.
Cornsilk told me that it is also a matter of pragmatics. To prove that a person isn’t Black, you usually only have to talk to their parents. To prove that a person isn’t Native American, you sometimes have to go back generations. That makes telling a story like this one more complicated, especially in a world where every narrative is supposed to fit in a sound bite and every audience expects to have an instant reaction, sometimes one that’s formed before they have even finished reading.
At some point after I contacted Smith, her original blog post went back up: “I have been and always will be Cherokee.” I take that to mean that she still identifies as Cherokee, but because she hasn’t responded to my requests for comment, I can’t say for sure. I know that as recently as 2018, she identified in an online essay as a person of color. Her sister, Justine, who now has two Native American children and is a pastor at a Methodist Church in Norman, Okla., was identified in an interview last year as “of Cherokee and Ojibwe descent.” She finished her dissertation in 2018, acknowledging the support of the United Methodist Women of Color Scholars Program in addition to the McNair Program.
Even though most Native Studies scholars no longer work with Smith, she has begun publishing within adjacent fields, like ethnic studies, and has slowly built back a reputation. This past spring, she came out with a new coedited collection from Duke University Press, the same press that published and later condemned Krug.
“Thank you for your ethical stance on the Jessica Krug issue,” tweeted the Ojibwe scholar Jean O’Brien, a historian at the University of Minnesota. “What are your thoughts on what you should do about your author Andrea Smith’s fraudulent claims and your responsibilities about them?”
‘Academia, do we have a problem?’
Smith’s book, edited with Tiffany Lethabo King and Jenell Navarro, is an anthology called “Otherwise Worlds: Against Settler Colonialism and Anti-Blackness” that is meant to examine ways that Native Studies and Black Studies might find common ground and by extension how Black and Native activists can collaborate rather than compete. But it lies on shaky ground by including Smith as an editor, said Joseph Pierce, a Cherokee academic at Stony Brook University, who also tweeted about the apparent double standard. “That Duke, which has so much legitimacy on critical scholarship, would allow her to make major interventions in the field of Native Studies, even after all the work that has been done by Native women to reject Andrea Smith, was so messed up to me,” he told me.
Neither King nor Navarro responded to my requests for comment on their collaboration with Smith, but as her name has surfaced again in online discussions of Krug, some people have come to her defense. “Andrea Smith clearly responded to attacks on her identity by stating that she has always known herself to be Cherokee,” tweeted Nandita Sharma, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, in September. “She doesn’t need my support but she has it 100 percent nonetheless.”
Kauanui says another reason she thinks people still don’t believe that Smith lied, even after the facts are staring them in the face, is because they don’t want it to be true. “Non-Natives didn’t want their Indian being taken away from them,” she told me.
Or as Annita Lucchesi wrote, in her Tumblr post outing Smith in 2015: “Most Native scholars that are connected to their cultures/communities have questioned her for a very long time. But non-Natives get so comfortable using their one token go-to Native feminist to quote that those questions don’t get heard or understood.”
I recognized that sentiment when I talked to a white academic who had been duped by BethAnn McLaughlin this past summer. Michael Eisen, a biologist who attended a Zoom memorial service for @Sciencing_Bi and was credited in many media accounts for exposing McLaughlin’s fraud, told me that Native scholars on Twitter actually sounded the alarm earlier, but he and others didn’t pay attention. “We should have realized that the intersections for those identities in academia, while it should be large, is not,” he said.
In other words, these hoaxes, though they reveal a lot about the people who carry them out, also say something about those who fall for them in the first place.
One of the last times I heard from Kauanui, she emailed to say that she was “super anxious.” She’s worried that she’ll come off as if she’s obsessed with Smith in this article, and she fears that what happened in 2008 and again in 2015 will be repeated here. I wrote back to say that I don’t think of her as obsessive. “You’ve made decisions that weren’t necessarily advantageous to your career,” I said, “but you did so because you ethically felt like you had to.”
What I didn’t say was that, when it comes to her second concern, I share her fear. Not about what will happen to Smith specifically, but more broadly what will happen with stories like hers. I heard recently from a Native scholar who had a good friend, a colleague, who had always identified as American Indian based on family stories of Native ancestry, but then, not too long ago, this person decided to investigate those claims, and found out they weren’t true.
Trying to be respectful, that person pulled out from some Native American projects and told a few people about the discovery, but the Native scholar I know is encouraging her friend to go public as well. She said that kind of transparency — the transparency that Kauanui and others were pushing for in 2015 — could really change the way we talk about identity and power in academia, but also elsewhere. The last I heard, that person, whom I asked to interview for this article, still hadn’t decided what to do. It seems as if, in many ways, academia hasn’t either.
Hannah Arendt said that anytime we lie, we tear a hole “in the fabric of factuality.” But when we don’t acknowledge those lies, when we pretend that those pointing them out are obsessed or deluded, we also give up the opportunity to ever mend that tear.
As I was finishing writing this story, I got an email from Duke University Press in response to my questions about their decision to publish Smith’s recent book. Gisela Fosado, the editorial director, sent me a long statement that included the following:
“For months now, we at Duke University Press have engaged in difficult conversations about how we can do a better job of considering ethical concerns as we make our publishing decisions. In the past, our considerations of works to be published did not always include serious engagement with questions of ethics outside of those raised in the peer review process. That has changed. Our publication of Smith’s most recent work did harm by undermining the brave calls by Native scholars and others asking for accountability, transparency and honesty. Our publication of her work continued to provide her with a platform and became a legitimation in itself, allowing others to ignore the damage she caused. We are sorry.”
Smith never responded to Kauanui’s email, and she most likely never will. But maybe it’s not her apology that matters.
Sarah Viren is a contributing writer for the magazine and an assistant professor at Arizona State University. Her last article for the magazine was a personal story of an accusation she knew to be false.