The Andrea Smith debacle likely won’t get as much play as the Rachel Doležal incident from a few weeks back. In my opinion, though, Smith is way worse than Doležal. Not only has she been lying about her heritage for more than two decades, she’s positioned herself as a major theorist within “decolonial” studies and discourse. Her papers are still widely cited across the field, author of the hugely influential Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide and an editor for Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society, as well as the collection Theorizing Native Studies. Smith is much more prominent intellectually and institutionally in indigenous politics than Doležal ever was in black politics.
Most of the reactions I came across on social media regarding Smith were of shocked disbelief, especially those that showed some prior familiarity with her work and awareness of her standing as a leading theoretician of decoloniality. “Wow — Andrea Smith has been a force,” remarks one. “All built on a lie about identity.” Clearly surprised, another recalls: “Just found out Andrea Smith was faking her indigenous ancestry. It went on so long. Her work was big when I was in uni in 2005.” Zehra Husain exclaims, incredulous: “What? What? Andrea Smith?”
Those who’d studied her texts closely were hit even harder by the news. “This is really surprising and troubling as someone who has studied her work,” one student writes. Ayanna Dozier reacts similarly: “Well, damn. This is very upsetting. I have to rethink my relationship to Andrea Smith’s work.” Matt Jaber Stiffler candidly admits: “Andrea Smith was on my dissertation committee. Feeling torn today.”
Others are more apologetic. “Andrea Smith enhanced the debate, the conversation, the thinking, the thought,” Rinaldo Walcott maintains. “Regardless of Andrea Smith’s identity, the power and clarity of her seminal work Conquest cannot be denied. It still informs my thinking,” expresses another. “Opportunistic white people should keep their mouths on the Andrea Smith case,” opined Karen Macrae, herself white.
Joanne Barker of the Delaware Tribe published a fairly scathing critique of Smith, though. Entitled “Rachel Doležal and Andrea Smith: Integrity, Ethics, Accountability, Identity,” it anticipated the charges against Smith would be met with defensive and dismissive responses, “including criticisms of those who did the circulating [of information] as witch-hunters, mean-spirited, lacking logic, not knowing what they were talking about, and the like.” Klee Benally, another well known indigenous activist, immediately leapt to Smith’s defense, confirming this prediction. She publicly decried what she called
a witch hunt against fierce feminist author and friend, Andy Smith. While I’m not privy to all that’s been published, so far I’ve read Barker’s response and a couple others. Her statements eerily evoke COINTELPRO bad-jacketing rather than Indigenous feminism. Reading it I couldn’t help ask myself what interests are served via this pillory?
When Ward Churchill’s identity was called into question it clearly served a conservative agenda. My position then was that his identity is between him and the creator and an issue for his family and Nation to address internally through their own cultural process. After all, the primary issues regard accountability, colonialism, and white supremacy. I still maintain that his political contributions shouldn’t be uncritically thrown out when challenged with the colonial institution of “blood-quantum.”
And here we Marxists thought colonialism meant the dispossession and oppression of the native population in order to create a racially-structured, low-cost workforce. Turns out colonialism is actually just being mean to self-proclaimed representatives of “the indigenous.” What a silly and inconsequential thing colonialism would be, in that case.
Such suspicions are not entirely unjustified. Churchill, the scholar who Benally mentioned above, has detailed a long history of infiltration and counterintelligence pursued by the federal government against the Amerindian movement (before serious inconsistencies were noticed in several statements he made concerning his own ancestry). The Trotskyist International Socialist Organization, or ISO, has raised similar doubts about those making accusations within their milieu.
However, all of the documents compiled regarding Smith’s heritage seem to be vetted and verified. If the allegations are true — and Smith is not only not Cherokee, but is not of native descent at all — then there is no more damning critic of her actions than Smith herself. As she wrote in her 1994 article, “For All Those Who Were Indian In A Former Life”:
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. 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 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. They do not want to do anything that would tarnish their romanticized notions of what it means to be an Indian.
Moreover, they want to become Indian without holding themselves accountable to Indian communities. If they did they would have to listen to Indians telling them to stop carrying around sacred pipes, stop doing their own sweat lodges and stop appropriating our spiritual practices. Rather, these New Agers see Indians as romanticized gurus who exist only to meet their consumerist needs. Consequently, they do not understand our struggles for survival and thus they can have no genuine understanding of Indian spiritual practices.
“The work of Andrea Smith does not excuse her blatant disrespect toward and appropriation of the experiences of Native American women,” writes one commentator, stating the obvious. Less egregious than the scandal surrounding The Education of Little Tree (1976), a children’s book about a wee lad growing up between two worlds: the alienating world of “white” modernity on the one hand, and the mystical organic Volksgemeinschaft of his Cherokee grandfather on the other. Everyone ate it up like pigs at a trough, including prominent Native Americans who affirmed that the author clearly must be a genuine native. It won awards, was taught in schools. Some diligent indigenous scholars later found out toward the end of the 1970s that the author was in fact white. And not just any white man, either, but Asa Earl Carter (using the pseudonym “Forrest”). Carter was a notorious white supremacist and a speechwriter for George Wallace. He’d written the infamous “segregation now, segregation forever!” speech a decade or so earlier.
One has to love this category, “authenticity.” It seizes on a real shortcoming within bourgeois society, the persistence of injustice and inequality, and then redirects this recognition to reactionary ends, embracing the perceived irrationalism of that which escapes civilizational norms. “The bourgeois form of rationality has always needed irrational supplements in order to maintain itself as what it is, continuing injustice through justice,” wrote Theodor Adorno in The Jargon of Authenticity. “Such irrationality in the midst of the rational is the working atmosphere of authenticity. The latter can support itself on the fact that over a long period of time literal as well as figurative mobility, a main element in bourgeois equality, always turned into injustice for those who could not entirely keep up.” Affirming irrationality or mysticism, that seemingly genuine immediacy that escapes so-called “Western” modes of rationality or enlightenment, is no better than what it opposes or denies. In no way does it transcend the abstract totality of modern society, or remove the layers of mediation that exist therein. Quite the opposite: it sustains it.
Smith’s fakery is more along the lines of Ward Churchill than Rachel Doležal or Binjamin Wilkomirski, let alone Forrest Carter. Outrageous nevertheless. Probably the sickest burn I came across online, however, caustically observed that “[t]here are plenty of members of the Wanabi tribe.” Inverting the title of Glen S. Coulthard’s recent book, Red Skin, White Masks, we might say that Andrea Smith is a case of someone with white skin who wears a red mask. Fauxcahontas, then?