Why Realness Fails Us in Native Studies

Chris Finley

In the shadow of the Rachel Dolezal scandal, mostly non-Cherokee Indigenous academics have raised an alarm about Andy Smith’s identity once again.  I want to point out that it is mostly tenured faculty that are doing this.  I want to know why you have an investment in Andy’s identity in particular.  Indian identity has always been heavily policed.  Usually it was the settlers trying to undo us, but in this case, it is ourselves.  This is the part that makes me truly sick.  There isn’t a settler in sight but there is a massacre occurring.  It isn’t only Andy who is hurt and scared by this discussion.  I know if my identity was held up to a microscope or even a magnifying glass, I would fail spectacularly.  I don’t speak my language, I don’t make it home much, I don’t eat venison because I’m a vegetarian (total Indigenous failure!), I don’t even like camping, I haven’t had sexual relations with an Indian in over 5 years, and I never wear turquoise jewelry.  Sure, I’m enrolled, but as an Indigenous person my identity is always scrutinized and measured.  (People often ask me for my blood quantum or specific questions about my cultural practices.)  As a Native woman, my identity and civility are always under attack.  Native men in the academy do not have their identities and work scrutinized as much as Native women do.

Andy Smith has done more for Indigenous people than I ever will and this is not because I think she blocked me but I just never had the energy she had to dedicate every waking moment to ending oppression.  To me the question or desire should not be for a self-confession from Andy about what went wrong or what she is or is not, because I think her actions speak louder than that.  My desire is for Indigenous people to stop tearing each other apart and to stop attacking someone who really tried to do some good.  Why didn’t so many people call out Kevin Costner when he was adopted by the Rosebud Nation and then built a casino and that was not about sovereignty or decolonization.  I tell you, I saw Andy go through her tenure battle at Michigan and the institution would have never treated a white woman that way, but it most certainly would have done so to a Native feminist.

Settlers have an interest in having less Native peoples because this means there will theoretically be more access to Native lands with less Native peoples.  One of the most important elements of settler colonialism is policing Native identity through blood quantum, erasure, assimilation, and shame.  Settlers have been defining the terms of our identity since the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 when the U.S. government made a list of who they thought was Native and their percentage of Indian blood.  What concerns me here is that this conversation is dominating social media newsfeeds and Native peoples are supposed to “come out” and make a statement about whether Andy is an Indian or not.  People are demanding that Andy makes a statement, which is really, a demand for a self-confession.  Obviously, there is power in this identity stuff and the confession of your identity and policing other people’s racial identity.  As Rey Chow argues in a much more complex and nuanced way in The Protesting Ethnic, people of color can demand representation and/or to be included in institutions.  As Chow points out, this does not challenge power.  In fact, it solidifies power because no demand is made to actually change the institution.  You might have noticed 50 years of having women and people of color included into the academic industrial complex has not changed the institution much.  I see the violence, vigor, and erasure of Andy’s identity as that moment of a challenge of representation in the academy, which does not challenge settler colonialism or disrupt the academic industrial complex.  In fact, as Chow points out, this is what is demanded of the “protesting ethnic”: yell, protest, and police identity, “Demand that the power structure let you in!”

This debate does not challenge the academic industrial complex.  In fact, it is doing nothing more than reproducing and strengthening the academy because we are just fighting amongst ourselves and it is making some of us who are in vulnerable positions (undergraduates, graduate students, junior faculty without tenure-track jobs with an advisor who lots of people hate) scared to speak up and say something that actually challenges Native studies.  If this is all Native Studies can do is police identity, and silence people in our own communities, then I no longer want to be part of Native Studies.  Andy’s identity is not a matter of sovereignty for Native studies.  For the Cherokee Nation to decide that Andy is not a Cherokee is a matter of Cherokee sovereignty because one of the few ways Indigenous Nations who are federally recognized by the United States can practice our sovereignty is through the designation of Native citizenship through setting blood quantum requirements for our members.  For us to forsake Andy for not being Native when we have a white president of Native American and Indigenous Studies is very hypocritical.  Why let white people run Native Studies?  Does that make us less Native? I don’t think so but maybe it does.  We have real things to worry about, theorize, and love.  And this debate does not get us there.  It is not a caring debate.  The debate relies on those who want to be Native informants who tell all the other non-Natives that Andy is not Cherokee or Native like this means something really deep.   To me, it doesn’t.  When I found out there wasn’t a Santa Claus, I got over it.

This is not the most important thing happening in Native America, nor should it be.

This is NOT about Andy, but this is about us and how we deal with this shit.  As Stefano Harney and Fred Moten argue in The Undercommons, we should be trying to collect debt between us in the undercommons and not credit.  They write: “But debt is social and credit is asocial.  Debt is mutual.  Credit only runs one way” (58).  Credit is given to individuals and debt is something we share together.   It feels good to owe somebody something but within capitalism, debt is considered a bad thing that you are supposed to get rid of and gain more credit.  Capitalism and institutionalization through the academic industrial complex relies on credit, and for “protesting ethnics” heavily depends on racial credit.  This debate with Andy creates a demand for racial credit that is not real.  The logic goes something likes this:  “I am Native because I call out Andy as not Native” and through this action I supposedly gain racial credit and credibility as a Native person or a non-Native person who supports decolonization.  Fuck credit.  Let’s get into racial debt together.  Let’s owe each other a lot and not demand credit by calling people out as a wannabe.  Sure, I may lose my credibility over this but it has already been lost to those of you who punish Andy by hurting me.

I am a Native woman and my blood quantum is probably higher than yours.  I chose to work with Andy.  There are institutions where I won’t even apply because I know I would not be considered because of my association with Andy.  Please see how the policing of Native identity in the academic industrial complex does not challenge power or make it a safer place for Native peoples or any other oppressed group.

This whole argument of comparing Andy Smith and Rachel Dolezal displaces blackness once again in Native studies and makes it about whiteness and not about blackness.  Rachel Dolezal also claimed to be Native too but Native studies folks use the debate over Dolezal’s blackness to discredit Andy’s Indianness.  As I stated above, and many other scholars have done before me, blackness and Indigeneity have radically different racializations in the United States but both blackness and Indigeniety are perched on the what Denise Da Silva calls the “horizon of death.” (In terms of representation, the horizon of death, within Enlightenment thinking, people of color are not seen as full subjects and are therefore closer to animals than human that can be killed without impunity.)

Why is it that if one assumes Andy is not an Indian, that she suddenly becomes white by default? We should think about this and how Indian identity is regulated by scientific racism.  Blood quantum, while regulated by individual Native nations in the United States, is about eliminating Native identity and moving Natives towards whiteness within the Black and white binary.   However, whiteness engulfs Indigeneity thereby possessing Indigeneity.  This is one of the ways the politics of representation in a Black and white binary for Indigenous peoples often means representational genocide through engulfment.  Maile Arvin, by positioning anti-blackness as a form of possession by whiteness that undergirds settler colonialism, convincingly argues that decolonization of Native communities will not happen without also rooting out anti-blackness.  Native scholars who compare Andy’s lack of Indianness to Dolezal’s performance of blackness, displaces blackness by not discussing what is actually means to compare blackness and Indigeneity within the Black and white binary.  We, in Native studies, would be better served to try and talk about what it means that Dolezal claimed both a Black and Native identity, but no, scholars decided to use the media frenzy to discredit Andy and to avoid talking about anti-blackness in Native studies.  The conversation that is happening now needs to change because this does not challenge power or decolonize Native communities.  It actually reflects back what settlers have been doing to us for hundreds of years: dispossessing us of our identities and setting the parameters of how we think about ourselves and our desire to be recognized by the settlers as legitimate subjects.  To me, we should be having different conversations that could actually bring us closer together to fight the violence of white supremacy and settler colonialism instead of fighting with each other about who is what.  As this historical moment shows, they still want us dead and gone. We’ve been fighting against each other for centuries and that has not worked out so well.

Is Andy a “REAL” Indian or not? is not the question for this moment.  Right now, people of color are being murdered by the state in the streets, prisons, and even in churches.   We owe a debt to each other to work together and stop beating each other up.  We have the power to do that by asking different questions and not putting our focus on one person’s identity.  The stakes are really high.

2 thoughts on “Why Realness Fails Us in Native Studies

  1. Tina Majkowski

    I am in tears and filled with gratitude after reading these words! Thank you for writing them, thinking them, and insisting on caring over brutality.

  2. Pingback: Racial Policing in Indian Country | [Modern Times]

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