Rachel Dolezal and Andrea Smith: On the Politics of Racial Identity and “Passing” from a Critical Mixed-Race Studies Perspective

by Andrew Jolivétte

PART ONE:

Let me begin by stating that the recent comparisons between Rachel Dolezal and Andrea Smith are deeply problematic and troubling for a number of reasons.

1. Smith unlike Dolezal grew up being told she was Cherokee, she did not invent this identification as a child.

2. The politics of tribal enrollment and citizenship, especially within the Cherokee Nation are deeply politicized, racist, and in my view Eurocentric to say the least (see Sturm, Blood Politics).

3. Smith has not held official appointments in Native American Studies, unlike Dolezal who held positions in African American organizations. While Smith has held positions in Native organizations, this was not her source of employment.

4. Passing functions differently in Native and Black contexts and while both benefit from supposedly passing the issue of who is and who is not Indian is much more tied to state and federal laws both historic and contemporary that seek to limit the number of Indians while increasing the number of Blacks. In other words kill the Indian through a paper genocide so no one can be an Indian unless the U.S. Government approves and anyone with Black blood is black according to the U.S. Government so that they can be thoroughly disenfranchised.

5. When the Cherokee were removed in the 1830s not all Cherokee left many remained, unrecognized in their original homelands but we both native and non-native academics tend to favor the enrolled to the detriment of the unrecognized (I.e., California Indians especially in Northern California who are also “Not Indian” like Smith for the very same reasons). I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Smith like the Ohlone are Not recognized because of a government system that seeks to erase Indian people, especially mixed-race Indians. This happens throughout the United States and Latin America where blackness is in fact used to erase Indian blood, while whiteness in Indian country is rarely questioned.

6. The problem of the census and enrollment from a critical mixed race perspective—census takers did not enroll all Indians nor did they even record the blood quantum of siblings with the same parents in a consistent manner. In Louisiana, where my father is from the practice of categorizing mixed race people especially after 1890 focused on making as many multiracial people into African Americans as possible to disenfranchise them. This is not to say that these individuals were not Black, but they were also White/Latin and American Indian.

7. Oral versus written records. I’m not writing this piece to claim Andrea Smith is Indian, I am writing it to question the way we have come to overwhelmingly accept the ways that Europeans have defined Indianness based on written versus oral forms of “evidence”! For all we know Smith could descend from the Cherokee who never left during removal. I only raise this to say that culture, not biology should determine identity, but as is the case with mixed race identity in the black community, it is too tempting to read mixed-race as fake race. I did attend graduate school with Andrea Smith. I do NOT know her family or her ethnicity other than what she told me during the time we were in school together, but my point is why did the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma begin to question her identity in the first place? Was it because of the political questions she was asking?

8. Disappearing one of “their own”? Whether Smith is biologically Cherokee or not, I find it ironic how whiteness has so thoroughly taken hold of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Indeed they are a nation with a long-standing series of tribal chiefs who were partially and often predominantly white. Whiteness within the nation has been at the very least less offensive than blackness (Cherokee freedmen, who like Smith have been disappeared because supposedly they are NOT Cherokee by blood) but why disappear a mixed white person in this case when this has not been the consistent pattern of a nation with no minimum blood quantum? Did she ask one too many questions?

Racial identity politics are tricky business to say the least but at the end of the day mixed race scholars argue that culture and cultural participation is what we should use to determine group membership. This case of questioning Smith opens up a set of other larger questions with enormous stakes for the future of American Indians—who should determine who is an Indian? Many say tribes have the sovereign right to grant citizenship, but what happens to tribes like the Ohlone who live without recognition? Are they Indians? What about nations like unlike the U.S government deny citizenship on the basis of race or inaccurate or distorted written records. In the end, how does Smith’s work further or take away from Indian struggles for justice? How do Dolezal’s claims serve as an act of anti-blackness in that she purposefully wanted to perform blackness, no where has Smith romanticized being an Indian to my knowledge. Let us ask ourselves are we who are grandmothers and mothers tell us we are or should we be what the government wants us to be? If it’s the latter I fear all the Indians will be gone and soon all the blacks will follow, albeit for different reasons.

PART TWO:

One more note to my earlier post today regarding Andrea Smith. While I believe we should use her case to raise bigger questions about the politics of recognition and problematic census rolls I would be remiss if I did not state that no one should ever, ever claim enrollment status if they know it is false. As some who comes from unrecognized people I would never claim enrollment and on this point I can agree that misrepresentation is an abuse when so many look up to a person who is by all rights “representing” a Native nation or Native issues period. It is a sad day in many ways and I appreciate and thank colleagues who are taking up the issue from many very honest and difficult vantage points.

PART THREE:

I’d like to further clarify my post yesterday about Andrea Smith. My comments were not meant as a defense of her knowingly claiming to be an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. My post was about what issues make it possible for someone to be denied or granted citizenship and how are current systems deeply flawed and how racial mixing has been used to deny citizenship and erase some people who are Native because no records exist. It’s really a simple question. Was every person of Cherokee/American Indian descent counted? If not could there be folks who claim Native identities based on oral traditions that have no written documentation? Could Andrea Smith be one of these people? I’m not saying whether she is or is not. I was raised not to question people’s identity. That is between them and their community(ies). My reference to policing is really a question about why we as academics are engaging in questioning the identity of another person and their integrity? As a legal issue hasn’t this already been decided? Do these discussions take away from the real entity that gets to decide—the tribe? At any rate as I’ve said it I’m not defending nor critiquing the choices she made. I don’t believe it’s my place to do so. I will say that collectively perhaps as a Native Academic community there is a responsibility to the communities we serve to ensure that indigenous peoples are not being represented in ways that are NOT of their own choosing.

My point here was not to say without a doubt that Andy is mixed-race or even Native. My larger point was who gets to decide? The Cherokee Nation decides but are there problems with how people have been included and excluded from the nation on the basis of racial mixing? My point is we don’t know if she was raised Native/Cherokee or not and I was merely suggesting that there could be legitimate reasons why her family has no paper trail. The only two plausible reasons- she has no ancestry or the paper work for her family like many Indian people just isn’t in the records and we do know that this happened a lot even among tribes with great records. How many Natives reading this have relatives and ancestors who had an incorrect BQ or none listed at all? I used unrecognized tribes like the Ohlone to suggest a similar problem with written records not always under the control of the tribes themselves. All this language we are using is not from us, it comes from a Western, essentialist construct. But I do often feel as many of you do that academia is not necessarily the place where change really happens because in the end whether she is or isn’t Indian or mixed and whatever the reason for her actions—what will change other than she won’t be considered Indian anymore? That she will no longer be a “Native” academic. This is also an opportunity for all of us to ask ourselves what does it mean to be a Native academic and who/what are responsible for? All other Native academics? All tribes? Just our specific tribes? The tribes located in the regions where we work and live?

This is not the first case and it probably isn’t the last and certainly not the last among “Cherokee” academics…there will be more (there have already been whispers about other prominent figures) so this is why I chose to focus on the larger, structural and systemic problems related to BQ and census records. How in all of this do we bring kinship, clan, cultural participation and family back into the conversation to also get more Native students, faculty, staff, and administrators in higher education if that’s what they/we want to do? And how will engaging with academia benefit our home communities, territories, and nations. We owe it to the coming generations of Native scholars to create spaces, where their multiple identities are not cause for concern that they too will be chased away. In the end it is up to our families and communities to determine our identities. I have heard from students all across the country since writing my statements and many have expressed both gratitude for the perspective and fear/concern for their own well-being as they pursue their own academic careers. So let us elevate our discussion to focus not on individuals, but rather on institutions and structural practices that continue to marginalize Native peoples.

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