Lying About Being Native In Academia: The Cases Of Ward Churchill And Andrea Smith

There’s a strange trend, if you can call it a trend. There’s been people who, for whatever reason, claim to be Native American but are not inside of academia.

I’ve read about them. Two of them are Ward Churchill and Andrea Smith. I am acquainted with their work, which you can judge for itself.

I don’t really know why one would claim to be Native when one is not. Except for this: It’s extremely difficult to be a non-Native in Native Studies.

I’m not saying to feel sorry for me, of course. That’s not the reason I’m writing this. But when you are a white person in Native Studies, which is an interdisciplinary field that includes philosophy, you get to feel what it’s like to be an outcast, to have people having discussions not necessarily directed toward and including you.

One way to overcome this is to claim Indian status.

I personally never needed to do this. I was completely willing to suffer in various ways in order to engage in this important work that affects the lives of people I love.

And it’s not that I wasn’t accepted by my seniors, either, most of whom were white. I don’t even technically hold an MA and I have been mentioned in academic books, have been invited for talks, and more.

But if you are white, especially, in Native Studies, you’re going to have to suffer disruption. You are going to have to go “tribeless.”

When I first came into these discussions, I was told I was neither fish nor fowl. There just wasn’t many people like me. I took this road alone because the issues are important to me personally and intellectually.

Some people want to bypass all that suffering–which, I might add, can lead to growth!–and just claim to be Indian. It’s the easy way out in Native Studies.

But the suffering caused by their lying is much worse. Their reputations have been tarnished. They are held as suspect. These days, I wouldn’t even touch their work, although I have in the past when it was assumed they were Native.

Theoretically, in academia, it shouldn’t matter one’s personal identity. But, as we know, that’s just not empirically true. I mean, sure, in theory, a person sitting in jail right now could submit a paper to a journal. That’s one reason why we have things like anonymous review. But how often in reality does that happen?

No, the ivory tower is just as much affected by our failed humanity as anything else. And people sometimes do things to keep from suffering white disruption. Claiming to be Native when one is not is, I take it, one of those things.

Author: Jennifer Lawson

Philosopher. That is all.

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