‘Academia has become a pretendian factory,’ says Jacquelyn Keeler, a journalist and citizen of Navajo Nation
Following a complaint from 13 faculty members, an ethnic studies professor at UC Riverside whose claims of Cherokee ancestry have been called into question for 15 years and sparked public outrage has agreed to resign.
Andrea Smith will be able to continue working as a full-time faculty member until August 2024, when she will be eligible for full retirement benefits and the honorary title of emeritus, according to a separation agreement signed in January.
Smith, a tenured professor at UC Riverside since 2008, has agreed that her emeritus status will not be listed on the university’s website directories.
NEXT: ‘I am a White person:’ A UC Berkeley professor has apologized for claiming to be Native American.
Smith’s resignation avoids an administrative investigation as well as potentially significant legal costs for the university. According to John Warren, a UC Riverside spokesperson, the negotiated separation agreement brings Smith’s continued employment with the university to a timely conclusion.
“Investigations of tenured faculty members for alleged misconduct have the potential for litigation and appeals, and can unfold over the course of years,” Warren explained.
According to Jacqueline Keeler, a freelance journalist, author, Navajo Nation citizen, and Yankton Sioux Tribe descendant, academia has become a breeding ground for “pretendians,” those who falsely claim indigenous identity for professional, political, and monetary gain.
“Academia has become a pretendian factory,” Keeler explained over the phone on Wednesday, Aug. 30.
She believes that by citing federal civil rights and discrimination laws, universities have effectively given their faculty free rein to perpetuate false claims of ancestral ties to indigenous people or other races. She stated that this was the case at UC Riverside.
“I think the university’s claim that they were fearful of a lawsuit is ridiculous,” Keeler said. “(Smith’s) retirement will cost more than a lawsuit, and there’s no basis for one because there’s no proof she’s Native (American).”
Smith resigned in response to a complaint filed by 13 faculty members with the university last August. According to the separation agreement, they accused Smith of making false claims to Native American identity in violation of the Faculty Code of Conduct.
According to the agreement, Smith denied and disputed the allegations in the complaint. Smith agreed to resign after the university engaged in discussions with her to resolve the issue.
According to the agreement, the university has agreed to pay Smith up to $5,000 in attorney fees she incurred in resolving the complaint.
‘Will always be Cherokee’
Smith, who is not a registered Cherokee Nation citizen, did not respond to email or phone messages seeking comment.
However, in 2015, amid ongoing media scrutiny over her dubious ties to the Cherokee Nation, Smith issued a statement on her blog saying, “I have always been, and will always be Cherokee.”
“I have consistently identified myself based on what I knew to be true,” Smith wrote in a blog post in 2015. She claimed that the media had made “innumerable false statements” about her.
“It is my hope that more Indigenous peoples will answer the call to work for social justice without fear of being subjected to violent identity-policing,” Smith said.
Smith’s Cherokee heritage reportedly sparked controversy after she was denied tenure at the University of Michigan in 2008. That same year, she moved on and accepted a position at UC Riverside.
The question of Smith’s alleged Cherokee Nation ancestry piqued the interest of a slew of Native American scholars and activists, who dug deep into her past.
Some were even hired by Smith herself to research her ancestors.
David Cornsilk, a retired genealogist, Cherokee Nation citizen, and member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, said Smith hired him in the 1990s to research her mother’s and father’s ancestors. He claimed he found no evidence of Cherokee ancestry in Smith’s family tree.
Smith’s dubious Cherokee ancestry has also been widely reported in the mainstream media, particularly in the New York Times, with an expose in the New York Times Magazine scheduled for May 2021.
Four months after the magazine exposé, UC Riverside issued a statement on “indigenous identity affiliation” on its website, insisting on “transparency and integrity in matters of Indigenous affiliation and identity” by all faculty.
Warren was unable to comment on why the university did not take action sooner.
“Allegations of misconduct by a faculty member are a personnel matter, protected by privacy laws, and, with few exceptions, are not disclosed,” Warren wrote in an email on Wednesday.
Smith is among several figures in academia who have made headlines in recent years over false identity claims, according to Keeler, an author and Navajo Nation citizen. Jessica Krug and Elizabeth Hoover are among the others.
Hoover, an associate professor at UC Berkeley, apologized in May, admitting that she was a White woman who had falsely claimed to be Native American her entire life.
Assemblymember James Ramos, a member of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, described the “pretender” problem as a “serious issue” that needs to be addressed more effectively in university systems.
“The bigger question is, when someone claims Native American ancestry — when you start seeing people using that to further themselves — there should be a question of who is and who isn’t (Native American), and who decides who is and who isn’t,” Ramos said.