Professor Accused of False Claims of Native American Identity Agrees to Retire
For over 15 years, there have been accusations against prominent ethnic studies professor Andrea Smith for falsely claiming to be Native American. Her scholarship relied partly on her alleged Cherokee identity, but she never provided a detailed explanation for her claims, neither publicly nor privately according to scholars and former friends.
In response to a recent complaint filed by 13 faculty members, Professor Smith has agreed to retire from the University of California, Riverside next year. This unconventional separation agreement avoids an investigation into the faculty complaint, which alleged false claims of Native identity violating academic integrity. Additionally, it allows the university to avoid the legal battles that often accompany the termination of tenured professors.
Under the agreement, Dr. Smith will maintain her position until August 2024 and continue teaching classes until then. She will retain her retirement benefits and receive the honorary emeritus title, although this status will not be listed in the university’s directory. The university will also cover up to $5,000 in legal costs related to resolving the complaint.
Reactions and Criticism
University spokesperson John D. Warren stated, “The negotiated separation agreement brings a timely conclusion to Professor Smith’s continued employment with the university. Investigations of a tenured faculty member for alleged misconduct have potential for litigation and appeals, and can unfold over the course of years.”
Professor Smith, who is not registered as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, has not responded to requests for comment. However, in a previous statement, she expressed frustration with what she deemed “violent identity policing” and maintained her claim of being Cherokee.
While some Native scholars view this agreement as holding Dr. Smith accountable for her identity claims, they are disappointed that she did not acknowledge any deception. Furthermore, critics argue that by avoiding an investigation, the university allowed her to evade true consequences.
Debate Surrounding Identity
Philip Deloria, a professor at Harvard who specializes in Native American history and was a colleague of Professor Smith’s at the University of Michigan, criticized her for deflecting, angling, and wriggling out of addressing the accusations. On the other hand, Andrew J. Jolivétte, chair of the ethnic studies department at the University of California, San Diego, emphasized that lack of tribal enrollment should not be used as a weapon against her, and that focusing on individual identity cases detracts from caring for Native communities.
Professor Smith herself previously criticized white feminists for appropriating Native identities as a means of dissociating from their own whiteness. She argued that this allowed them to evade accountability for white racism.
History and Recent Developments
Public scrutiny of Ms. Smith’s identity began in 2008 when she was denied tenure at the University of Michigan, sparking controversy. Supporters organized a conference in her defense, featuring her dissertation advisor Angela Davis as a guest speaker. A news release at the time hailed Dr. Smith as a prominent Indigenous feminist intellectual.
Steve Russell, a Cherokee academic, became involved in the conflict when he discovered that she was not enrolled as a Cherokee but still wrote for Indian Country Today. Ms. Smith eventually found a new position at the University of California, Riverside, but the accusations persisted.
The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy article in 2021 that further brought attention to Ms. Smith’s claims. Four months later, Chancellor Kim Wilcox issued a cryptic statement emphasizing the importance of transparency and integrity regarding indigenous affiliation and identity.
The recent faculty complaint in August 2022 prompted the retirement agreement. Gerald Clarke, a member of the Cahuilla Band of Indians and a professor in the ethnic studies department, stated that he raised the issue due to the harm false claims of identity inflict on tribal communities. He stressed the significance of preserving and respecting identities as something precious and controllable.