Dolezal vs. Smith: Apples to Oranges?

As I sit down to write this, my social media feeds are rumbling with commentary on the links between Rachel Dolezal’s claims to being black, and Andrea Smith’s past claims to being Cherokee.  I’ve read over the past days several postings on this issue, including blogs written by Lynn Gehl, Dina Gilio-Whitaker, Erica Violet Lee, and one on the tequilasovereign blog.  I suppose the comparison between Smith and Dolezal was inevitable in the Indigenous studies community, where identity construction is a huge issue, and where fraudulent claims to being Indigenous is an even a bigger issue.  And rightfully so; as Erica pointed out this morning, there are too many white settler folks taking space and air-time away from Indigenous peoples and Indigenous women in particular.

It is because of this latter point that I have not added my two cents into the discussion about how Dolezal’s claims reverberate through Indigenous communities.  I have zero per cent Indian blood.  I’m phenotypically white.  Cis male.  And straight.  I mean, its nearly impossible for anyone to have less authority in this matter, at least in an ethical and decolonizing sense.

That said, I share this post now as someone who, despite my whiteness, my maleness, my heteroness, is also a citizen of the Anishinaabe nation through customary adoption.  I was adopted into Fort William First Nation as a toddler, two years before my white biological mother “married in” to the community.  Despite all of the above, I identify as Anishinaabe, and I am claimed as such by my community.  But as Tuck and Yang point out, my adoption should not be seen as a move to innocence: I am not so clueless as to think my adoption in and of itself destroys white supremacy, my whiteness (including how my thinking has been produced), or colonialism, nor does it absolve me from undermining whiteness and patriarchy in every single way that I can.  I share so much of my positionality because its important for you to know where I’m coming from – so that you can decide for yourself if what I’m about to say holds any water…

What I’ve found most interesting in the discussions about what implications Dolezal’s claims might have for Indigenous communities, is that Andrea Smith’s past claims to being Cherokee have come up at all.  In some ways it makes common sense to juxtapose Dolezal to Smith: both had made identity claims that were challenged and, to different degrees, retracted.  In this common sense approach, Smith’s story has become the lightning rod upon which we in the Indigenous studies community attempt to understand Dolezal’s story.

But by finding resonance for Dolezal’s story in this way, I wonder if we’re missing a nuanced point.  And that is: are we not conflating racialized identity with Indigenous citizenships?

My worry is that defaulting to comparing Smith to Dolezal demonstrates how much Indigenous identities have been racialized, and, more importantly, how we might be upholding such racialization.  The fact that Smith’s claims to Indigeneity have to somehow automatically be compared to Dolezal’s claims to blackness seems to betray something that many people are thinking but not saying, namely: that Indigeneity is always-only a race thing.  While there is no doubt that the Indigenous peoples are racialized as “Indians,” I don’t think Smith claimed to be a different race; she claimed to be Cherokee, which under many (though not all) Indigneous citizenship systems would be totally ok so long as the community/nation one is claiming to belong with claims her/him back.

I don’t know Andrea Smith personally.  So I cannot answer any of the questions currently swirling through the blogosphere about her original claims to being Cherokee (see blog links above), nor would I want to police her identity in any way.   But many brilliant scholars have pointed out that to belong with an Indigenous nation is not only a matter of biological descent.  Family-making practices renew a nation’s citizens in several ways, including through birth, but also through marriage and adoption (Don Auger-ba provides a good example of adoption and belonging, here).

In trying to understand Andrea Smith’s story, I can only draw on my own experience of being Anishinaabe through customary adoption.  And one of the key things I’ve learned is that the public at large often refuses to consider the possibility that one can belong with an Indigenous nation without some high quantum of Indian blood.  In other words, Indigeneity is racialized in the common sense.  Lost in this way of thinking are the Indigenous citizenship laws that operate on their own frequencies, often doing so with different ideas about what constitutes essentialized identity, which in turn often operate in ways beyond a narrow focus on blood line.  What often matters more, is whether a person is claimed by an Indigneous community/nation, whether they identify with that nation, and how they carry out their responsibilities to family, nation and land.

I believe that, as scholars, it is incumbent upon us to extricate our own blind spots in discussions meant to be decolonizing.  In the current discussions about Dolezal, it is important to be aware of how that story is one of whiteness appropriating racialized identity for its own goals, and how this differs from the issue and function of Indigenous citizenships.

On this note, I would argue that Erica has posed the most important question yet in the current Andrea Smith discussion.  She asks, “Will Andrea Smith be claimed by an Indigenous community (in whatever form that takes) in the days or years to come? Would it even make a difference now?” [Emphasis mine]  Indeed, would the Indigenous studies community be willing to see belonging beyond race if the Cherokee nation reached out to Andrea and claimed her as Cherokee?  Or would such claiming of a person, and the Indigenous citizenship order it would rest on, be obfuscated by the same racializing principles that cause us to automatically compare Smith to Dolezal?

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