"Dolezal"-ing Strikes Again: Two Native Activists Found to Be Perpetrating Native Identities

Just when we hoped the Rachel Dolezal effect would be an anomaly, there are some new stories of other people perpetuating a different heritage to the nth degree. 

Salon is reporting that two big-name Native activists have been revealed to be white. Kansas City artist and musician Terry Lee Whetstone had been selling what was being billed as “authentic Native American” pieces of art and jewelry and listed himself as a “Native American Musician, Artist, and Teacher.”

He is listed as a member of the Northern Cherokee Nation, which is recognized within the state of Missouri. But, as the Kansas City Star reports, he has listed himself as both a “mixed-blood Cherokee” in a YouTube video and “white” on a 1997 marriage license. He also is not a recognized member of the Cherokee Nation, which has federal protections. Such protections also allow for perpetrators selling goods under the Cherokee name to face jail time; it’s a misdemeanor to promote false Cherokee goods.

The other perpetrator, Andrea Smith, has been a prominent activist for Cherokee issues since 1991. The Daily Beast reports, she founded INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. She also authored Conquest, presenting evidence showing state-sanctioned attacks against Native women.

Similar to Dolezal’s leadership in the Spokane, Washington NAACP, Smith has been a part of Chicago’s chapter of Women of All Red Nations (WARN) and, like Dolezal, claimed discrimination in corporate America; Smith was denied tenure at the University of Michigan, and many faculty members and students rose up against what seemed to be discrimination against her on the grounds of her being Cherokee. Research analyst and founder of Cherokee Genealogy Services David Cornsilk has stated that his research showed no Cherokee heritage in her genealogy, even after Smith came to him twice, the second time with “new claims” about her father’s heritage.

To some, this revelation is a huge blow. But to others, Smith’s Dolezaling isn’t new. Annita Lucchesi, a graduate student at Washington State University, wrote a blog post stating that Smith’s lack of Cherokee heritage has always been known, particularly since, according to Lucchesi, Smith has never shown real concern for the practical lives of Cherokee people. To quote her:

her behavior has been so suspect for so long. i  mean she organized CESA in Chicago a few years ago, and not one local tribe or Native organization attended or was featured, even though Chicago has one of the biggest urban Indian populations in the US and she allegedly worked with Native sexual assault victims in that city for over a decade. how you gon do that work and not know or invite ANYONE to a conference themed on DECOLONIZATION? and no one in the movement to end violence against Native women, who is outside of academia, knows who you are or what you do??…she actively avoids reservations, tribal colleges, and Native people outside academia. she does not go to cultural events, and doesn’t even really work with other Natives. she loves to be the token Indian in “coalition spaces.”…it’s a shame honestly because she has overshadowed some really amazing Native feminists scholars for a VERY long time.

There’s tons more stuff in the Daily Beast article, but something that’s highly ironic (and maybe her easing her conscience?) is a portion of her article for Ms. Magazine that rails on white feminists who choose to “become Indian.” “Of course white ‘feminists’ want to become only partly Indian. They do not want to be a part of our struggles for survival against genocide,” she wrote.

I’m very perplexed, but at the same time, I’m not. Why do people do this? I know it’s not a very articulate question, but that’s literally my question. Why do people want to be something they’re not? What do people get out of this? I know I’ve given tons of points as to why Rachel Dolezal might have opted into the idea of blackness, but still, I ask, on a more existential level, why does this happen?

Also, why does this always happen at the expense of actual minority voices? Sigh. I guess this is becoming a trend, which is a little alarming, since it all it does is highlight white supremacy in a brand new way. In this way, actual minorities can’t speak for themselves, because there’s someone who was born into whiteness who can perpetuate the guise of minority suffering and be accepted, probably quicker than an actual minority activist. It is possible to help groups advance without feeling the need to become them. David Shorter, Professor and Vice Chair of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at the University of California Los Angeles, has a great op-ed about this for Indian Country Today Media Network; I’d suggest you read it.

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YouTube screencap of Andrea Smith.