In June 2021, an anonymous report began circulating in Canadian academic circles. It listed six faculty and staff members at Queen's College in Kingston, Ontario.
"Queen's College is currently overrun with white Canadians making false claims to Indigenous — especially Algonquin — identity," it read. "We are confident that our thorough research has focused on six of the most prominent and harmful cases."
The college rejected the allegations, prompting a written protest signed by more than 100 Indigenous scholars, condemning "white faculty claiming Indigeneity on the basis of family lore or one Indigenous ancestor from hundreds of years ago … claiming both trauma and healing that never belonged to them as they enact what scholars and advocates recognize as the final … stage of settler colonization: 'settler self-indigenization.'"
In response, Queen's College promised to review its hiring policies.
Native Americans complain that problem is widespread in U.S. colleges and universities.
Dartmouth College in 2015 withdrew Susan Taffee Reed as Native American program director after learning that her "tribe" was a Pennsylvania nonprofit organization, some of whose members have no Native ancestors at all. Dartmouth shifted her to another position.
As The New York Times reported in 2021, University of California, Riverside, scholar and activist Andrea Smith falsely claimed Cherokee identity for years and received fellowship awards meant for underrepresented groups in academia.
Cases like these prompted journalist Jacqueline Keeler in 2021 to begin investigating the problem. So far, she has drawn up a list of 200 "suspects."
"A lot of these people are names I've been hearing in tribal circles for a while and have been proven to be frauds," said Keeler, a citizen of the Navajo Nation whose father was Yankton Sioux.
"As a reporter, I'd be working on a story about someone, only to find out that person wasn't actually Native."
Keeler works with tribal enrollment departments, genealogists and historians.
"We go back into their family histories as far back as the 1600s to try to find someone who was enrolled in or who lived in an Indian community and was clearly associated with a tribe."
VOA obtained a copy of the list, which names artists, authors, actors and dozens of academicians. VOA is not publishing the list because we cannot independently verify the names.
Keeler says the list is the product of decades of Native peoples' efforts at accountability.
"Some of entries to the list have been independantly verified by major media, tribes, federal agencies and even in court cases."
Some people have criticized Keeler for conducting a witch hunt. But she has strong support in Native circles.
"I don't think Jackie intends to do anything with it," Ben Barnes, chief of the Shawnee tribe in Oklahoma, told VOA. "I think it's a place for Natives to come together and say, 'Hey, you're not crazy. We've been saying this all along, that academia is rife with paternalism!'"
'Step-offs' and high cheekbones
Federally recognized tribes are sovereign nations that have exclusive rights to determine membership. Criteria vary; most tribes require documented lineage, historic rolls and/or blood quantum, a certain degree of Native American blood.
Other factors are also important, such as a person's knowledge of his or her tribe's culture, knowledge system, history, language, religion, familial kinships and how strongly a person identifies himself or herself as American Indian or Alaska Native.
Native Americans contend that pretendians often fabricate histories to explain "Indian" identity, claiming ancestors who refused to be included on government rolls or were misidentified on state census forms. Some cite high cheekbones or straight dark hair as evidence of indigeneity.
Charles Gourd, a Cherokee Nation citizen and former director of the Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission, admitted to having been fooled by a pretendian.
"He claimed to be Cherokee," said Gourd. "So, one day I asked him which one of the three Cherokee tribes he was from. And he said, 'No, no we were —' and he used a term I'd never heard before —'step-offs,' Indians who supposedly stepped off the Trail of Tears (forced removal to Oklahoma) and hid out in the mountains."
Pretendians across the country have organized into phony tribes such as the "Southern Cherokee Agency" to access benefits and rights set aside for Native Americans or other minorities."
In March, the University of Michigan launched an online forum series, "Unsettling Genealogies: A Forum on Pseudo Indians, Race-Shifting, Pretendians and Self-Indigenization in Media, Arts, Politics and the Academy."
Chief Barnes participated, as did Kim TallBear, a Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate professor at the University of Alberta.
"Non-Indigenous people with non-Indigenous community standpoints who pose as Indigenous and who rise through the professional ranks falsely represent our voices," TallBear said. "They theorize Indigenous peoplehood, sovereignty and anticolonialism. They become thought leaders, institutional decision-makers and policy advisers to governmental leaders with regulatory and economic power over our peoples and lands."
Race shifting is particularly harmful in academia, she said. Pretendians write books and shape academic and public discourse about who Indigenous people are, how they live, and how Indigenous policy should be formulated.
"Pretendians cut to the very trust we must have in academia, where much of what we know (about Native history and thought) originates," said David Cornsilk, a retired Cherokee Nation historian and genealogist. "If an institution is unwilling to vet their hires for authenticity, that speaks volumes about their scholarship."
Race vs. citizenship
But is vetting hires legal?
U.S. civil rights law prohibits employers from considering race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in any aspect of employment unless they have a legitimate business need, such as meeting diversity guidelines.
In such cases, the law allows employers to collect racial information on separate "tear-off" sheets but says the information may not be used in the selection process.
The U.S. government recognizes as American Indian/Alaska Native anyone who has blood degree from and is recognized as such by a federally recognized tribe or village as an enrolled tribal member. Further, it says "Indian" is not a racial designation but a political one.
"If someone asks me if I'm a resident of the state of Oklahoma, I pull out my driver's license," said Shawnee chief Barnes. "Why is asking somebody to show their tribal identification card a problem?"
In March, the National Indigenous University Senior Leaders' Association and the First Nations University of Canada (FNU) held an online National Indigenous Identity Forum to explore the best ways to validate identity claims. Though the forum was closed to media, FNU president NIUSLA co-chair Jacqueline Ottmann later spoke to media via Zoom.
"Self-identification isn't working, and the one reason that it isn't working is because it goes against that...community connection that most indigenous peoples are very familiar with," she said. "We've navigated these spaces of citizenship and identity for centuries, and we talk about our family connections when we meet each other."