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Andrea Smith: On the Reification of Identity

EDIT: One of the commenters below has brought up an important intervention.  To be fair, after writing this I was somewhat uncomfortable with the way I let it stand, and I'm glad someone has intervened.  I'd urge anyone who reads this old post to also read this website mentioned in the comment.

I'm obviously not the only person who was shocked to discover, in the wake of the Rachel Dolezal revelation, that Andrea Smith was not an Indigenous woman, despite having built an academic reputation on this very fact.  For those who are unaware, Smith published the seminal and very important book Conquest, that chronicled the intersection of sexual violence and genocide in the Americas, and was also one of the founders of INCITE.  Like many, and though I did not always agree with Smith's political positions (i.e. such as her many blanket and ahistorical claims about Marxism-Leninism), I have been influenced by both her academic and political work and was under the impression that she was an important radical member of the Cherokee community.  Which is why I couldn't help but gape when I learned that it is most likely the case she has fabricated this identity; my jaw dropped even further when I discovered that this was something of an open secret in the Indigenous community and that she had been asked, several years back, to stop identifying as Cherokee.  (An outraged and anonymous tumblr charts the back story, revealing that Indigenous scholars and representatives have been bothered by Smith's claims for years.)  Perhaps one of the reasons this revelation has bothered me is because my doctoral work was a philosophical intervention in anti-colonial theory, an attempt to place marxism and indigenism in dialogue, and so I valued the contributions of thinkers such as Smith.

Hence, I do not in any way believe that the revealed fact of Smith's identity as a white woman invalidates her scholarship.  Conquest stands on its own merits; it would be a genetic fallacy to now claim otherwise, regardless of how the book might have been sold as an "insider's perspective".  While it might be the case that there are now certain formal aspects to the work that should be called into question, the substance of the book is still very important.  Bizarrely enough, in a stock textbook that I use for half of one of my critical reasoning classes, the example of the genetic fallacy is the following: "Selena's argument regarding Aboriginal rights can't be right because she's of European descent."  But if this is the case, how come the truth of Smith's origins was seen as significant when the book was written and the publishers believed she was a member of the Cherokee nation, and equally significant now that her identity is in dispute?  The answer, of course, is that a certain reification of identity politics has made what would normally be a fallacious judgment significant… this whole fallacy hunting business can often become a very uncritical way of looking at reality.

Indeed, some of the responses to this revelation have been caught in this identitarian dilemma: on the one hand they recognize that Smith's scholarship ought to stand on its own merits, but on the other hand they are still caught within an identity politics that desires the author's origin to be recognized as Indigenous.  People connected to the INCITE collective, co-founded by Smith, have made statements about how we should not "police" Smith's identity, as if the problem here is with a conspiracy of activist policing rather than the very "cultural appropriation" that they, and Smith, have written a lot about.  Yes, the real problem at hand is settler-colonialism, and thus Smith's work does contribute to an understanding of this, but this supposed "policing" wouldn't have happened if someone had not pretended to be a member of an oppressed community.  What is intended by this "policing" statement?  That we allow anyone to claim they are a member of an oppressed people group despite having a white and settler socialization that contributed to their subjectivity?  Do I have the right, as someone whose entire phenomenal experience is one of a white/settler male (and who thus has possessed a significant amount of material privilege due to my socialization within the colonizer realm of a colonial context), to just identify, because I feel like it, as a member of an Indigenous community because maybe––due to the fact that colonialism functions by tearing colonized peoples from their nations––that there might be an Indigenous person somewhere in the obscure branches of my family tree?  I think most would agree that this would be a ludicrous charade, and the sad irony is that Andrea Smith (among others) made some pretty persuasive arguments as to why this kind of identity appropriation is actually part of colonial oppression.  So was she "policing" identity as well, and why was this okay when she was accepted at her word as being an Indigenous woman and not now when her own identity is being "policed"?  Obviously this has nothing to do with policing aside from the fact that the social categories of race, gender, and class might be an enforced policing, in a very vague and metaphorical sense, enforced by the state.  But these social categories also mean something; they have to do with the lived experience of racism, colonialism, etc.

In fact, most of the pithy defenses of Smith, which attempt to preserve her important contribution to anti-colonial scholarship while at the same time preserving identity politics, demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of the material basis of colonialism and racialization…

Nationhood and Colonialism

First of all, there is the inability to recognize the fact that when we are talking about colonized peoples, and thus indigeneity, we are not talking about some vague culturalism but actually existing nations that experience national oppression.  [As a tangental point, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's masterful but sadly out-of-print Indians of the Americas examined the theory of the national question, as established by the Third International, in light of Indigenous self-determination.  It should be a required read.]  Hence, the primary way in which colonized peoples are subjectivized as colonized is due to the fact that they are part of oppressed nations: their experience is one of apartheid––that is, the reserve system––and the struggles that produce their radicalism is part of a general struggle of national self-determination where their nations can be recognized as nations, and not as subject populations, according to their own traditional boundaries and cultures.  The most common colonial oppression has been aimed at preventing these nations from existing; the most radical moment of Indigenous identity has been in participating in a nation in revolt and demanding national secession.  This has been the case since the early days of the American Indian Movement, through the "Oka Uprising," up to the Six Nations land seizure in settler Caledonia.

The problematic of the national question needs to be grasped in order to understand the way in which some of these defenses of Andrea Smith fail to grasp the basis of anti-colonial struggle.  Indeed, some of Smith's anxious defenders cite "blood quanta" as an erroneous way to determine Indigenous identity because it has to do with settler notions of racial purity. Quite right, but this misses the point.  Smith's narrative was always based on a vague appeal to identity, divorced from the concept of nationhood, so on what basis could she make an appeal to being Cherokee other than her own, individual decision that she thought she was Cherokee?  It was clearly not because her family members were ever part of this nation, or experienced national oppression, because activists in the Cherokee community cite that this was not the case.  Nationhood is indeed a category that defies genetic claims about blood quanta since a nation has the right to patriate its members (i.e. members of the settler nation of Canada are legally "Canadian" based on rules of citizenship), but Smith was not patriated, nor did she even appear to work for such patriation, in the nation she claimed as her own.  We would find it absurd if someone claimed to be a member of a nation recognized by imperialist hegemony if they were not a member of that nation (i.e. if I claimed to be a French citizen just because), and this is even more absurd in the context of national oppression.  As one irate Indigenous blogger complained:
"…her behaviour 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 [sic] that work and not know or invite ANYONE to a conference themed on DECOLONIZATION? […] 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.' so why is it surprising that she's not who she says she is?"
Point being, if your identity was connected to nationhood rather than "blood quanta", and you actively cared about decolonization, then you should find a way to engage yourself in the nations you claim to represent.  If you are not even participating in national struggle––if you can't even be bothered to be active in the apartheided reserves where these oppressed nations exist and where colonial subjects are concretely produced––then by what basis can you even begin to claim an identity.  We're talking, here, of a complete separation from the point in which anti-colonial struggle accrues, where colonized communities have been reproduced for centuries as colonized communities, which has nothing at all to do with "blood quanta" but about how and why individual subjects belong to a colonized community.  On a related note this again demonstrates the poverty of the "decolonial" discourse which is far from anti-colonial due to its inability to recognize revolutionary national struggle of colonized peoples.

In any case, failing any identification with a colonized nation––either through registration or participation with a nation in revolt––Smith indeed sought bastion in the very logic of "blood quanta" that is imposed by settlerist logic.  She tried to find a genealogist that could confirm she possessed at least one Cherokee ancestor and, even though this is pretty poor way to define oneself as colonized (because it does not, as we shall examine below, demonstrate that one's phenomenal experience is Indigenous or racialized in any way), she still failed to discover any basis upon which to claim her Cherokee heritage.  So the whole argument about how we should defend Smith because we reject notions of blood quanta is rather dismal: she identified as a member of a nation (at one point even claiming registered status), she was not involved in any national struggle where she could be patriated, she was not part of the 70s generation that burned their registration cards, and she sought bastion in the very logic of blood quanta and still was not justified.

Racialization and Colonialism

Secondly, since many people who experience the daily affects of colonization are not patriated members of a nation due to the ways in which Indigenous nations have been oppressed and fragmented, there is indeed still a phenomenal experience of being colonized that exists outside of the primary national experience.  We know, for example, that the residential school system functioned to disarticulate colonized nations and tear colonized people away from their communities.  So what is the basis of judging indigeneity in this context?  Simply (or not so simply) put it has to do with one's concrete experience as a colonized subject.

If one is aware of this history of national alienation and colonial chauvinism, and has grown up their whole life with this history stamped upon their being to the point that they are excluded from settler life, then this is a phenomenal experience of colonialism.  On the other hand, if one lives a white settler existence, with all of the social privileges this amounts to, then it matters very little if there might be someone on your family tree who was an Indigenous person.  We know there is a tradition of racist settlers proclaiming they are 1/16th Cherokee, or what-have-you, in order to justify their support of the Washington Redskins, or wearing a head-dress because it is hip, and we generally treat this as a joke––again, Andrea Smith herself rightly attacked this logic as racist.  In any case, if one does not grow up experiencing colonial oppression, and whose entire family sees themselves as part of white settler power (and who is raised in accordance with this logic), then they are not a colonized person; they have no experience of being colonized, most particularly if they cannot find anyone in their family tree who has possessed this experience.

Let us go further… Fanon speaks of racialization within a colonial context as being "overdetermined from the outside."  While it is indeed the case that this analysis has become less popular in these days of identity politics, where identity "policing" has become a big bad norm, there is something to be said about its understanding of concrete reality.  The average white supremacist who passes you in the street is not immediately interested in your family history; they react to whether or not you are cognized as properly "white".  That is, the white gaze does indeed hold sway when it comes to the actual policing of racial mores: an individual who does not read as properly white is alarming, racialization is indeed about asinine concepts such as "skin colour" and "facial features" for the most reactionary proponents of colonial hegemony because this is the way in which they see the world that they want to police.  They're less interested in investigating genealogies (though the white supremacist hegemony has indeed imposed this kind of policing in the past) then in excluding people from the general category of humanity based on how much they differ from what is normatively coded as "white".

EDIT: I want to be clear, here, that the above paragraph is not meant to indicate that people cannot be racialized simply because they pass as white.  There are entirely significant ways in which racialization happens that are not based on the white gaze.  Indeed there is a long history of how this develops someone's subjectivity.  The above paragraph was meant to indicate a very significant way that racialization happens, that Fanon noted decades ago, that has often been dropped from the discourse.  So apologies to those who might have misread the above claims to have excluded other experiences of racialization.  The first paragraph of this section was intended to mention how colonialism is experienced without the white gaze, but I probably should have expanded on it… As one of my friends/comrades wrote in an email, I shaved off the edges here.

So if you have no experience of being part of an oppressed nation, no experience of colonial alienation, and no experience of being racialized as an other to white settlerism then on what basis can you declare yourself Indigenous?  On your own opinion that you feel that you are Cherokee, because you always wanted to be Cherokee, because your research demands some level of personal authenticity?  At this point we are in fact reifying race itself, pretending it is something essential that we can individually declare because of our own personal reflection: this is beyond an appeal to blood quanta; it is the most subjectivist endorsement of race that is possible.

Reification of Identity Politics

There are those who are now claiming that Andrea Smith's actual identity is a "distraction" from the larger issues of settler-colonialism and white supremacy that her work contributed to confronting.  In a certain sense this is correct because, as I have already indicated, her work is important in this regard.  After all, white chauvinists who have latched onto this problem in order to attack everything worthwhile that has been produced by Smith's contribution to radical thought, or the existence of INCITE, are crowing victoriously about her fraudulent identity.  And this is just sad.

To dismiss this revelation as a distraction, though, is offensive to those people who possess a lived experience of colonization.  That a white individual can lay claim to a particular identity, build her authoritative voice around this identity, and never connect concretely to an actual national struggle for self-determination should cause us to wonder at the limits of a particular type of politics.  That people devoted to the same kind of ineffective politics will defend her right to individually decide whether or not she is colonized, regardless of her experience of actual colonization, makes colonialism into an idealist category and ignores the fact that is experienced, and often quite terribly, by millions of individuals: it ignores nations in struggle, it ignores the bald fact of racialization, it turns colonialism into an identity game.

Indeed, the very fact that colonialism has been reduced to the idealist level of identity politics is worthy of investigation.  We should wonder why someone whose lived experience was white would choose to appropriate a colonized identity (first a national identity, then a blood quanta identity, neither of which could be substantiated, neither of which whose connected oppression they would have experienced otherwise) when there seems to be more to be gained in accepting that one is part of the settler-colonial hegemony.  The fact is that, in the realm of academic activism, there is a certain cache in the appropriation of oppressed identities––again, even Andrea Smith noted this fact.

One of the more productive contributions of identity politics is the discourse that has taught us to be suspicious of narratives about a particular community that are produced by scholars whose economic and social privilege are contingent upon communities that are parasitical upon the community in question.  Colonial narratives written by colonizers should thus be treated with suspicion, and rightly so! In this sense, the genetic fallacy is not entirely fallacious; nor is the circumstantial ad hominem––a fact that radical epistemologists have been arguing about for decades.

What this necessary but reactive view of reality has taught us, however, is that scholars cannot speak with authority unless they possess some insider understanding of the history they are attempting to excavate.  Here, identity and politics becomes conflated: an Indigeous scholar possesses more authority than a settler scholar when it comes to Indigenous history, regardless of what either scholar might say.  Again, there is good reason for this judgement (i.e. the history of colonialism), and the resistant history based on this judgment is extremely important.  Unfortunately, we have now reached the point where it might be the case that some radical scholars feel the need to make up their credentials, to pretend they are part of the community they want to examine, so as to justify their research.  Thus we should probably ask: would Andrea Smith's Conquest be recognized as significant by the same people had the author not pretended to be Cherokee?  Sadly, despite this book's merits, I think it would probably be ignored––even worse, it might not have been published.  (Take, for example, Butch Lee's work on colonialism, gender, and race: as an unacademic white woman, who refuses to pretend that she is colonized, her ground-breaking work remains subterranean, despite the fact that academics like bell hooks have spoken glowingly about its content.)

A colonized identity means shit for the majority of colonized people.  An academic in a progressive milieu that is able to pretend they are colonized can take advantage of an identity that the majority of actually colonized people will never be able to realize.  Colonial oppression is such that colonized subjects become university students at a far lesser rate than anyone else.  Enter an Andrea Smith who can masquerade as Indigenous and thus encounter an academic activist academic world that wants to support the very person that she is not.

If we wish to say that all of this is a "distraction" from settler-colonialism (which in some ways it is) then we should also be prepared to admit what would not be a distraction––and in some ways Smith's practice was also a distraction with its "decolonial" rather than "anti-colonial" overtones.  That is, back to an understanding of nationhood rather than vague appeals to "community" and "indigenous culture"––the very thing that every anti-colonial revolutionary 50-60 years ago understood as the basis for rebellion.  Andrea Smith's praxis was also a "distraction" because it was not part of national struggle, even though she contributed significant scholarship (that, again, should not be overlooked) as to why this struggle was necessary.  Forget Andrea Smith, forget even her remaining supporters: we need to declare, yet again, the unqualified and revolutionary necessity of every oppressed nation to secede from its colonizer.


  1. Interesting, this controversy reminds me somewhat of how I viewed myself in relation to (what I now understand to be) colonized peoples I grew up around when I was younger- I had a brief phase where I thought of myself as 'culturally Black' or something like that. I wonder how much Smith has internalized her beliefs about her identity and how much is merely cynical. I found a book called Hybrid Identities in the SCSS series (the same as The Entropy of Capitalism), and I'm curious if it intersects with this topic at all.

  2. We as Indigenous women are told by legislation who is an NDN and who is not, and these are mostly settlers and I do not trust anyone going to such lengths to try to take away Andy's amazing work. She is not Grey Owl....

    1. Are they mostly settlers? It was representatives of the Cherokee nation, and the tumblr is run by an indigenous person… As for her amazing work, it remains important regardless of her background (as I argued). In any case, one of my main arguments here was that this is not a situation of the colonial state deciding who is or who is not indigenous since the state's ideological apparatuses (such as the university) recognized her such; this was a situation where an Indigenous nation complained. But again, even still, her work stands outside whatever identity she might have adopted.

    2. JMP, I was wondering how you accounted for divisions within indigenous communities and nations, like the Cherokee, which has seen many nations actually de-enfranchising their own members and stripping them off band membership for a number of reasons ranging from sexism to blood quanta to economic? The Cherokee nation, for example, disenfranchised 25,000 of its own members on the basis of new laws that they themselves introduced in the 1980s and pivot on settler colonial rolls that are discriminatory. It seems to me that you treat indigenous nations as a whole, rather than see any kind of class divisions within it that express differing interests and can impact membership claims. Furthermore, it seems to me that your account assumes that indigenous nations, especially their administrations and their 'experts', play a neutral role. Thus, while the indigenous nascent bourgeoisie has been the victims of colonialism, some are simultaneously playing a comprador role in their own communities and are actually happy to advance their interests in the name of the whole; so for example, the indigenous nascent bourgeoisie in BC have tried to take over oil and gas projects that indigenous peoples have rejected en toto, claiming that they can get these very same projects approved by the communities that have resisted them. It is in these contexts that a colonized identity is incredibly important for many indigenous people, including access to voting rights, access to resources etc; not simply academics. I am not saying that this is the case here, but would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

    3. I agree completely with what you say here, but it doesn't apply to this case. This is not simply the "experts" playing a role but one in which it seems (according to Indigenous activists, and the people who first talked to Smith were activists) that there is no connection whatsoever to any colonial experience except what she has personally decided. So your point here about comprador is moot

    4. Not moot in general, because it is important (as are your other points) but it hard to see how they apply in this case. One of the other things that has become an important colonial convention (which this does apply to) is the way in which white settlers have appropriated indigenous identity claiming they are 1/16th or what have you, and using this in dubious ways

    5. In fact, Smith writes about this. Point being, while it is true that the ways in which the settler nation defines the colonial nation is extremely problematic, there are still people with the experience of being colonized (or with the experience of being lumpenized, as K pointed out, and learning later that they had an Indigenous past and this might have contributed to it), and there still would be something wrong if I was to decide, way back, that I was a member of an Indigenous nation simply because I felt like it.

    6. So when I was speaking about the Cherokee nation and Smith, I wasn't speaking about its governmental experts: I was speaking of its academic experts and community activists. At the same time, though, since Smith did represent herself at one point in time as a "registered" member of the community, without registration, that is quite revealing, no? Nor do I care about blood quanta, and yet Smith sought a genealogist to establish this and found nothing, which is also revealing.

    7. hi, is it ok if you can elaborate more on 'being lumpenized and learning later indigenous past contributed to it' and recommend further reading on that? thanks

    8. Hello,

      Sorry about the delay in posting and replying to this comment: I haven't been on this blog to check comments for a while.

      What I mean by being "lumpenized" is that colonialism leads to the violent break up of a nation (or, in the case of places like Canada and the US, many nations) by the colonizing nation(s) and, due to the violence of this encounter, people are eventually torn from their nation and thrown into the bottom ranks of the colonial economy. So trace this from generation to generation, after successive colonial campaigns (good example of one is the Residential school system) designed to wipe out the colonized nations as nations, and you have people who grow up in poor families that have been rendered poor because of colonialism, who are outside of the reserve system, who might even end up being orphans, who have been given the shittiest chance at survival because they have inherited the poverty that colonialism has forced upon the colonized. Frantz Fanon talks about this "lumpenization" in *The Wretched of the Earth* although in a more immediate sense, in a context where the division between colonizer and colonized is maintained according to the motherland-colony relationship (particularly, the case of French colonized Algeria), but some of his insight still holds.

      As for those who discover that they are Indigenous later in life, and that their family's or their poverty is connected to colonial oppression, I think there needs to be something more thorough written on this. A lot of times it appears in people's reflections on their background (i.e. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz talks about discovering her Indigenous heritage and her poor dustbowl families in her autobiography series, but she only came to this understanding in her thirties [I think] which is why she joined AIM), or in tangental points about colonialism and what it does in various anti-colonial literature. In some of my own work, particularly my dissertation (which I need to get published) and an article I published from said dissertation, I'm interested in what I call (in that article I mentioned, you can find it in pages bar above) "sublimated colonialism" which would explain how and why this stamping out of peoples' past and lumpenizing them to the point of obliteration makes sense for the settler-colonialisms of Canada, the US, Israel, and every remaining settler-colonialism past the decline of the last arrangement of settler-colonialism.

      Hope this was helpful.

  3. I disagree with your call to forget Andrea Smith. In fact, we should continue to attend to these debates because this issue has made the contradictions in the Cherokee nation more apparent.

    I recommend that you read this blog and provide a link in this article because I think it's pretty irresponsible of you, as someone who I know has no way of knowing the internal dynamics within the Cherokee nation to write a blog post about this. I would like to see you encourage your readers to look at this issue from different angles.

    - Kim

    1. Thanks for the intervention. To be fair, despite any mistakes of analysis I might demonstrate, I wasn't at all arguing that we should forget Andrea Smith's work. Still, months after writing this i was somewhat uncomfortable with the way I had left things but, at the same time, was in the process of partially walking away from this blog for multiple reasons.


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