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Ethnic Fraud?
Tribal scholars say some faculty are falsely claiming American Indian heritage to boost their job prospects.

By Mary Annette Pember

For American Indian scholars, securing a job in higher education can sometimes be as simple as checking a box. Most of the country’s colleges and universities do not require proof of tribal enrollment from faculty or staff who identify themselves as American Indians. Students looking to receive financial aid, however, must submit proof that they are members of federally recognized tribes. The question of American Indian identity can be an incendiary one. What does it mean to be an American Indian? Who are the “real” Indians? How are they identified? A recent surge of interest in personal genealogy has made the already complicated question even more troublesome. Many families hand down tales of American Indian ancestry, and the Internet is making it easier for average Americans to discover the truth for themselves. In the 2005 New York Times column, “The Newest Indians,” Jack Hitt suggests that the sudden spike in citizens claiming tribal heritage is a symptom of “ethnic shopping.” The term refers to individuals who wish to change identities and simply don new ethnicities that are more personally comfortable or interesting. But why are American Indians so often the ethnicity of choice among ethnic shoppers?

Dr. Venida S. Chenault, a member of the Prairie Band Pottawatomie and vice provost of Haskell Indian College, speculates that American Indian culture may be so attractive because it has been romanticized by mainstream American culture. “We are pretty cool people,” she adds with a laugh.

Despite claiming American Indian heritage, some people refuse to formally enroll in a tribe, arguing that the process is the federal government’s method of  nforcing control over Native peoples. Enrollment requirements can differ widely among tribes. Some require would-be members to trace their lineage to the 19thcentury land allotment lists, for example. The various enrollment requirements are often a hurdle that ethnic shoppers are unable to clear. Says Dr. Grayson Noley, (Choctaw), department chair of the College of Education at the University of Oklahoma, “If you have to search for proof of your heritage, it probably isn’t there.”

Adding even more confusion to the debate is an emerging generation of American Indians who may possess nearly 100 percent Native ancestry, but the ancestry may be so fractionalized that they are not eligible for enrollment in a single tribe. The subjects of genuine American Indian blood, cultural connection and recognition by the community are extremely contentious issues, hotly debated throughout Indian country and beyond. The whole situation, some say, is ripe for misinterpretation, confusion and, ultimately, exploitation.

In response, the Association of American Indian and Alaska Native Professors issued a statement on what they call, “ethnic fraud,” to assist universities wanting to develop culturally diverse campuses. The association’s statement, released in 2003, recommends that colleges and universities:

1. Require documentation of enrollment in a state or federally recognized nation/tribe with preference given to those who meet this criterion;

2. Establish a case-by-case review process for those unable to meet the first criterion;

3. Include American Indian/Alaska Native faculty in the selection process;

4. Require a statement from the applicant that demonstrates past and future commitment to American Indian/Alaska Native concerns;

5. Require higher education administrators to attend workshops on tribal sovereignty and meet with local tribal officials; and

6. Advertise vacancies at all levels and on a broad scale and in
tribal publications.

While mainstream colleges and universities can legally ask for proof of U.S. citizenship, Cheryl Nunez, vice provost for diversity at Ohio’s Xavier University, notes that “there is no standard measure for race or ethnicity.”

She cautions that institutions face a slippery slope if they rely on anything other than racial and ethnic self-identification among staff and faculty.

“The only legal means for giving preference is affirmative action planning,” she says.

Since self-identification is the current standard for entities other than the federal government and tribes, schools fear that to ask for anything else might put them at risk for lawsuits. A short, unofficial survey of universities — including Northern Kentucky University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of New Mexico, the University of Oklahoma and others — reflects that standard of self-identification. American Indians and Alaskan Native faculty and staff at those institutions aren’t required to show proof of
tribal affiliation. Box-Checkers and Mock-Checkers Noley and Chenault have a name for those who would use spurious ties to tribal heritage to further their employment opportunities. They call them “box-checkers.”

According to Chenault, some job candidates simply “check the box” for American Indian/Alaskan Native on job forms, hoping to be identified as minority faculty and thus reap the benefits of any available affirmative action plans. There is responsibility, however, that comes with checking the box, she says. “We need committed, passionate people who will help other Native people gain access to universities and colleges.”

Chenault argues that not requiring proof of tribal enrollment reflects mainstream institutions’ lack of commitment to genuine diversity. She says allowing those with marginal tribal ties to represent the Native community only diminishes the importance of indigenous academics and opens the discipline to attack.

Haskell and the other tribal colleges require proof of tribal affiliation from all faculty and staff claiming American Indian heritage. Tribal colleges’ unique relationship with the federal government allows them to extend Native preference to students and staff. Chenault and the Association of American Indian and Alaska Native Professors say that standard for faculty should apply at all universities and colleges, whether mainstream or tribal.

“If a potential job candidate falsely claimed to have a Ph.D., that person would not be considered. It should be the same for those claiming to be Native American,”Chenault says.

University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill’s ethnicity has been called into question by the news media and many Indian leaders. The ethnic studies professor came under intense public scrutiny after he called some victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks “little Eichmanns.”

The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News did extensive research into his genealogy and concluded that his claims of Native ancestry are based on family lore and are unsupported by fact. He has claimed at various times to be of Creek, Cherokee,Metis and Muscokee heritage.

An investigation by the Seattle Post Intelligencer found that Terry Tafoya, a nationally known psychologist who made his Native heritage a large part of his public persona, was not a member of the Warm Springs Tribe of Oregon nor an enrolled member of the Taos Pueblo as he claimed. Tafoya formerly was a psychology professor at The Evergreen State College and sat on the board of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University. The Seattle paper also reported that he admitted in a legal deposition that he never earned a doctorate from the University of Washington, credentials that helped propel his career. The newspaper report prompted a criminal investigation to determine if Tafoya violated a Washington law banning the use of false academic credentials. Far more objectionable than those who simply “check the box” are the “mock checkers,” says Noley.

The term refers to those in academic programs who not only falsely claim tribal affiliation but also set themselves up as official purveyors of American Indian culture and religion. Some of the professors Noley has labeled as mock-checkers have been known to conduct so-called sacred ceremonies as part of their courses.Many of the ceremonies, however, are little more than amalgamations of parts of disparate ceremonies or outright fabrications.

The reports of questionable ceremonial activities have included stories of faculty taking students on trips to search for their power animals, teaching “sacred” dances, conducting ceremonies each time reservation land was crossed and others.

Chenault maintains that faculty who engage in these activities do a tremendous disservice to the Native community and academic disciplines. She says their presence marginalizes American Indian culture and eliminates opportunities for true, qualified American Indians. She speculates that a degree of racism lurks beneath the surface of mock-checkers.

“They seem to believe they are more knowledgeable than tribal people and therefore better advocates for tribes,” she says. In the end, however, Noley concludes that it’s a practical impossibility for universities to formally intervene in cases of ethnic fraud because it might be viewed as intolerance, a perception that institutions can ill afford to bear.

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