Sunday, April 06, 2008

Indian Country Today columnist: Ethnic fraud is beside the point

Bizarre couple of columns by Indian Country Today's Steve Russell on the denial of tenure by two faculty panels to University of Michigan Indian/Women's Studies prof Andrea Smith. Russell, a Cherokee, comes to the conclusion that while Smith is an "ethnic fraud," she should have been tenured. To explain why, he starts somewhat awkwardly ( with his own (bad) experiences growing up Indian in Oklahoma, but quickly moves to an explanation of "refereed articles" and the hierarchy of journals of Indian Studies:

[T]here are three leading refereed journals that will publish Indian policy from the Indian point of view, Wicasa Sa Review, American Indian Quarterly, and American Indian Culture and Research Journal. These journals get little respect in the mainstream, but if you publish in the mainstream journals, you define Indians as the problem. In Indian journals, it is permissible to define the settlers as the problem. This perspective affects research questions.

I guest-edited an issue of an Indian journal of lesser status than the three named above, and I remember begging a Navajo colleague to submit an article I knew he was writing. He apologized and told me he already had an article in one of the top three that was being disregarded and he could not afford another article in a venue that would not "count" toward tenure.

See a pattern here? The deck is stacked. Smith has some 15 refereed articles in addition to book chapters, books written, and books edited. She is currently the director of Native American Studies at the University of Michigan.

And that should be good enough, publicationally speaking, for tenure, never mind that, as compiled by a commenter at the Chronicle of Higher Education here, 13 (of 17) of Smith's publications are five pages or less, are in fact commentaries or editorials, not scholarly work.

But what about Smith's claim to be Cherokee? In Russell's second piece, (, he asks, "When Does Ethnic Fraud Matter?" and, by way of Ward Churchill and some startlingly confused reasoning, reaches the conclusion that it doesn't:

So we come to the question whether Smith is an ethnic fraud like Ward Churchill. My position is that even though not Cherokee, she cannot be a fraud of Churchill's stature. He made public statements that no tribal person I know would endorse. He then abused Hannah Arendt's work when he claimed that her study of Eichmann supported the idea that some undocumented worker washing dishes in the Windows on the World restaurant deserved his fiery death on Sept. 11, 2001. Or, for that matter, some newly graduated kid who was learning to trade stocks because her goal in life was wealth. . . .

Churchill's proper response to his insult of the dead would have been to apologize. His moral failure gives tribal Indians understandable reason to reject his invented Indian identity. . . .

So Churchill's ethnic fraud didn't matter until his "little Eichmanns" piece came to light. Smith, likewise, gets a provisional pass:
Smith's record does not appear to require augmentation by hereditary advantage. Ethnic fraud is harmful to tribes and sometimes to individual real Indians if they are passed over for a fake in a job that really does call for a tribal person. Ethnic fraud is not harmful to universities unless they allow it to be. . . .

Inconvenient truths about Indian history are true without regard to the identity of the person who documents them. This is important work that deserves more respect than it gets. Offensive as Indians may find ethnic fraud, combatting it vigourously is at war with the idea of Indian Studies as a legitimate academic discipline. We, like the University of Michigan, need to clarify our values.
Absolutely crazy.

Update: Oddly, Russell makes a point of noting that Smith had a book published by Churchill's South End Press, which
continues at this writing falsely to state that Churchill is ''Keetoowah Band Cherokee'' and to peddle his ''From a Native Son,'' knowing full well that Churchill is not claiming to be a native son of Illinois, which would be true. Apparently South End Press has not suffered the harm visited upon the University of Colorado, so I can't claim that ethnic fraud harms publishers, at least when they participate in it. . . .
But somehow doesn't mention that the vanity press also describes Smith as "Cherokee," knowing full well &tc.

Update II: Note also Russell's claim that Churchill hasn't been published in refereed journals. That'll have Wart 'n' Benjie foaming at the mouth and other orifices.

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