Navigating Partnerships with Indigenous People in a Time of Ethnic Fraud Panic

by Siobhan Senier

Among the many miseries that 2020 has visited upon this world, it has brought an avalanche of ethnic fraud cases. Several professors have been outed after having passed as people of color, and having built their academic reputations on that basis. On my own campus, a white male chemistry professor set up a “WOC” Twitter sockpuppet so he could troll people he thought were too “woke.” These stories have captured public imagination and incredulity; they have provoked justifiable outrage over the theft of resources that might have gone to talented Black, Latinx and Indigenous scholars.

Unfortunately, these kinds of cases are not new in Native American and Indigeous Studies. The academic and art worlds have been rocked by revelations surrounding people from Iron Eyes Cody to Joseph Boyden. The Cherokee nation is continually pressed to answer questions about identity claims like those surrounding Elizabeth Warren. Most recently, in Canada, the prominent filmmaker Michelle Latimer has admitted that she is not a member of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg community, as she has claimed. So-called “pretendians” have caused tremendous pain to Indigenous communities, and to the Indigenous and non-Indigenous colleagues and friends who trusted them and worked with them. 

As a non-Indigenous person, it’s never my place to adjudicate anyone’s identity claims. But I do have a responsibility to be thoughtful and aware, to get to know my Indigenous partners and the communities they come from. The process of getting to know Native people can be especially complicated in New England, which has some of the longest colonial histories on the continent. Since most eastern tribal nations historically dealt with the colonies rather than with what eventually became the U.S. federal government, many remain “unrecognized”--meaning, among other things, that they might not have formally delimited reservations, and might not have the kinds of systematic citizenship documentation that other groups use to access things like federal education and health benefits. It’s worth noting that even the northeastern tribal nations that are formally recognized today--say, the Maliseet in Maine, and more famously the Mashpee Wampanoag in Massachusetts--have been through periods in very recent history when they were not recognized by settlers as Native American, either individually or collectively. Additionally, many eastern Native people have been mis-identified (as “mulatto,” “Negro,” “white” or other designations) in census and other records. In the case of Vermont, infamously, Abenaki and other people of color were identified as “Pirates,” “Gypsies,” and other ethnic slurs as they were targeted for eugenic sterilization. 

However--and this is the important point--with or without state or federal recognition, and with or without state documentation, Indigenous people in this region know who they are. They did not just “disappear” or “assimilate.” 

I raise all of this because just as many universities, publishers and other institutions are trying to do better when it comes to working with Indigenous people, ethnic fraud claims appear to be on the rise, and they are causing no shortage of distress here in New Hampshire and Vermont. Some of this is due to the buzz surrounding a book published in 2019 by Darryl Leroux, Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity. I’ll have more to say about Leroux’s book in a later piece, but here is the short version: it’s a jaw-dropping account of the sudden and precipitous rise of new, previously unknown “Eastern Métis” bands in the wake of two Canadian legal decisions that acknowledged Indigenous hunting and fishing rights: Marshall (1999) and Powley (2003). Not only have these groups mushroomed in an evident grab for those rights; more damningly, Leroux finds, some of them actually started out as white supremacist groups, and are explicitly deploying claims of indigeneity to steal resources from longstanding Aboriginal communities.

Horrifying, yes. BUT. Leroux has also set up what he calls a “database” of tribal and individual identities in the northeast. This expands his reach far beyond the Eastern Métis to include groups and people south of the 49th parallel, including all of the Abenaki groups from New Hampshire and Vermont. This is dangerously misleading, not only because Abenaki and Métis people are not the same, but because their historical and political contexts are also not the same. Powley and Marshall do not apply in the United States; no tribal nations in the northeast have acquired hunting territories by usurping those of neighboring tribal nations. While the United States does have somewhat recent laws that some have misconstrued as prompting “fake” Indian claims (e.g., the 1990 Indian Gaming and Regulatory Act, the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act), it is crucial to remember that the Abenaki communities in New Hampshire and Vermont pre-existed such legislation by a very long time. 

In fact, the Abenaki communities in Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York state pre-existed, and continue to exist alongside, the First Nations Abenaki communities in Quebec, which Leroux seems to believe are the only “legitimate” Abenaki groups. He, and others, may be confused by a number of  Abenaki bands in Vermont that appear, to an uninformed outside viewer, to be “new.” He also (as I’ll discuss later) relies on some fraught sources, including the blog of an amateur genealogist who is clearly pursuing a personal vendetta against many Abenaki people. Peer-reviewed scholarly sources and oral histories, meanwhile, confirm that, like other tribal nations across the continent, Abenaki groups have frequently organized, re-organized, combined, separated and sometimes entirely relocated. 

Reorganization happened, for instance, in the late 1700s, when Christianized Native families who left multiple locations in southern New England to form an entirely new tribe, the Brothertown Indian Nation in Wisconsin. It happened during the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (even though that law did not “technically” cover New England tribes), when Indigenous people moved back to tribal communities in New England and participated in a resurgence of cultural production, language re-learning, and other revitalization. Such resurgence has happened over and over again. The goal is not fraud, but reconnection with land and kin and community.

Put another way: Abenaki people in Vermont and New Hampshire do not belong to the phenomenon that Leroux is trying to argue for in his book, whereby individuals “suddenly discover” a single Indigenous ancestor dating back 400 years and claim Indigenous identity for nefarious purposes. Are there individuals identifying as Abenaki who do that? Yes (Leroux’s favored blogger, not incidentally, was one such “race-shifter”). But to claim that all Abenaki in the United States are doing that is preposterous at best, racist at worst. 

In the interest of transparency, I should probably consider whether I have a personal stake in this discussion. I spent decades getting to know northeastern Native American writers and working with tribal community editors to publish the book Dawnland Voices, and this companion website, dawnlandvoices.org. Would I be devastated to learn that someone is not who they claim to be? Of course. But I’ve been taught (by Lisa Brooks, Marge Bruchac, and others) that collaborative scholarly work involves years of relationship-building and relationship-tending. So I have listened carefully to these writers, visiting with them and their families. I’ve watched as carefully and respectfully as I could, as they’ve interacted not only with me, but also with their families--with their kin in Quebec, in fact--and with other Indigenous people across New England. Because just as Abenaki people have always known who they are, so too do other Indigenous people know who they are. Their ancestries, their kinship networks, their tribal identities, and their personal stories are not mine to judge; nor should they be judged by any other outside observer--Native or non-Native--who does not fully comprehend this region’s complex history.

If you are a non-Indigenous scholar, or just an interested learner trying to do your due diligence by Indigenous people, please do not rush to judgment and assume that all Abenaki scholars, writers, artists and others in the U.S. are ethnic frauds. In particular, please don’t rush to judgement based on hearsay or vitriolic social media posts. Continue to listen to Abenaki people, read their work carefully, and always vet the reputation and reliability of your sources. You can also reach out to me and other scholars who have worked in this area for a long time. We’re happy to share resources and readings, and will begin doing so in this space shortly.

Siobhan.Senier@unh.edu