Indigenous Identity Fraud in the Academy by Winona Wheeler

Winona Wheeler
Associate Professor, Department of Indigenous Studies College of Arts and Science

Indigenous identity fraud occurs when non-Indigenous people pose and represent themselves as Indigenous. This phenomenon is not new news to us. We have been dealing with it for a few centuries. From Archie Belaney (Grey Owl), to Dr. Andrea Smith, Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at UC Riverside1 , writer Joseph Boyden, filmmaker Michelle Latimer, and even more recent newsworthy instances, there have always been a few non-Indigenous people “playing Indian” in our midst. Each of these, and many others, were well published, highly regarded... professionals, who built esteemed careers on stolen identities and were rewarded with “personal, professional, positional, and financial gain.” 2 Indigenous identity fraud is also known as “race-shifting” and pretendianism. It is fraud and academic misconduct.

Indigenous peoples are calling it out because of its many and varied harmful effects. The most obvious harms include taking up positions and acquiring grants intended for Indigenous people. The reality is, in this age of reconciliation and Indigenization “there are suddenly more grants and benefits to identifying as Indigenous.” 3 For every fraudster holding a university position, acquiring Indigenous grants and scholarships, there are Indigenous scholars, students and staff who are shut out.

When one claims to be Indigenous in the academy, students and peers alike expect that they are bringing experiential knowledge into their teaching and research, that they have lived Indigenous experiences and knowledge that provide unique perspectives and understandings. It is not just the space and opportunities they take away from Indigenous peoples that offends, it is the heinous strategy of stealing the experiences we have lived through and claiming them as their own for the purposes of self authentication. Misappropriating Indigenous identities and falsely speaking as an Indigenous person reeks of white privilege and is an act of aggression and disrespect against the self-determination of Indigenous peoples.

When a fraudster is finally exposed the impact on Indigenous students is absolutely painful. Students question everything they learned in class, feel duped and manipulated, and experience tremendous emotional turmoil. This is especially true for graduate students who are not only reeling emotionally but are also dependent on research assistantships, financial support, their committees and supervisors.

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