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UC Riverside professor accused of faking Native American heritage will resign

RIVERSIDE, CA - APRIL 7, 2021: The sign says UC Riverside is "The nation's leader in social mobility," but now the school is grappling with allegations of campus funding inequities on April 7, 2021 in Riverside, California. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
After questions about her claimed Native American heritage swirled for more than 15 years, Andrea Smith will resign from UC Riverside, according to a separation agreement that allows her to retain her benefits. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

For the record:
8:33 a.m. Aug. 30, 2023: An earlier version of this article indicated Andrea Smith pushed to disband a Native studies reading group because it had no Native members. The group did have Native members but was not exclusive to them.

David Shorter still remembers a haunting interaction he had with Andrea Smith in the late 1990s after she helped disband a Native studies reading group he was in while they were in graduate school at UC Santa Cruz.

Smith, who said she was Cherokee, told Shorter and others that they should not have a reading group in which there were people who were not Native. Her word as a Native woman carried weight, and the group fell apart.

Soon after, Shorter saw Smith walking across a parking lot outside Oakes College and asked about her opposition to the reading group, saying he thought good work could be done by allies.

"She was really upset I had bothered her. She dismissed me with a literal wave of her hand," said Shorter, now a professor at UCLA. "She said, 'I don't have time to explain to you what it means to be Native. I have to go take care of people back home.'"

Several years would go by before Smith's claims about having Native American heritage would be called into doubt.

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Now, after those allegations swirled for more than 15 years, Smith will resign from her position as a professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside, according to a separation agreement with the university.

"This is good news but late news," Shorter said, noting that Smith's identity as a Cherokee woman was initially disputed by Cherokee Nation officials in 2007. "But this is the academic world; things take a really long time to do legally."

Smith's resignation comes after 13 professors at UC Riverside filed a complaint against her last year alleging she made "fraudulent claims to Native American identity," violating the school's policy.

Smith "denies and disputes" the allegations against her, according to the separation agreement between her and the university, but the two sides agreed to settle to avoid costly litigation.

Smith did not respond to requests for comment.

The agreement was signed earlier this year and was first reported this month. UC Riverside confirmed Smith's resignation but said no investigation was done into the allegations against her.

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"The parties have reached the mutual decision to end their employment relationship on the terms and conditions outlined in this agreement," the separation agreement reads.

"Professor Smith agrees to not make any affirmative claims of Native American heritage in connection with her University work for the duration of her University employment. However, if asked about her heritage in connection with her University work, Professor Smith is permitted to disclose her opinion on her Native American heritage," the agreement reads.

As part of the separation agreement, Smith will continue until August 2024 as a full-time professor. She will then be eligible to receive all her retirement benefits and will retain the title of professor emeritus.

To tribal officials and others who doubted her Native American ancestry, Smith had been hiding in plain sight for years. The professor, currently on sabbatical, has written numerous books about Native issues. She even wrote in a 1991 essay that New Age white "feminists" were co-opting and taking advantage of Native spirituality for profit.

But in 2007, Cherokee Nation officials had already begun to ask about her identity after realizing she was not enrolled with the tribe, according to the New York Times Magazine.

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Articles about her alleged misrepresentation popped up as early as 2008. That same year she got a job teaching at UC Riverside.

Questions were raised again in 2015 after the scandal surrounding Rachel Dolezal, an activist and college instructor accused of trying to pass as a Black woman.

"Meet the Native American Rachel Dolezal," read the headline of a Daily Beast story about Smith published that year.

At the time, UC Riverside defended Smith, telling the New York Times Magazine that it "does not comment on the ethnic backgrounds of specific employees.”

The magazine story, published in 2021, reignited interest in Smith's background, leading to the 2022 complaint filed by professors at UC Riverside.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.