Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Comanche Nation Gets It Right, Universities and the NNABA Fail Miserably

The recent exposure by the Comanche Nation of Dr. Raymond Pierotti, Associate Professor of Indigenous Nations Studies and Biological/Environmental Studies at the University of Kansas, should remind us that Ward Churchill’s past dismissal from the University of Colorado did not end the saga of ethnic fraud in university faculties across the land.

Pierotti has continuously claimed to be Comanche during his tenure at the University, which began in 1992. Such a claim gave him an advantage in both hiring and personnel actions within the University. His claim as a member of the Comanche Nation was also made in association with receiving the title of the Tribal College/University Mentor of the Year in 1998, presented by the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). His ethnic ploys while at the University are numerous, including an article published in the Journal of American Indian Education. At one point he was involved in the $400,000 solicitation for a documentary he was involved in, “Powwow for the Planet”. The website soliciting the funds described Poerotti as “a Penateka Band Comanche and one of a very few tenured Native American scientists in U.S. universities.”

Comanche students and teachers from both KU and Haskell first complained about Pierotti’s claims several years ago, but the University ignored the complaints. The Comanche Nation wrote the University in 2006 with their official tribal complaint. Still, the University chose to ignore the fact that they had an Indian imposter in the faculty. The Comanche Nation Business Committee sent another letter to the University on 2 January, 2008. Signed by eight tribal leaders, the letter included the following:

“The Comanche Nation is the only entity that can determine Comanche Nation citizenship. Pierotti’s self-identification as Comanche and the University of Kansas’ lack of effort to substantiate his claims shows disrespect to our tribal sovereignty and is an affront to the legitimate Comanche people. In essence, he is benefiting professionally and financially from unsubstantiated claims of Comanche identity for which the exclusive criterion is tribal enrollment.”

Finally, the University is acknowledging the complaints. As this is still in the initial stages, the final outcome is unknown. I suspect that we will see a re-run of Ward Churchill’s denials and acclamations. Pierotti, as did Churchill, has his own supporters with flawed logic.

Universities nationwide are laden with self-identified “Indian” professors who partake in ethnic fraud. By 2003, the situation had become so all-pervasive that the Association of American Indian and Alaska Native Professors issued a statement to address the problem. The association’s statement includes the recommendation that colleges and universities require documentation of tribal enrollment for those applicant professors claiming to be American Indian, and to include existing American Indian/Alaska Native faculty in the selection process.

After becoming concerned with “box checkers”, in 2007 the National Native Bar Association also made their own resolution concerning individuals lying about being Native American on university applications. Their guidelines are directed toward universities and colleges, which - like the AAIANP’s - are encouraged to require individuals who identify as Native American to provide information that will support their claims. Remember this as you continue to read this comment.

Even after exposure as frauds, many professors continue to rake in a small fortune based on their “tribal” claims. A prime example is the one time psychology professor of Evergreen State College, Terry Tafoya. He continues to rake in thousands of dollars per speaking engagements on mental health issues - complete in costume, with drum, long black (dyed) braids and stories of Indian mythology. This is despite the fact that Tafoya has falsified receiving a PhD (he has a Master’s from the University of Washington), and has lied about being an enrolled member of the Taos Pueblo. After it became known that Tafoya never received a PhD from UW, which he originally claimed, he tried to cover himself by saying that he had an “honorary PhD from the University of Alberta - which university officials there deny

Tafoya during a speaking engagement. Amazingly, legitimate American Indian organizations pay this guy large sums for speaking engagements and to work with tribal members.

While most Native American studies are taught by excellent professors, Indian and non-Indian alike, students would be well advised to thoroughly investigate the professor and the program before spending scarce funds and valuable time. There are some which should be met with great skepticism.

The insertion of concern by the National Native American Bar Association is worthy up to a point. The issue as they present it -Stop Academic Ethnicity Fraud/”Box-Checking” - certainly needs to be addressed. But, the NNABA’s approach to this can be likened to a doctor who is unable to heal himself or herself - yet tries to heal others. The NNABA’s own regular membership and associate membership requirements are sloppy. Both open memberships to: “All persons who are enrolled members of any Indian tribe or band, …….”

Note that this does not specify “any federally recognized tribe“, or even include “state” recognized tribes. The requirement of “any Indian tribe or band” leaves the door wide open. The consequences of this is that the NNABA has a questionable membership that includes individuals who are members of so-called “tribes” which are actually non-profit organizations of questionable history or validity as a tribe.

The current membership list on NNABA’s website is under construction, but the names and tribal affiliation of members can be accessed through older lists. This includes inviduals who belong to groups such as the Kispoko Sept of Ohio Shawnee, the Southern Cherokee Nation, and the Northern Cherokee Nation.

Accepting membership of attorneys with no valid tribal connection is no different than Universities which employ fake Indians as part of a faculty. Both actions commit fraud upon the public. As with universities, the NNABA should check their applicants for tribal affiliation, plus the validity of a tribe that a potential member claims to belong to. Hopefully, the NNABA will correct this in the near future. In the meanwhile, those who seek to hire a Native American attorney based on NNABA membership should follow the concept of caveat emptor.

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