In July 2015, Smith attracted national attention for having claimed Cherokee identity without proof or acceptance by the Cherokee nation. Smith said that her "enrollment status does not impact [her] Cherokee identity" and that she always has been and always will be Cherokee. Five Cherokee women scholars issued a public statement decrying Smith's Cherokee claims as false, noting that citizenship is based on community and kinship, and damaged by such abuse of integrity. Her claims have also been rejected by other Native scholars, saying her actions have damaged trust between indigenous and non-indigenous scholars. David Cornsilk, a Cherokee genealogist, notes she has no family connections to documented Cherokee ancestors.
Smith was born in San Francisco, California and grew up in Southern California. Smith earned her bachelor's degree at Harvard University in Comparative Study of Religion, and her Masters of Divinity at the Union Theological Seminary in 1997. In 2002, she received her Ph.D. in History of Consciousness from UC Santa Cruz.
Smith has long been active in anti-violence work, serving as a rape crisis counselor and starting the Chicago chapter of Women of All Red Nations. Along with Nadine Naber, Smith cofounded INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence in 2000, and she plays a prominent role in its National Planning Committee. INCITE! is a national grassroots organization that engages in direct action and critical dialogue to end violence against women of color and their communities.
Smith was also a founding member of the Boarding School Healing Project (BSHP). According to its website, the BSHP "seeks to document Native boarding school abuses so that Native communities can begin healing ... and demand justice." Smith has worked with Amnesty International as a Bunche Fellow, coordinating the research project on sexual violence and American Indian women. She represented the Indigenous Women's Network and the American Indian Law Alliance at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in 1991. In 2005, Smith, in recognition of her research and work regarding violence against women of color in the US, was among 1000 women nominated as a group for the Nobel Peace Prize by Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold, a Swiss parliament member. As of March 2013, Smith serves as the U.S. Coordinator for the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians.
Smith and her sister Justine were faculty members at the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies.
Smith's critical work centers on genocide and acts of violence against Native women. She discusses patriarchy as a tool of settler colonial violence used to subdue and eradicate Native women. In her text Conquest: Sexual Violence And American Indian Genocide, Smith gives a genealogical study of state-sanctioned violence against Native women and against their reproductive health from early America to the 19th century.
Smith's work makes a critical intervention in Native American Studies which she argues has a tendency to dismiss patriarchy as outside the purview of analysis of Native scholarship. Most Native scholars dismiss patriarchy because they identify it as a uniquely Western manifestation forced onto Native populations through assimilation. Smith argues that despite the fact that patriarchy is not intrinsic to Native society, its fundamental importance in the domination and extermination of Native peoples and Native women in particular should not be discounted.Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award (2005) for Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide
California State University (Northridge) Phenomenal Woman Award (2010)
On February 22, 2008, Smith was denied tenure from the College of Literature, Science and the Arts at the University of Michigan. This decision attracted "an unusual degree of attention from scholars, both at Ann Arbor and nationally." Some 30 faculty and students concluded "the University's tenure evaluation process discriminates against women of color and interdisciplinary professors."
A statement issued by an anonymous group of students and faculty from the University of Michigan protesting the decision immediately began circulating via email and among feminist blogs. The statement refers to Smith as "one of the greatest indigenous feminist intellectuals of our time" and highlights Smith's relevance as both a scholar and social justice advocate, noting that as "a result of her work, scholars, social service providers, and community-based organizations throughout the United States have shifted from state-focused efforts to more systemic approaches for addressing violence against women." A Facebook group in support of Smith's tenure bid and online petition to University of Michigan provost Teresa Sullivan soon followed.
Since at least 1991, Smith has publicly claimed to be Cherokee, although she was not enrolled in any federally recognized Cherokee tribe. Cherokee Nation-United Keetoowah Band genealogist David Cornsilk claims that Smith hired him twice in the 1990s to research her genealogy, and he found no proof of Cherokee ancestry.
In 2007, Smith was said to admit uncertainty regarding her Cherokee descent to scholar Patti Jo King and Richard Allen at a conference, apologizing and agreeing to set the record straight. Native lawyer Steve Russell (Cherokee Nation) publicly accused Smith of ethnic fraud in a 2008 editorial published by Indian Country Today, but it was not widely read. Smith failed to set the record straight; and her lack of documented Cherokee descent became "something of an open secret" until 2015. She continued to be identified at professional events as Cherokee or Native American, and claimed it was part of the reason for her denial of tenure at the University of Michigan (see above). Following the media attention surrounding activist Rachel Dolezal in 2015, who falsely claimed African-American identity, an anonymous Tumblr, "Andrea Smith is not Cherokee", was published, listing a chronology of book and conference biographies of Smith that refer to her purported Cherokee ancestry.
The Daily Beast picked up the story and it attracted national attention. Genealogist David Cornsilk noted in an Open Letter in Indian Country Today in July 2015 that the Cherokee are a very well-documented people; and he asserts that Cherokee citizenship is based on recognition by the Cherokee people and participation in the community, not by an individual such as Smith asserting a belief in a self-derived, independent identity.
In the ensuing controversy, some supporters of Smith started a group blog "Against a Politics of Disposability." Incite!, the collective that Smith helped to found, told the Daily Beast, "We support Andy Smith and the self-determination of all First Nations People. Incite would rather place our collective resources into abolishing settler colonialism than in perpetuating this ideology by policing her racial and tribal identity."
However, Native American scholars and activists have largely spoken in opposition to Smith. In an Open Letter, twelve Native women scholars jointly wrote,
"Asking for accountability to our communities and collectivities is not limited to Andrea Smith. Asking for transparency, self-reflexivity, and honesty about our complex histories and scholarly investments is motivated by the desire to strengthen ethical indigenous scholarship by both indigenous and non-indigenous scholars."
They also noted the names of numerous indigenous scholars who have made contributions in the same field as Smith, saying that they had sometimes been overlooked. They said, "Andrea Smith has a decades-long history of self-contradictory stories of identity and affiliation testified to by numerous scholars and activists, including her admission to four separate parties that she has no claim to Cherokee ancestry at all."
Five Cherokee women scholars, including Patti Jo King, also published an Open Letter, saying that Smith's claims damaged tribal integrity and kinship, and that she had tried to build her career on a false base. King said, "... since Andrea Smith has never been affiliated with any of our communities, she is a cultural outsider." King said further, "it is Smith’s deception—not her enrollment status and not her advocacy—that constitutes the central issue.'
Native American studies ethnographer David Shorter wrote, "Andrea Smith surely thinks she is Cherokee; or she did at some point. She has been asked repeatedly to either stop claiming Cherokee identity or to either authenticate her claims through a reliable kinship, through ties to a specific family, or through the Cherokee Nation’s official process for enrollment."
Smith's sister, Justine, has also claimed Cherokee ancestry and is likewise accused of ethnic fraud. She allegedly falsified a tribal card of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Justine, who has the same parents as Andrea, also claims Ojibway heritage. She was announced as Native American when hired by the Saint Paul School of Theology in Oklahoma, but left after three months after being confronted about her identity when the Cherokee Nation disputed her claim.
Andrea Smith responded to the protests and accusations in July 2015 with a statement on her blog asserting that her "enrollment status does not impact [her] Cherokee identity," and that she always has been and always will be Cherokee.
Smith is the author of the following books:Sacred Sites, Sacred Rites (1998) ISBN B0006R030E
Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (2005) ISBN 978-0-89608-743-9
Native Americans and the Christian Right: The Gendered Politics of Unlikely Alliances (2008) ISBN 978-0-8223-4163-5
Smith edited and/or co-edited the following anthologies:The Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology (2006) ISBN 978-0-89608-762-0
The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (2007) ISBN 978-0-89608-766-8
Theorizing Native Studies, Duke University Press (2014)