Like a horror show set to repeat, one of Canada’s most lauded, influential, and seemingly steadfast Indigenous law professors and First Nations political advisors, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, was outed as a White woman. Shortly after, Elizabeth Hoover, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, revealed herself when she said “without any official documentation verifying the identity I was raised with” … she will cease to identify as Indigenous.
Claims to Indigenous descent have vaulted these women to positions of power and influence. So how could they say they were someone they were not?
Playing Indian is an American tradition. It rests on the idea that Indigenous people are not present. This assumption takes on a dangerous cast with Indigenous women because their lives are at greater risk than the rest of the population. They are the most raped, the most endangered, and have the lowest life expectancy on either side of the border.
Indigenous women have “disappeared” at such a rate that there have been Amnesty International reports, the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, and the formation of “Operation: Lady Justice” by the U.S. Department of Justice to look into the out-of-proportion number of murders and unsolved cases. The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls speaks to the value attached to their lives. Were it not for the efforts of Indigenous women themselves, it is reasonable to speculate this issue would have remained hidden from public view. And in this reality, where they have literally gone missing, having White women speak as if they are Indian continues the act of disappearing them.
Turpel-Lafond has long described herself as a Treaty Indian and/or a Norway House Cree from a reserve community in Central Manitoba. She reportedly skipped high school, and survived an alcoholic and abusive home. Her meteoric rise took her from Norway House to Harvard University and a professorship at Dalhousie University in Canada by age 26. A wunderkind by anyone’s standards but even more so because she hailed from a former Indigenous fur-trading community.
Except, she didn’t.
Turpel-Lafond burst onto the scene from Niagara Falls, Ontario, near the U.S. border. There were once Turpels at Norway House, two generations ago. Joe Keeper, an elder who was born and raised on the reserve, remembers that her father was the son of a medical doctor who served the community for 11 years. Keeper remembered him as “a little White boy,” according to a Canadian Broadcasting Company interview. Dr. Turpel Sr. was part of a family of elites who worked in Cree territory during a time of peak colonialism, after the Indians on the Prairies were starved into signing treaties, their land carved into reserves, and their children placed in residential schools.
How her own father’s 11 years in Norway House as the son of a White physician morphed into an identity of Cree by a descendant years later joins a succession of literary figures, filmmakers, scholars, and artists, all of whom amassed sizeable amounts of funding, space, and time before it was discovered they had fabricated their identities. The list includes: Andrea Smith (2015), Michelle Latimer (2020), Cheyanne Turions (2021), Carrie Bourassa (2021), Gina Adams (2022), and now, Turpel-Lafond and Hoover, who, until her admission, identified as “a scholar of Mohawk/Mi’kmaq descent.”
All of the claimants were White women, along with three men (Joseph Boyden, Robert Lovelace, and Herschel Walker). At the heart of their “stories” was trauma, or an unciteable family pain that made them Indian. This pain ticks a box that says “Native American.”
And what did Hoover get for this “pain”? She has held a McNair Fellowship and two Ford Foundation fellowships. On her personal website under the tab labeled “Identity” is reference to her abusive great grandfather and a great grandmother who killed herself. It was suggested, without evidence, that this great grandmother was Mohawk.
Neither woman is the first to veer from written facts to great personal benefit. Turpel-Lafond later added an adoption scenario to her story, a layer of believability because so many Indigenous families were fractured in the great march to civilization and the 19th century land grab. These types of claims allow Whites to argue: “I must be you because there is abuse in my family and that is, in fact, you, so I am you.”
There are now more Indigenous children lost to the foster care system in Canada than the notoriously cruel residential schools, established in the late 1800s and closed throughout the 20th century.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 sought to address these removals and mandated in custody hearings the placement of Indigenous children in Indian homes. This law is presently being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court as a “race-based” preference. Overturning the law will break up more Indian families. These new agonies would then become resources fresh for the culling.
Indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada have experienced wrongdoing worthy of a presidential apology, a prime ministerial apology, a papal apology, and a truth and reconciliation commission. In Canada, the Indian Act of 1876 created the map of legal personhood that defined Indians as men of certain blood, the children of such and/or someone married to one, installing rules based on a father’s lineage on reserved lands. Indian women, newly defined only in relation to whom they married, bore and still bear the brunt of these exclusions.
The cases of Turpel-Lafond and Hoover remind us the embrace that should have been extended to people affected by those forces is offered now, a century and a half later, to those who appropriate those effects as their own.
Like the appropriation of land, resources, lives, and careers, it is deployed to explain their own White histories and their right to speak over — and for — Native people. Some may insist their respective work with Indigenous peoples has been positive.
But does that an Indian make?
Audra Simpson (Kahnawà:ke Mohawk) is a political anthropologist at Columbia University focusing on Indigenous politics in the United States of America and Canada.