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News / Nation & World

3 University of Kansas professors are accused of faking Native American ancestry. But it’s complicated

By Anna Spoerre, The Kansas City Star
Published: August 13, 2023, 6:02am

University of Kansas associate professor Kent Blansett ‘s contributions to the Native American community aren’t in question.

He founded the American Indian Digital History Project, which works to preserve and promote indigenous history using digital media. His biography of Richard Oaks, a leader in the Red Power movement for Native American self-determination, drew critical acclaim. He was recently appointed to the board of directors for Humanities Kansas by Gov. Laura Kelly’s office.

What is being questioned, though, is his own claim to a Native American ancestry.

Blansett was hired in 2020 through KU’s Langston Hughes professorship, a program the university touts as bringing “a prominent or emerging minority scholar to the university.” His bio as an associate professor of Indigenous studies and history states he has Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Shawnee and Potawatomi ancestry, descended from three prominent Native families: Panther, Blanket and Smith.

“Despite coming of age in the Jim Crow south, my dad persevered against overwhelming obstacles as an Indigenous man,” Blansett wrote in the introduction to one of his books. “… From my earliest memory, he made certain to instill value and pride in our Cherokee ways.”

Blansett is among three KU professors to have allegations publicly raised about their claimed lineage by Native American individuals and groups that frequently challenge people claiming Native identity. None of the men is enrolled in a tribe.

Some Native grassroots groups and researchers allege Raymond Pierotti in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology and Jay Johnson in the department of geography and atmospheric science are also “pretendians” – slang to designate someone faking Native American heritage.

They say, based on independent research of the men’s family trees, that the professors are white, and white only, and that they’ve built careers and profits off of a lie.

Neither Johnson nor Blansett responded to multiple requests for comment, including messages on their cell phones, letters left at their homes and emails sent to their university addresses. Pierotti provided written statements to The Star for this story defending his career, but declined a phone interview.

“Imagine that someone has plagiarized your work. But more than plagiarized your work, they have stolen your ancestors. They’ve stolen your life story. They’ve stolen the story of your entire culture,” Chief Ben Barnes, of the Shawnee Tribe in eastern Kansas, said of Blansett. “This is way beyond a misunderstanding.”

If a professor is claiming they have lived experience that informed their scholarship, “my goodness, you better bring the goods,” Barnes said. “Show me your citizenship.”

He also accused KU of ignoring the concerns being raised.

A spokesperson for the university said the identities of their faculty are not an institutional issue and referred The Star to the professors themselves.

“They’re on the colonial party bus,” Jacqueline Keeler, an independent journalist, said of those deemed “pretendians.” “Most of these folks are engaged in absolute fraud.”

Keeler, a citizen of the Navajo Nation who researches genealogies and false claims of Native American ancestry, including for all three KU professors, created a list of “alleged pretendians” that has drawn both criticism and praise. The list is no longer public, but it’s helped inspire other Native people to devoted their time to uncovering frauds; some are lauded for their work as more concerned citizens slip them names to investigate. Others call the practice a witch hunt at worst and unreliable at best.

“It’s not just as simple as whether you’re enrolled or whether you’re not, or whether you’re real or whether you’re fake,” said Kiros Auld, who said he was wrongly targeted as being “pretendian” despite mountains of documentation which said otherwise. He is also the founder and a moderator of r/IndianCountry, the largest Native American community on Reddit.

‘Pretendianism’

Exploiting Native identities for personal gain famously goes back to the Boston Tea Party, when colonists disguised as Native people threw tea into the harbor in political protest.

Jimmy Beason, a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, reminded his students of this in his American Indian Issues class. Last year, he added a new section to his syllabus: “pretendianism.” He even made a satirical meme for his Gen-Z students about how to fake Native.

“It’s not so much who you claim; it’s who claims you,” said Beason, who is enrolled in the Osage Nation, and who said his views don’t represent those of Haskell as an institution. “… When it comes to pretendians, nobody claims them.”

But why fake it?

Ultimately, Beason said, it comes down to money.

“If people didn’t associate being Native with some kind of economic gain, nobody would want to claim to be Native,” he said. “But throughout all this time, claiming Native has somehow been paralleled to monetary gain, which is ironic because we’re the poorest people in the country.”

When Keeler started doing research into ancestries of people in positions of power built around the identity of being Native American, she assumed most would have some distant Native relative, or perhaps they just believed family lore without proof to back it up. Now she believes more people who publicly proclaim themselves to be Native are either negligent or deceitful.

There are currently about 200 people she’s identified as alleged “pretendians.” Keeler said they’re sitting on requests to investigate several hundred other names provided by concerned citizens.

“Identity is a sticky wicket,” said Lianna Constantino, director and co-founder of the Tribal Alliance Against Frauds, a grassroots whistle-blower organization made up of citizens of federally-recognized tribes and their allies. She said they also have a list of a few hundred names they’re working to investigate.

“A couple things to remember: When someone makes a public claim that they are Indian, it’s up to them to prove the claim. It’s not up to TAAF to prove a negative,” she said.

Barnes, the Shawnee chief, believes a claim to Native ancestry isn’t about who someone’s ancestors are. Instead, he said, it’s a political status unique only to Native Americans. Since none of the KU professors is enrolled in a tribe, Barnes said the burden of proof lies in the professors’ hands.

In 2017, Barnes reached out to KU’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion with concerns about Blansett’s claims to the Shawnee people.

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They put him in touch with Blansett who offered to talk about it. But Barnes said he got busy and never followed through on setting up the meeting.

“What’s he possibly going to say?” Barnes asked. “It’s a binary switch, right? He is or he isn’t.”

Legally, to be Native American or Alaska Native in the United States is a political status that conveys two citizenships: both with the federal government and the tribe. Barnes believes being Native American isn’t based on phenotype or ethnicity; he believes only those who belong to sovereign, federally-recognized tribes can claim the status.

“The protections and services provided by the United States for tribal members flow not from an individual’s status as an American Indian in an ethnological sense, but because the person is a member of a Tribe recognized by the United States and with which the United States has a special trust relationship,” according to the Department of Justice.

The Star reached out to every tribe of which Blansett, Johnson or Pierotti claim ancestry. They said none of the men was a member.

Grassroots groups and whistle-blowers

Keely Denning began researching Native American genealogy more than three decades ago, she said in a blog post on a website for which she is spokesperson, called the Fake Indians Blog.

The blog was launched in 2013 and has since grown to about eight volunteer researchers who cross check one another’s work before publishing under the fake signature Sam to protect them from potential harassment, said Denning. This decision to publish anonymously has raised some suspicions.

She maintains their research includes combing through census records and tribal records, including documentation of rations per family, boarding schools and family member names.

Denning, who is Shawnee, said she spent about a year researching Blansett’s family. Her group published the results in a series of posts accusing him of fraud. They did the same for Pierotti and Johnson.

Constantino, with TAAF, said they also conducted independent research on all three professors and found no Native connections. The Tribal Alliance Against Frauds recently published their own reports online on all three professors, independent of Keeler’s list and Denning’s blog.

“Our cultures and our languages and our ceremonies are still very much in danger of going extinct,” Constantino said of “pretendians,” adding: “They’re claiming to be us, but they have no idea what it’s like to be us, and they never will.”

Europeans stepped foot, en masse, on North American soil in the 1500s. A century after Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492, only about 10% of the estimated 60 million Native Americans living in what is now the United States were still alive. Many tribes were wiped out completely. In the centuries that followed, thousands of Native women were sterilized without their consent and thousands of children were taken from their families and enrolled in boarding schools to assimilate with white people.

As of 2022, fewer than 1% of the total American population identify solely as Native American on the census.

“I regard pretendianism as a hate crime. It’s a hate crime because it encourages hatred of Native people and all so that a white person can perform our identity onstage, do their little twirl and get their money,” Keeler said. “And it’s absolutely a form of colonialism. The ultimate form of colonialism. The coup de grâce.”

Kent Blansett

Blansett’s resume is impressive.

Prior to publishing three books on Indigenous history, Blansett said he made trips to Kansas City to tutor inner-city Native youth through a program called Visible Horizons while an undergraduate at the University of Missouri. In 2013, while in New Mexico, he was awarded a nine-month residential fellowship for Native scholars.

In the three decades since, he’s been interviewed by prominent national outlets including NPR, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. He’s spoken out in local news outlets against Johnson County, Kansas, schools using Indian mascots.

Blansett, who did not respond to numerous requests for an interview with The Star, including to his university email, cellphone and home address, said in a 2021 recorded discussion about his latest book that he comes from five nations, all on his father’s side. He said one ancestor of the Blanket family fought in the war of 1812 for the Cherokee regiments under Andrew Jackson.

Keeler, the Navajo journalist who has written extensively about allegations of fraudulent claims to Native American ancestry, said she was contacted a few years ago about concerns that a few of the academics at the University of Kansas were lying about their identity.

She, with the help of two Cherokee genealogists, spent months building out 1,735 members in Blansett’s family tree. They even purchased a book by a distant relative of Blansett’s, on his father’s side, who wrote about the family history in the south. Nowhere, she said, did that author connect the Blansett name to the Blanket family, or any other tribe. Every single person they found was white and well-documented with roots leading back to Europe.

In September, Blansett will be the keynote speaker at the Northern Great Plains History Conference, raising some concern about his platform. Those in charge of the conference did not respond to a request for comment.

“He’s controlling what’s published about Indian people. He sits in a position of power on what authorship is. He’s controlling the conversation,” Barnes, the Shawnee chief, said.

After another concerned person emailed the conference chair with accusations about Blansett’s identity, the KU professor wrote back accusing the sender of a doxing campaign.

In a copy of the email obtained by The Star, Blansett called the accusations “an unfortunate misrepresentation of my Indigenous ancestry,” claiming that he has complete census records, newspapers, boarding school records and other genealogical material to back it up.

The Star searched newspaper records connecting Blansett’s father or grandparents to a tribe, but found none.

Instead The Star found an article from 1996 featuring Blansett, then an undergraduate involved in the University of Missouri’s American Indian student group, advocating for the return of Native remains to their proper burial place.

Ray Pierotti

Pierotti’s fight over his identity has an extensive public history.

In 1999, Pierotti and his wife, Cynthia Annett, sued KU for employment discrimination. In case filings, which The Star viewed in full at the National Archives, Pierotti said that while he was an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, he was discriminated against because of his race, which he said was Native American.

In a deposition, Pierotti, who was asked to bring proof that he is Native American, said he had no documentation other than his own word. He said most of his family lines were European, with the exception of his maternal grandmother, who he said was “full-blooded Native American” and part of the Peneteka band of Comanche. He said she left the reservation to marry a white man and move to Pennsylvania, which is why he has no paperwork.

Asked if he’d ever attempted to enroll or register with the Comanche Nation, he said: “No, because basically registration is a BIA, a bureaucratic thing. Unless you feel the need to be covered by Indian Health Services or, you know, to get some of those benefits, there’s no need to do it.”

Court records also show that Pierotti testified his wife’s former colleagues who worked for the federal government recommended he put in his cover letter the phrase: “for purposes of affirmative action I qualify as Native American.”

The civil case went to trial, where a jury decided in favor of the university. Pierotti and his wife did not get the $100,000 in damages they sued for.

In a statement Sunday emailed to The Star, Pierotti contended that none of his three scholarly books identify him as Native American. But for at least the next few years following the lawsuit, Pierotti continued to identify himself as a Comanche in his work, including a 2003 article in the Journal of American Indian Education.

Several years later, in 2008, a public discussion of Pierotti’s ancestry played out on the pages of the University Daily Kansan after his brother, Nick Pierotti, told a student journalist that his brother faked being Native American to “take advantage of affirmative action when he was struggling to get a job,” the student paper reported. Ray Pierotti continues to say this is false.

A year earlier, in 2007, Comanche leaders emailed KU’s chancellor requesting an apology and that any reference to Pierotti on KU’s website include a disclaimer that he is not a citizen of the Comanche Nation.

“The Comanche Nation of Oklahoma is a federally recognized tribe and in that capacity is empowered, through specific criteria that includes proof of blood lineage, to determine tribal citizenship,” the letter read. “The Comanche Nation is the only entity that can determine Comanche Nation membership. Pierotti’s self-identification as Comanche and KU’s enabling of his claim shows disrespect to tribal sovereignty and is an affront to legitimate Comanche people.”

Now, nearly 25 years later, while Pierotti no longer has the word Comanche in his profile, Keeler said he still teaches and mentors Native American students under the pretense that he is one of them.

One of his goals is to get more Native students into the sciences, Pierotti said in a video posted June 12 to KU’s website as part of a video series called “Meet your professor.”

Pierotti, who has been at KU since 1992, currently teaches in the department of biology and ecology. Asked about his career path, he said in the video:

“It was kind of chosen for me because when I was growing up in New Mexico and, you know, I was surrounded by Indigenous people, and their relationships with the natural world really struck me and connected to me. So basically my whole life I aimed myself towards a career that was oriented at working with and examining and learning about nature.”

His funding has included contributions from the National Science Foundation to support his mentoring Native students in ecology and environmental biology.

That KU is still allowing him to teach under what Keeler said is a guise is “a complete failure of scholarship,” she said, adding that Pierotti’s case is a “slam dunk” to disprove.

Pierotti continues to defend his career.

“All I have to say is that I was not an Affirmative Action or Equal Opportunity hire at KU,” Pierotti wrote in an email to The Star. “I was hired as a regular faculty member along with my spouse. I asked to work with Haskell. KU agreed and I was the first person to ever teach a course jointly offered by Haskell and KU. My career at KU has only suffered, because of institutional racism and the teaching of interdisciplinary courses.”

In Sunday’s statement to The Star, Pierotti said he has guided more than 50 Native American undergraduate students through their degrees and mentored 18 graduate students of color.

“I am unaware of another faculty member at KU who has had this many graduate students of color complete graduate degrees under their guidance,” he wrote.

The Star was not able to verify his claim.

Jay T. Johnson

In 2006, Johnson was praised for launching the Indigenous Peoples’ Knowledges and Rights Commission in Australia. In 2014, he was among five people recognized with the Enhancing Diversity Award from the American Association of Geographers. Since 2017, he’s been awarded more than $3.6 million for the Haskell Environmental Research Studies Institute, where he is director, according to his KU profile. He also serves as director of The Facilitating Indigenous Research, Science, and Technology Network.

But in May, the Fake Indians Blog identified him as the latest professor whose authenticity they called into question based on obituaries and census reports, in which his family is listed as “white.”

Johnson in 2008 detailed his ancestry in an article for the American Indian Culture and Research Journal, describing himself as a “mixed-race Native American.” He wrote that one maternal great-grandmother was Seneca, and his maternal grandfather was Cherokee and Delaware.

“The Kaw is our river, Kansas is our territory, and Fall Leaf is our town … “ he wrote, adding that he later pursued a Ph.D in cultural geography based on a “desire to understand the struggles of Indigenous communities.”

In a 2013 book of essays, entitled “A Deeper Sense of Place Stories and Journeys of Collaboration in Indigenous Research,” Johnson, a co-editor, is listed as being of Delaware and Cherokee descent. He is also identified as being of Munsee Delaware and Western Cherokee descent in “Making Settler Colonial Space: Perspectives on Race, Place and Identity” a 2010 book in which he was a contributor.

While the book Johnson co-authored, “Being Together in Place: Indigenous Coexistence in a More Than Human World,” is listed on his KU profile, any mention of Native descent is not.

Johnson did not respond to numerous requests for an interview with The Star, including to his university email, cellphone and home address.

The complexity of identity

Native identity is a complex topic, and self-identity isn’t something to be brushed off, said Phillip Cody Marshall, a faculty member in Haskell’s Indigenous and American Indian Studies department.

“The process of colonization, the dispossession of land, the attack on culture and all the various abuses that were committed upon native people make Native identity a touchy subject,” he said. “So much was kind of taken away through the years that maybe you are trying to make sure you’re protecting what is left.”

With more than 500 federally-recognized tribes, each with their own enrollment criteria, there are some Native people who can’t enroll. Others don’t want to. And then there are people who are flat-out wrong about their identity, whether done mistakenly or maliciously, said Marshall, who is enrolled in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

Some tribes require blood tests, and have a blood quantum that must be reached to gain membership into the tribe. These rules have been met with pushback.

Blansett alluded to the issue of identity in 2022, when speaking to students in California about his latest book, “Indian Cities: Histories of Indigenous Urbanization.”

“Genocide was not a clean-cut process in America. It was incredibly messy, is the best way to put that. Because of that, yes, there were people that had to hide their identities, there was people that had to, for the fear of persecution and racism, and the ongoing challenges of Indian Jim Crow, also had to confine how they practiced their identity within these institutions or these walls, or had struggles in order to be able to kind of maintain this identity under the threat of the boarding school establishment,” Blansett said in the recorded presentation.

“Really what we get at here is that there isn’t just a one-way street in regards to identity … The moment that we begin to create this idea of domination or this one-centered rule of identity, is the moment that we fall victim to past constructs of colonization, which is exactly the modes that they wanted us to adopt in regards to this idea that we become less-than by having a singular view.”

Joey Clift is a comedy TV writer based out of Los Angeles. His award-winning short, Telling People You’re Native American When You’re Not Native Is A Lot Like Telling A Bear You’re A Bear When You’re Not A Bear, is meant to educate non-Native people.

Clift sees identity as a spectrum. On one end are people who are undeniably Native: They are citizens of tribes who speak their ancestral language and live on reservation land. On the other end are the people who are lying. But Clift said many people fall into a middle area. He considers himself among them: He is enrolled in the Cowlitz Indian Tribe but doesn’t speak the language.

Wary of those who do have questionable claims, Clift said he hopes more people who are exploring their own possible Native identity ask themselves: “Does your community claim you back?”

“Tribes are their own sovereign nations who can define who their citizenship is, who their citizenship isn’t, so let them lead the way on who is a member of their tribe or not,” he said.

The role of educational institutions

The University of Kansas declined to answer questions about Blansett, Pierotti and Johnson.

“This sounds like a topic you should explore with the individuals involved, not the university. This is not a university matter — i.e. an employee’s self-identified ancestry has nothing to do with their employment. (And if others wish to question a scholar’s work, they can address that in their academic circles),” Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, a spokeswoman for KU, said in an email to The Star.

Keeler, who said she emailed KU with concerns about Blansett and Pierotti in 2021, said it’s particularly hard to believe that people with advanced degrees, who are trained in research, wouldn’t be able to find and explain their ancestors. She called the lack of oversight by public institutions “abysmal,” leading to “academia being a pretendian factory.”

It’s why she’s in the process of starting two organizations focused on Native rights, which will also play a role in educating universities on how to verify Native American identity: The American Indian Geological Society and an advocacy group for Native people in the workplace.

While Pierotti and Johnson no longer include tribal affiliations on their university profile pages, Blansett does. KU is marketing him as Native American, Keeler said.

There’s a long trend of universities benefiting from Native American knowledge, history and land. Many land grant universities were funded through endowments of stolen Native American land, according to an investigation by the High Country News. Recently, university museums have made headlines for possessing stolen Native art.

Constantino, who is not a genealogist but signs off on final TAAF research before it’s published, believes universities should require professors to show proof of Native American status upon their hiring if they’re going to claim it in their work.

Fraud hurts Native American students who lose trust in mentors and professors who lose out on jobs, she said. As was the case with KU, she said, often complaints by tribes of possible fraud in universities go unaddressed.

“We’re like begging people, ‘Please, listen to us,’” she said. “We’re supposed to be the sole arbiters of who’s one of us and who isn’t. And it’s not about race either. Like any other community, tribal nations are mixed-race communities … but all of us are Cherokee Nation citizens.”

Denning also puts more onus on universities. She said even if someone isn’t able to enroll in a tribe, perhaps because their blood quantum is too low, tribes and nations can still issue letters stating that the person’s ancestors were part of the tribe.

Beason, at Haskell, said he and his students identified a few solutions to concerns of Native mis-identity in academia. Since there is not generally a mechanism in place at universities to verify Native identity, they suggested universities require some kind of documentation, including a letter from a tribe acknowledging the person’s ancestry, even if they aren’t enrolled.

He said calling out potential fakes is an important attempt at establishing accountability where it’s currently lacking, but it’s also complicated. Beason said claims of fraud need to be handled carefully; he knows of people who have been called out publicly as “pretendians”, including on Keeler’s list, who he believes are Native.

Beason’s solution: Uncovering frauds should be a community effort where the fact-checker can be fact-checked.

The gray area of genealogy research

In 2021, when Keeler self-published her alleged “pretendians” list,” Kiros Auld’s family was among the 200 names.

Auld proceeded to defend his ancestry and Keeler retracted her allegation, he said. Keeler said he’s incorrect, and that she never issued a retraction, adding that Auld and his family remain on her list.

The experience left a sour taste in Auld’s mouth and concerns over who the list, and lists like it, benefit.

“It’s a solution that’s worse than the so-called problem,” he said.

Auld, who describes himself as Black Indian and who is Pamunkey, said his own family was listed as Black, rather than Native, in official U.S. paperwork as the result of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. A mass erasure of Virginian Native American communities beyond his own followed.

This, Auld said, is why Keeler couldn’t initially find paperwork proving his Native ancestry. He laid out a defense of his mother’s ancestry on social media, including a photo of her Pamunkey Indian Reservation identification card with her signature and the chief’s, family portraits and paper clippings, including a pamphlet from a 1998 Maryland Women in the Arts presentation in which his grandmother is listed as an enrolled member of the Pamunkey Nation.

Auld finds this “vigilante race policing” problematic because he said the geographic scope and nuance of Native American ancestry is incredibly complex, and he doesn’t believe any of the present lists are run by people with the authority and experience to be doing the research.

He said who is or isn’t Native should be left up to the tribes, who have the ultimate say over self-determination.

In the meantime, Auld said from his vantage point, this isn’t a pressing issue for most Native Americans. Other needs top the list, like education, water access, health, land and safety.

Auld said he’s never heard of the KU professors, or the claims against them, but regardless he agrees there should be better vetting by educational institutions if they’re hiring or promoting on the basis of Native American identity.

“If there is a problem here, and if it is an institutional issue, why aren’t people demanding that there be space made for First Peoples in these institutions? There’s a scarcity mindset that’s everywhere.”

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