Wednesday, March 01, 2023

"Presenter Self-identification Statement" at 2023 Tucson Festival of Books

Earlier this week within Native networks, I saw people sharing a link to a "Presenter Self-identification Statement" on the website for the 2023 Tucson Festival of Books. It says:
The Tucson Festival of Books takes no steps to verify, determine or otherwise confirm the race, ethnicity and or lineage of its authors, presenters or participants. All claims about history and ancestry of each person participating in the festival are entirely their own. Furthermore, the festival will not deny a qualified author admittance to the festival based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age, disability, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or genetic information. We follow the University of Arizona’s Nondiscrimination and Anti-harassment Policy which can be accessed here
I'd never heard of such a statement before at a book festival and asked (on social media) if this was new. From replies I've received so far, it is new.  On social media, people were sharing the link to the statement. I tried to find it on the festival website but can't find it on any menus.  Edit on March 1 at 12:53 PM Pacific Time: Thanks to a reader for help in locating the statement on the site. It is the last item in the 'About' section in the same row where you see "Authors/Get Involved/Sponsors." On my screen, the 'about' section doesn't show unless I tap the >> after the last item. 

The statement basically says that it is not the job of the organizers to verify, determine, or otherwise confirm the claims that an author, presenter, or participant makes regarding their identity. I am assuming that the statement is in anticipation or response to growing conversations in the US and Canada about the ways in which people state they are Native. 

When I started studying children's books in the 1990s there weren't many by Native writers. Some that were promoted as such were by writers whose claims to being Native were well known--in Native circles--to be fraudulent. A good example is the person who went by the name, "Jamake Highwater." His fraudulent claims were well known in Native circles.

So, I've known for a long time that people would claim to be Native and that other people would accept their claim. I accepted claims from people we hired when I was on the faculty at the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana. It was painful to realize that their claims could not be substantiated. 

Why did it become a conversation? Because people were talking about the two (Andrea Smith -- she claimed to be Cherokee, and Anthony Clark -- he claimed to be Meskwaki). That conversation led us to draft an "Identity and Academic Integrity" statement that says (note: I left UIUC in 2012):

American Indian Studies is committed to the highest standards of professional and scholarly conduct and the best ideals of academic freedom. We are also committed to developing strong and sustaining partnerships with people and programs in American Indian and Indigenous communities. These commitments will sometimes create tensions and might at times be in conflict, but we see them both as necessary to our conception of the work we do. Free academic inquiry helps us to test the limits of accepted wisdom, seek out new approaches to chronic problems, and recognize that being creative about the future might lead us to embrace people and ideas that have been in various ways excluded from the American Indian social and political world. At the same time, our commitment to partnering with people and programs in Native communities creates a need for us to make our work intelligible to a constitutive audience of that work. While we retain responsibility for defining the boundaries and limits of our scholarly and creative work, we also actively seek opportunities to be transparent in articulating what we do and why.

In such articulation, we recognize the importance of being able to identify ourselves clearly and unambiguously. Too often, we realize, American Indian studies as a field of academic inquiry has failed to live up to its potential at least in part because of the presence of scholars who misrepresent themselves and their ties to the Native world. While we do not in any way want to suggest that only Native scholars can do good scholarship in Native studies, neither do we want to make light of the importance of scholars who work in this field being able to speak with clarity about who they are and what brings them to their scholarship and creative activity. Indeed, we hope that our partners will subject us to whatever level of scrutiny they find appropriate as we seek to build bridges between the academic world and Indigenous communities.

[Adopted by American Indian Studies faculty, September 2010]

That statement is in the drop down menu in the Research tab. As a statement that is publicly available, it conveys the serious nature of claims to Native identity. Since then I've read excellent essays and watched videos in which the emphasis is not on an individuals stated claim to being Native, but on their relationships to the communities they claim to be part of. We quickly get into dicey spaces about being enrolled, disenrolled, ineligible to enroll, disconnected, reconnecting, and so on. 

In 2021 I started AICL's Native? Or, Not? A Resource List. I add to it when I come across an item that I think helps make it a better resource. I added to it yesterday (Feb 28). I'm trying to do (at least) two things with that list: provide the resources but also, demonstrate that this is not a new concern. My first public remarks about claims to Native identity were in 2008 at a conference at Michigan State. Some of the presentations were video taped and are available on YouTube. 

Returning, now, to the Tucson Festival of Books and their statement. It strikes me as a "not our problem" sort of thing. I think they're wrong. Any festival on this continent is taking place on Native homelands. 

The growing recognition of Native land can be seen in the growth of Land Acknowledgements. There's one on the Tucson Festival of Books "Happening" page. When you click on it you see this: 

It suggests that they are aligned with the university's statement. It reads:
We respectfully acknowledge the University of Arizona is on the land and territories of Indigenous peoples. Today, Arizona is home to 22 federally recognized tribes, with Tucson being home to the O’odham and the Yaqui. Committed to diversity and inclusion, the University strives to build sustainable relationships with sovereign Native Nations and Indigenous communities through education offerings, partnerships, and community service.  
I assume they'll have someone read it aloud at the opening of the festival. Are the organizers of the Tucson Festival of Books acting respectfully? I don't think so! Their "Presenter Self-Identification Statement" says that "All claims about history and ancestry of each person participating in the festival are entirely their own."  That "entirely their own" coupled with "takes no steps" is disappointing.

I think they could use words that convey an expectation of integrity in the claim. That expectation would more closely align with the respect conveyed in the land acknowledgement--especially if an author is claiming to be from one of the 22 Native Nations in Arizona. 

This post seems clear to me as I get ready to hit the publish button but it may not be! I welcome questions and comments. 


Sarah Hannah Gomez said...

Debbie, as we discussed on Facebook, this is really not a particularly fair critique. For one thing, this type of statement is quite common when presenting self-reported identity data (such as the US Census, public school districts, etc), so your framing here as if this is something entirely new to society puts TFOB in a bad light it does not deserve. Lots of organizations, public and private, invite participants to self-report identity data and have similar disclaimers.

Second, I think you and others would be just as mad if the festival (which runs literally entirely on volunteers and *one single paid FT employee*) decided to be the arbiter of identity and started asking about blood quantum, required Ancestry DNA tests, demanded family trees, did a paper bag test, or any number of other methods for "proving" ancestry of any kind. ANY conversation about ancestry has the potential to be derailed by someone who wants to deliberately misrepresent a tiny connection or fully masquerade as something they're not. There's a conversation to be had about that and certainly many people deserve to be shamed for deliberately Dolezal-ing or Sacheen-ing, but highlighting TFOB like this as if they are doing something uniquely terrible and actively harmful instead of engaging in a generic practice that hundreds of other institutions is disingenuous and unfair.

Sarah Hannah Gomez said...

Furthermore, I'd like to respond to this:
I am assuming that the statement is in anticipation or response to growing conversations in the US and Canada about the ways in which people state they are Native.

I would not make that assumption at all. While I must first state that I am not this year a part of the planning committee, I have been part of it for many years in the past, and I've also been a festival author, volunteer, and moderator nearly every year of its existence (including this year), so I'm quite familiar with the festival's history and its web presence, so I can almost guarantee you that your assumption is incorrect. This year the website was changed considerably (I suspect they went with a different platform entirely as it now resembles the LA Times Book Festival's site), and one major change was that you can now filter authors not just by genre but also by some major identity groups, including race, ethnicity, disability, and a couple others. So it is highly unlikely that the disclaimer is as specific as you imply and rather a hedge based on that new web feature. Just like Native identity is often under debate or fraught with tension because of various factors like blood quantum, membership requirements, sovereignty, etc, that's also true of disability (plenty of debates there about whether you have government recognition of disability, whether invisible disabilites "count," etc), just for one example. That statement, which like I said before is hardly unique to this one festival, is an attempt at coverage for all of that to disclaim any legal or official tagging of people as being part of certain groups.

KM McEwen said...

I agree with you, Debbie. Institutions do lend credibility to those they invite to become part of an academic space. If they will be publishing statements that identify their partners/participants/presenters as Indigenous or Black or Brown or Asian (and would rightly consider this a positive and a draw and of interest/relevance to the general public), then they must take responsibility for their words. It’s been long documented that individuals do rely on a false Indigenous identities to gain fame, credibility, publication, employment, and financial benefits. For most Indigenous folks, your Tribal identity, community of origin, familial ties are enormously important, as this is how will relate to one another. Quyana for highlighting this.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker said...

@Sarah Gomez: three points. 1) I don’t read Debbie’s critique of TFOB’s statement as being particularly unfair, disingenuous, or putting TFOB in a bad light, to use your words. I think Debbie is simply raising important questions about phenomena that are posing serious issues in Indian country, academia and the publishing and entertainment worlds. 2) comparing debates about disabilities with INdigenous identity fraud is not a fair comparison, considering that Indigenous identity fraud is part of a much larger problem of cultural appropriation that is centuries old. 3) Nowhere did Debbie suggest that TFOB actively engage in identity verification processes like asking for enrollment cards or blood quantum.

Personally, I think the that literary world should be subject to legal standards similar to the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which is a truth in advertising law designed to combat fraud. But since we do not yet have a law like that, the very least we can do (and I actively recommend this as an editor or participant in publishing projects I am involved with) is ask authors who claim Native identities to submit a statement about those claims that account to the communities they claim to be part of. If we all value integrity in publishing, and knowing that the problem of Native identity fraud is out of control and growing, this kind of request is not unreasonable. In a society whose bill of rights begins with freedom of speech, we must acknowledge that this kind of freedom also comes with consequences. We all have seen in recent years the dark side of speech freedom with the rise of hate speech and the rejection of “political correctness” which fuels increasing violence. When people make unverifiable identity claims based on this right, they cause other kinds of harm that not only undermines the public’s confidence in deciphering who Native people actually are, but they contribute to the ongoing chaos Indian country continually faces in their struggles to survive in a colonial society.

Debbie Reese said...

Hannah, Can you give us links to other statements you've seen from book festivals?

The TFoB statement is new to me. I haven't seen others. I want to understand how it sounds like I'm being unfair to TFoB. I am, for sure, disappointed in their statement. Seeing other statements can help me with situate theirs in a different context than the one I'm in (Native woman aware of concerns re Native identity + Native woman with awareness of land acknowledgements that seem performative).

More on your other comments, later.