Echoes of Fauxcahontas Elizabeth Warren as fake Indian professor uncovered at Cal Berkeley, facing demands to resign

Another high-profile female at one of America’s most prestigious universities has been outed for having falsely claimed Native American heritage and thereby illicitly benefitted from affirmative action, as well as deceiving research subjects with her false claims. The controversy has been building for over half a year, after Associate Professor Elizabeth Hoover in October 2022 revealed on her personal website that she had incorrectly claimed Native American heritage.  

Via The Daily Californian student newspaper at UC Berkeley November 1, 2022:

“I have always introduced myself as the person my parents had raised me to be—someone of mixed Mohawk, Mi’kmaq, French, English, Irish, and German descent and identity,” Hoover said in the statement. “My identity within the Native community, rooted in the histories of my family, is something that shaped my entire life, even though I was not eligible for tribal enrollment due to blood quantum requirements.”

In her statement, Hoover also noted that she came to the conclusion that she cannot claim Indigenous descent after conducting genealogical research in response to recent questions about her identity, which she said she was first alerted to when a draft of a “pretendian” list circulated about a year ago.

Hoover said the news left her and her family “shocked and confused.”

“I made that public statement in order to communicate this message to a broader public,” Hoover said in an email. “I had no idea there would be the level of backlash that I and my collaborators are now facing. The statement was meant to start a conversation.”

Hoover added that she understands that the root of this general anger is the “idea that someone has wrongfully taken or benefitted from something set aside for other marginalized people.”

Hoover added that the intentional decision to wrongfully take from marginalized communities is “unconscionable.” However, she said she does not believe she has done this because she was raised with a Native American identity, rather than coming into it later in life.

Professor Hoover on the left (Twitter via the UKDM)

Strikingly, her excuse for her false claims echoes that of Senator Elizabeth Warren: family lore, uncritically accepted, to great personal benefit.  Her apology did not lead to forgiveness, however. On November 11, 2022,  a group of over 350 people with roots in academia and Native American concerns issued a highly critical “collective statement” (full text here). It begins:

Elizabeth Hoover (Pretendian) is one of many settlers in academia who claim Indigeneity based on unverified family lore and has marketed this identity for personal gain, acquiring both fellowships and faculty positions (Hilleary 2022, Isai 2022, Viren 2021). The authors of this letter are Indigenous scholars and former students of Hoover with affiliations at Brown University and UC Berkeley. As scholars embedded in the kinship networks of our communities, we find Hoover’s repeated attempts to differentiate herself from settlers with similar stories and her claims of having lived experience as an Indigenous person by dancing at powwows absolutely appalling. Her statement fails to acknowledge the prevalence of settler self-indigenization (Sturm 2011), which we find wholly unacceptable. As students at Cal, we are extremely disappointed by the University’s performative statements and inaction. We demand that Elizabeth Hoover resign and seek out a new position based on her true identity. Although we offer steps of accountability, we defer judgment to the communities she has commodified. (emphasis added)

Hoover’s entire academic career appears to be built on Native American-related research. She specifies her research on the University’s website:

My research focuses on Native American environmental health and food sovereignty movements. My first book  The River is In Us; Fighting Toxins in a Mohawk Community, (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) is an ethnographic exploration of Akwesasne Mohawks’ response to Superfund contamination and environmental health research. My second book project From ‘Garden Warriors’ to ‘Good Seeds;’ Indigenizing the Local Food Movement (University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming) explores Native American farming and gardening projects around the country: the successes and challenges faced by these organizations, the ways in which participants define and envision concepts like food sovereignty, the  importance of heritage seeds, the role of Native chefs in the food sovereignty movement, and convergences between the food sovereignty and anti-pipeline and anti-mining movements. I also co-edited, with Devon Mihesuah, Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019). I have published articles about food sovereignty, environmental reproductive justice in Native American communities, the cultural impact of fish advisories on Native communities, tribal citizen science, and health social movements.

Professor Hoover's portrait from her university website page

As the story of her false claims spread into national media, generating more outrage, Professor Hoover issued a longer, even more groveling  apology on her personal website, dated May 1, 2023. It begins:

I have brought hurt, harm, and broken trust to the Native community at large, and to specific Native communities I have worked with and lived alongside, and for that, I am deeply sorry.

I am a white person who has incorrectly identified as Native my whole life, based on incomplete information. In uncritically living an identity based on family stories without seeking out a documented connection to these communities, I caused harm. I hurt Native people who have been my friends, colleagues, students, and family, both directly through fractured trust and through activating historical harms. This hurt has also interrupted student and faculty life and careers. I acknowledge that I could have prevented all of this hurt by investigating and confirming my family stories sooner. For this, I am deeply sorry.

Having my family claim Native identity does not mean Native nations claimed us. By claiming an identity as a woman of Mohawk and Mi’kmaq descent without confirming it with communities of origin, and by not confirming kinship ties back to politically and culturally affiliated Indigenous peoples, I betrayed and hurt my students, collaborators, and friends. I have negatively impacted people emotionally and culturally. For this hurt I have caused, I am deeply sorry.

For what is worth, Professor Hoover’s scholarship has not been impugned as erroneous, and has won several awards. He crime, such as it is, rests on falsely claiming victim-identity status. It may well be that some research subjects would have refused to talk to her, or have been more reticent, had she not claimed Native American status. But that reflects their own racial prejudice, as well as her deception. I have a hard time determining her stance as more blameworthy than theirs, if that is the case.  

More importantly, the racial favoritism implicit in the claim that she unfairly benefitted from racial preferences is a stain on contemporary society that openly endorses racial preferences.  With her educational background (B.A. Williams College, M.A. and Ph.D at Brown), she has a far more prestigious background than Elizabeth Warren presented when receiving tenure at Harvard and being acclaimed as a breakthrough Native American faculty member. All in all, the Berkeley professor has a far better case to remain unpunished than does Senator Warren.

As for the demands that she resign, the supposition must be that she would end up teaching at a less prestigious campus than Cal Berkeley.  She is trained in and an expert on researching Native American environmental issues, so what other career options exist that build on her years of training? Maybe government work?

A confession: I have a personal interest in the proposition that a scholar need not be of a certain ethnic background in order to become an expert on that culture. In my first career, I was a scholar of Japan without a drop of Japanese blood in me. And I reject the notion that genetics determines the legitimacy of scholarly work, as well as racial and ethnic preferences in hiring.

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