‘Unacceptable’: Berkeley professor faces calls to resign after admitting false claims of Native American roots

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A University of California Berkeley professor is facing calls to resign, after she admitted to mistakenly claiming Native American heritage throughout her career researching indigenous food sovereignty.

“In uncritically living an identity based on family stories without seeking out a documented connection to these communities, I caused harm,” Elizabeth M Hoover, an associate professor at the Berkeley school of Environmental Science, Policy, and Mangement, said in a statement posted on her website on Monday. “I hurt Native people who have been my friends, colleagues, students and family, both directly through fractured trust and through activating historical harms.”

The professor said she was raised being told by family members that she descended from members of the Mohawk and Mi’kmaq tribes, but failed to investigate whether those ties in fact existed.

“Before taking part in programs or funding opportunities that were identity-related or geared toward under-represented people I should have ensured that I was claimed in return by the communities I was claiming,” added. “By avoiding this inquiry, I have received academic fellowships, opportunities, and material benefits that I may not have received had I not been perceived as a Native scholar.”

The scholar said she does not plan to resign, but is working with restorative justice facilitators to “better understand how members of the UC Berkeley campus community have felt harmed and betrayed, and ways I can work to meaningfully make amends for this.”

Desi Small Rodriguez, an assistant professor in UCLA’s Sociology Department and American Indian Studies Program and a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, told the San Jose Mercury News that the professor’s apology amounted to “gaslighting,” and said a high-profile scholar researching Native American issues should be held to a high standard before making claims about identity.

“An average person could get away with accepting family lore, but Hoover is PhD from an Ivy League Institution,” she said. “It’s totally unacceptable.”

Adrieenne Keene, an assistant professor of American studies and ethnic studies at Brown University and member of the Cherokee Nation, wrote on Twitter earlier this week that the “waves of harm extending from this are immense and difficult to even capture.”

“I have been devastated, enraged, and exhausted over this for the past year,” she added. “I have spent countless hours supporting her current and former students, trying to process my own emotions, and having to continue on at an institution that gave her a PhD, her first job, and tenure.”

Others defended the Berkeley professor and her work.

Josh Sargent, a member of the Akwesasne Mohawk, said Professor Hoover had done important research about the impact of industrial contamination in the St Lawrence River, calling her “a good person and always welcome here,” in an interview with the Mercury News, arguing debates about her identity are happening in the “bubble of academia.”

In October, the Berkeley professor announced that after researching her genealogy, she would stop identifying as a person of Mohawk and Mi’kmaq descent.

“Now, without any official documentation verifying the identity I was raised with, I do not think it is right for me to continue to claim to be a scholar of Mohawk / Mi’kmaq descent,” she wrote at the time.

Last year, the late Bay Area-based actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather, who famously read a speech criticising Hollywood’s portrayal of indigenous people during the 1973 Oscars, was exposed by her family as having falsely claimed Native heritage.