UC Berkeley associate professor Elizabeth Hoover, who often worked with students in the campus Indigenous Community Learning Garden, released a statement Oct. 20 on her personal website revealing that she has no documentation verifying Native American ancestry.
Hoover, who is currently the chair for the Division of Society & Environment and an associate professor in the department of environmental science, policy and management, had previously claimed Mohawk and Mi’kmaq descent.
“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.
However, others are more skeptical of Hoover’s intentions.
Indigenous scholars raise concerns
“This is all fantasist fraud and constitutes theft from minoritized peoples,” alleged Audra Simpson, professor of anthropology at Columbia University, in an email.
Simpson, who is a Kahnawà:ke Mohawk, alleged Hoover could not have been brought up as Native American, but was brought up “believing unverified stories that are germane to many American/Canadian settler fantasists.”
Additionally, Simpson said she has “long been baffled” by Hoover’s claim to Native American descent, and that Hoover’s statement comes as “no surprise” to herself and many other Indigenous scholars.
Simpson added that “it is bizarre if not unconscionable” to claim to be Indigenous without confirming genealogical relationship or legal connection to a first nation, given they are political entities.
“Indigenous peoples are political orders that pre-date colonization, and have survived colonization,” Simpson said in the email. “This fundamental fact gets confused solely with racialization, as Indigenous peoples were and still are racialized as other than white or other than Black [even if white or Black presenting]. Even more reductively, Indigeneity is thought by some to trace solely to DNA.”
Though colonialism has greatly impacted those kinship systems, Native American people still know who their people are and seek out relatives, according to Simpson. She added that it is “irresponsible” for a scholar of Indigenous studies and in particular Mohawk people to claim to not know their family.
In her statement, Hoover noted that in retrospect, she should have examined her identity sooner, but that throughout her life her identity was “just a part” of her and that since she knew she was not eligible for enrollment, locating official genealogical records “did not seem important.”
However, Simpson challenged this, stating that Hoover should not have assumed her identity and that the basis of Mohawk personhood and nationhood “are not ‘pow wows’ and (unspecified) ceremonies as indicated in her statement.”
“That is at a certain level a personal and representational issue, it is gross to see non-Indians dress up as a settler/fantasist version of you — this is part of the everyday representational assault of living in North America as an Indigenous person,” Simpson said in the email. “But couple this with the taking of opportunities that are targeted for minoritized peoples and you have a gamed system.”
Doug Kiel, assistant professor of history and the humanities at Northwestern University and citizen of the Oneida Nation — who had previously worked with Hoover on a museum advisory committee — corroborated Simpson’s claims.
“She deliberately misrepresented herself,” Kiel alleged in a statement. “Hoover was facing calls for accountability in American Studies back at Brown University.”
Controversy at Brown University
Hoover’s time at Brown University has received criticism in light of her statement, with many coming forward to allege the harm she caused Native communities there, especially regarding a statement she wrote denouncing the Pokanoket Tribe’s calls for Land Back from Brown.
The Pokanoket are one of several non-federally-recognized tribes in Rhode Island. The land in question was the traditional sacred territories of Pokanoket. At the time, Brown University used the land to house the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.
Raymond Two Hawks Watson, director general of the Federation of Aboriginal Nations of the Americas, said the Pokanoket were trying to repatriate the land after realizing there was no legal transfer of land. Hoover wrote a letter on behalf of the Native American Students Association at Brown denouncing the Pokanoket’s efforts.
Watson, who is of Narragansett heritage, was also the spokesperson for the Pokanoket’s efforts at the time.
“Basically, the premise was that the Pokanokets weren’t a real tribe, they were a group,” Watson said. “It was based upon conceptions of federal recognition and misunderstandings of trust law, and how they apply to Indigenous folks. It was really an egregious sort of situation because I think that’s what put the battery in the back for Brown to be so adversarial to the Pokanoket.”
Hoover said she now believes she would have approached the situation differently and not written the statement at all.
But for Watson and other Indigenous people alike, the damage has already been done.
“Empathy and grace that she’s looking to be extended to her, she did not extend to the nations up here,” Watson said. “It’s very interesting for me now to read those words and hear Ms. Hoover look for that sort of understanding from the community because that’s not what she was giving.”
What’s next for Hoover?
UC Berkeley considers the issue of Hoover’s ethnic identity to be a “deeply personal matter,” according to a campus statement provided by campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore. The statement noted that campus does not consider race or tribal identity in making employment decisions, in light of allegations that Hoover was a part of a “cluster hire.”
Moving forward, Hoover plans to continue her work in environmental justice and food sovereignty for Indigenous people.
“The years and years’ worth of studying and reading and talking to people and working on the ground have made me who I am and shaped the expertise that I have, and that hasn’t changed,” Hoover said in the email. “But the way people see me has, and the way I need to approach this work going forward now has changed.”
For Hoover, this means great care, dialogue and an acknowledgement that people may not want to work with her anymore. She plans on listening to other people’s grievances and is open to shifting her relationships with communities.
But many are unsatisfied with both Hoover and campus’s claims.
“It is deeply upsetting to think of the higher education resources—from Williams College to Brown and now Berkeley—that could have supported the professional advancement of a young Native woman scholar instead,” Kiel said in the email. “It’s important to note that Hoover never apologized for wrongdoing in her statement. As such, I don’t know if we can expect to see her make amends.”
Kiel noted that if Hoover were to make amends, however, it would mean resigning from her position at UC Berkeley and going back on the job market without self-identifying as Native American.
Both Simpson and Kiel believe that Hoover should pay back any grants and fellowships for which she self-identified as Native American.
“Native people are generally fed up with the misrepresentation, by the theft of misallocated resources and opportunities and the confusion, betrayal and discord that these situations leave in their wake,” Simpson said in the email. “It is wrong, it is tiresome and it is symptomatic of the ongoing ignorance and disrespect that the general public, not to mention institutions have regarding Indigenous peoples.”