Susan Taffe Reed and the Problem of Pretendians

Steve Russell

Dartmouth College’s responses to criticism of Susan Taffe Reed’s appointment to direct Dartmouth’s Native American Program are deeply disturbing. The announcement on Dartmouth’s website describes Reed as “an ethnomusicologist and president of the Eastern Delaware Nations.” That is, her association with a band of Pretendians is given equal dignity with her academic specialty. Et tu, Dartmouth? If you don’t understand the Pretendian problem, who does?

The Chair of the search committee that recommended Reed’s hiring is quoted in the New Hampshire Guardian. After noting correctly that birth and death certificates are problematic reporters of Indian ethnicity, Native American Studies Professor Bruce Duthu opined, “there are serious problems with reliance on notions of ‘federal recognition’ as a measure of ‘authenticity.’” Of course there are, but claiming federal recognition of the Eastern Delaware Nations as the issue is classic misdirection. Et Tu, Dartmouth? If you won’t keep your eye on the ball, who will?

Dartmouth defended the hire with a common canard, “It is illegal to hire or deny employment based on an individual’s ethnicity.” If you want to take the position that being Indian is not a bona fide occupational qualification to lead your Native American Program, that’s your choice, and there are good policy arguments on both sides—but the law does not dictate your choice. The BFOQ defense does not apply to “race,” but it does apply to national origin. Et tu, Dartmouth? If you don’t understand the two sides to that issue, who does?

Ignoring the BFOQ exception to an allegation of hiring discrimination could be dismissed as argumentative cuteness and a demand that you account for it as hairsplitting, but affirmatively making the debate about ethnicity smokes out the legal fiction of “race” when entanglement of tribal governments with “race” is an existential threat to those governments. Et tu, Dartmouth? If you don’t understand that American Indian is a political classification rather than a racial one, who does?

Elevating a Pretendian connection to an importance equal to academic specialty just aggravates the simmering insult of higher education’s embrace of box checking at the expense of the least successful minority in academia. If Susan Taffe Reed misrepresented herself, that is a character issue.

If Susan Taffe Reed did not misrepresent herself, then you created this controversy with your own press release and you could extricate yourself by throwing some kid in the media office under the bus. Instead, you simultaneously tout her Pretendian connections as reason to celebrate her appointment and claim those connections had nothing to do with her appointment. In the political age of double talk, we expect more of higher education. Et tu, Dartmouth?

Reed has held positions publicly advertised as existing for the purpose of representing the historically unrepresented in higher education.

It is fair to ask, if she never called herself an Indian, how did she come to occupy those positions? There are plenty of white people who support Indian efforts to succeed in academia, so how did she repeatedly stand out from that crowd? She has had nothing to say beyond a general statement that her critics have their facts all wrong. It’s understandable that the numerous academic Pretendians and the institutions that hired them do not want to have that conversation. Et tu, Dartmouth?

It is this effort to shut down public conversation by Dr. Reed that in the end is most egregious of all, even worse than the stumble into the fraught narrative of Indians as a race. Those of use who associate ourselves with academia have a duty to steer public policy away from personalities but also to dissect the difficult issues. As a political matter, Reed’s declining of all interviews and failure to engage her critics when they offer a bill of particulars is understandable. It subverts the academic mission, but it’s understandable. When the College is willing to countenance the subversion, though, it leaves those of us who believed in its mission to serve indigenous communities with a response not of aggression but of sadness and disappointment: Et tu, Dartmouth?

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