The Indigenous scholar who was not
Understand Andrea Smith’s family history has not been easy, but halfway through my reporting I became determined to do this work, if only to clarify the facts amid more political and cultural debates. broad which sometimes submerge discussions about his identity. I had asked Cornsilk for help, but he said he had no more records from the 1990s and couldn’t remember any of his parents’ names. Neither Andrea nor Justine had written anything about their parents in the acknowledgments section of their essays, and then there was the question of their infuriatingly common last name: Smith. But eventually I was able to figure out their mother’s maiden name – Wilkinson – and using census records, birth and death certificates, and obituaries, I began to piece together the story Smith had. for so long refused to tell.
Smith’s mother, Helen Jean Wilkinson, was born in a small town in Indiana to what appear to be middle-class parents: her father was an engineer according to a death certificate, and her mother was at one point a trustee for Luce Township, a farming town of just over 2,000 people on the Ohio River near Evansville. Their ancestors seem to have been mostly farmers and laborers in Kentucky and Indiana for generations. Some of Helen’s ancestors in Kentucky fought for Confederacy during the Civil War, and a couple owned slaves. A great-grandfather on his mother’s side, Lyman V. Pierce, was one of the first police chiefs in Owensboro, Ky., A man whose story of the murder of a romantic rival has been told recently on the Voices of Elmwood tour of this city. But neither Helen, nor her parents, nor her grandparents, nor her great-grandparents, nor her great-great-grandparents are listed in the census records which I have found as anything other than white.
Helen attended Indiana University, where she worked on the directory staff and majored in business education. At some point after graduating, she moved to California, where she married a man named Donald R. Smith. They had two children, Andrea then Justine, and divorced in 1968. Helen died in 2014, but as far as I know Donald Smith was still alive. But finding him was even more difficult.
Then one day, Kauanui mentioned that someone told him once that Smith was spending summers with his father in Virginia. I searched for people with her year of birth who had previously lived in Virginia and eventually found an obituary for a Donald Smith’s father survived by two granddaughters named Andrea and Justine.
I traced Donald’s family tree and found a relative with a working phone number. After I explained what I was looking for, the woman on the other end of the line expired. “Yeah, we heard about it,” she said, “and we just shook our heads.”
Donald R. Smith is alive, the woman confirmed, and he is not Ojibway. He is a white man from Chicago who, like his daughters, is very intelligent. He was a Pentagon nuclear physicist before he retired, the parent told me. He graduated from MIT. His family is mostly of British descent, and no, he didn’t want to talk to me, but his parent wanted me to know that I was doing a good thing by writing this article. “Honestly, integrity is everything in academics,” she said. “So let the truth come out.”
But what is the truth? Or rather, what is the truth sufficient to convince those “others” to whom Gary Younge referred in his essay in The Guardian? After I had proof that Smith’s genealogy was exactly as Cornsilk claimed, I spoke to a friend of mine, feminist historian Emily Skidmore, and she pointed out that the ethnicity listings in the records of censuses are not always accurate. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but if I was interested in clarifying the truth, I realized that I needed to do more reporting.