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A scholar's Native American heritage was questioned. Who gets to decide her identity?

Noah Goldberg, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

The dilemma arose just a few days before the book was set to go to press.

Two contributing authors confronted their editor, Larry Gross, an associate professor of race and ethnic studies at University of Redlands, who had worked for months to assemble the anthology, “Native American Rhetoric.”

The two authors wanted to talk to Gross about a fellow contributor to the book. As a classmate at UC Santa Barbara, she had always identified to them as white, the writers told Gross. But in the book she claimed ancestry from the Chippewa, Sioux and Crow tribes.

The matter, Gross recalled, was “of grave concern to me and caused me to feel alarmed. I did not want our book and the contributors to be ... tainted.”

With the book deadline bearing down on him, Gross, an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, decided to conduct his own investigation of the graduate student’s background.

His inquiry would raise the larger questions that have come to loom over discussions of Native identity: What does it mean to be Native American? And who gets to decide?



After centuries of population declines, more and more people are self-identifying as Native American.

The number of Americans identifying as Native American alone or in combination with other races rose 86% in the 2020 census from the 2010 census.

The sharp increase is not due to a baby boom, but reflects people changing how they identify at some point during their lives.


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