A question of identity
The Comanche Nation informed KU that a professor who claims he's Comanche is not an enrolled member of the tribe.
Friday, May 2nd, 2008
The Comanche Nation has disputed the claims of a KU professor that he is a Comanche Indian, and accused him of benefiting professionally and financially from his unconfirmed ethnicity.
Ray Pierotti, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who also teaches in the indigenous nations studies program, told The University Daily Kansan in an e-mail that he has never identified himself as an officially enrolled member of the tribe. However, he has claimed to be Comanche in numerous public forums and in a federal discrimination lawsuit he and his wife, Cynthia Annett, filed against the University of Kansas.
While Ray Pierotti acknowledges he is not an enrolled Comanche, he claims Comanche ethnicity, which has a role in University hiring and personnel matters. Although at one time being an ethnic minority could result in discrimination, today it can be an attractive asset to job applicants as universities seek to increase diversity among faculty and staff. The University keeps track of the ethnic makeup of faculty, but equal-opportunity officers said faculty and applicants identified their own ethnicity and the University, unlike tribal authorities, did not require them to provide evidence. Racial and ethnic identity have long been contentious issues. The issue has become more prevalent since equal opportunity laws have passed and Americans have been asked to identify their racial and ethnic backgrounds more frequently.
Pierotti, who said in an e-mail that he was not teaching this semester because he was on “bereavement-related Family Medical Leave,” declined repeated requests by The Kansan to discuss his ethnicity or the allegations that have been raised against him. One of his brothers, David Pierotti, said in a telephone interview from his home in California that their mother told him that her mother was a Comanche from Oklahoma. However, another brother, Nick Pierotti, and an uncle and cousin said that Pierotti’s great-grandparents on their mother’s side were Polish and immigrated to the United States from Europe.
Comanche Nation officials have sent two letters to KU administrators, the latest to the Chancellor’s Office in January, informing the University that Pierotti was not an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation. In the January letter, they asked the University to post disclaimers on publications or Web sites that identify Pierotti as Comanche. Chancellor Robert Hemenway and Provost Richard Lariviere declined requests for interviews to discuss Pierotti’s claims or the Comanche Nation letters.
Students of Pierotti’s said that he had been a great mentor who had gone out of his way to help them and had brought an Indigenous perspective to the science curriculum. Clouding the debate are claims by David and Ray Pierotti that a family dispute over the care of their late father, who died in October, motivated their brother Nick to send an e-mail alleging that Ray Pierotti is not ethnic Comanche as he claims to be. The e-mail was sent in late October to people in several departments at KU including The Kansan and to offices of several other Native American Studies departments and tribal organizations across the United States.
Official enrollment in a tribe is controlled by tribal governments, who see it as their sovereign right to determine their own members. Enrollment typically requires proof of a percentage of Native blood and can carry with it tribal voting rights, access to benefits and a share of financial rewards in tribal businesses and land.
Pierotti has been at the University since 1992. In that time, he has mentored Native students and was named Tribal College/University Mentor of the Year in 1998 by the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. He is identified as “a member of the Comanche Nation” in his biography for that award.
Pierotti is also identified as a Comanche in the 2004 annual report for the National Science Foundation; a 1997 article in Earth Science magazine; a KU news release about the 2005 Big 12 Native American Student Leadership Conference at KU; in BioHawk, a privately funded annual newsletter produced by the Division of Biological Sciences of KU; and in an article published in the Journal of American Indian Education.
A Web site soliciting nearly $400,000 in funds for a documentary that Pierotti was involved with, “Powwow for the Planet,” described him as “a Penateka Band Comanche and one of a very few tenured Native American scientists in U.S. universities.” The Web site was taken down after the allegations were raised last semester. It is back up now, but there is no longer any mention of Pierotti’s Comanche heritage.
In 1998, Pierotti and his wife, Cynthia Annett, filed a lawsuit against the University claiming that he faced racial discrimination because of his Native ethnicity and that she had been a victim of gender discrimination. The acts of discrimination that he cited included: removing laboratory space from him, revoking his position as chairman of the department of Sytematics and Ecology’s Minority Affairs Committee and “denigrating” his award for mentoring minority students.
Attempts to reach Pierotti by telephone were unsuccessful. His wife said in an e-mail to The Kansan that after consulting his doctors, her husband would not consent to an interview for this story.
Ray Pierotti said in an e-mail that allegations by his brother Nicholas were the result of “an ugly family tragedy.” David Pierotti echoed that statement. However, complaints that Ray falsely claimed to be Comanche arose long before his brother’s e-mail.
Heidi Mehl, a third-year graduate student who has worked with Pierotti, said she didn’t believe the allegations when she heard about them.
“I’ve never had any reason to question it,” Mehl said of Periotti’s ethnicity. “Anyone who knows him knows the claims don’t hold any water. It’s really easy to make those claims when you have other motives. That’s an easy subject to attack. Identity is a really thorny issue to get into.”
What Comanches say:
The Comanche Nation first complained about Pierotti’s claims when Monnarhae Henry, the tribe’s enrollment director at the time, sent a letter to the interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 2006 saying that Ray Pierotti was not an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation. Copies of the letter were sent to Michael Yellow Bird, who was the director of Indigenous Nations Studies at the time, and the Office of the Provost. The University said it did not become aware of allegations against Ray Pierotti until Fall of 2007, nearly a year after the letter was sent, but Yellow Bird said he received the letter.
Wallace Coffey, chairman for the Comanche Nation, said they were first alerted about Ray Pierotti about five years ago by Comanche students from KU and Haskell.
“They are not the type of individuals who would judge or make any assumptions,” Coffey said. He said the students started asking basic kinship questions about Pierotti’s family.
“He just couldn’t respond,” Coffey said. “Our people would say it’s just another white man professing to be Native and using what little knowledge he has to try to take advantage of us.”
On Jan. 4, 2008, the Comanche Nation Business Committee, made up of elected leaders of the tribe, sent a second letter to the Office of the Provost. The letter, signed by eight tribal leaders, said Ray Pierotti still was not an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation.
The letter stated in part:
“The Comanche Nation is the only entity that can determine Comanche Nation citizenship. Pierotti’s self-identification as Comanche and the University of Kansas’ lack of effort to substantiate his claims shows disrespect to our tribal sovereignty and is an affront to the legitimate Comanche people. In essence, he is benefiting professionally and financially from unsubstantiated claims of Comanche identity for which the exclusive criterion is tribal enrollment.”
The tribal leaders asked the University to apologize for failing to acknowledge the first letter and to include a disclaimer that said “Raymond Pierotti is not an enrolled member or citizen of the Comanche Nation” on all University Web sites that identified Pierotti as a Comanche.
Coffey said he had not received any response from the University.
Lynn Bretz, director of University Communications, said that the KU administration could not discuss matters relating to personnel because of the individual’s right to privacy.
Bretz said when the University was first made aware of allegations against Ray Pierotti last fall, the University reviewed them and discussed them with Pierotti. Bretz said the University took matters of academic integrity and scholarly misconduct seriously. She said the University had a serious review process that included listening to complaints and gathering evidence.
According to University Senate Rules and Regulations, academic misconduct for an instructor includes: “grading student work by criteria other than academic performance, willful neglect in the discharge of teaching duties, falsification of research results, plagiarizing of another’s work, violation of regulations or ethical codes for the treatment of human and animal subjects, or otherwise acting dishonestly in research.”
The Comanche Nation, a federally recognized tribe, requires that those who enroll for membership must be able to trace their lineage back to the 1887 Dawes Act and must be at least one-eighth Comanche as determined by blood quantum, which is the calculation of an individual’s Indian blood.
To enroll, an ancestor with Comanche heritage must first be enrolled. Pierotti’s parents are both deceased and people cannot be enrolled posthumously.
Ray Pierotti said in an e-mail that he wrote to the Comanche Nation and told them that he had never identified himself as an enrolled member of the tribe. However, he declined to discuss the specifics of his Comanche ethnicity.
Others have also expressed concerns about Pierotti’s claimed heritage. After Nick Pierotti sent the e-mail with the allegations about his brother Ray, Devon Mihesuah, professor of indigenous nations studies, sent him a reply thanking him. Her e-mail reply was intended only for Nicholas Pierotti, but he posted it online on discussion boards without Mihesuah’s consent.
In her response, Mihesuah said that she had questioned Pierotti’s Comanche identity and challenged his ability to teach in the indigenous nations studies department. She said she complained “endlessly” to KU administrators and even asked to be removed from the department. Her husband, Joshua Mihesuah, is an enrolled member of the Comanche tribe. In the message, she said that they had “been aware” of Pierotti’s claims for almost 10 years, and that she was “frustrated that KU chose to look the other way.”
Devon and Joshua Mihesuah both declined to comment for this story.
Angelique EagleWoman, visiting assistant professor of law, said that tribal nations are sovereign and thus determine their own members. She said institutions like the University should contact the tribe before they identify faculty or students as American Indian.
The National Native American Bar Association created guidelines about tribal identity for public institutions in 2007. They encourage institutions of higher education to require individuals who identify as Native American to provide information that will support their claim to ethnicity.
EagleWoman said people who are descendants of a tribe but are not eligible for enrollment should identify themselves as descendants. She said if institutions honored tribal sovereignty, ethnic fraud would not be a problem.
Linda Sue Warner, the president of Haskell Indian Nations University and an enrolled Comanche, said it was important that tribes determined who to include as members.
“Tribes get to say,” Warner said. “It’s really not a genetic issue; it’s a tribal sovereignty issue.”
When Warner became president of Haskell, the Comanche Nation had a celebration in Lawrence to honor her achievements. Coffey said that he did not see Pierotti during the celebration.
The other side of the debate:
Others say that tribal enrollment is an oppressive construction that alienates some Natives.
“I think it’s whitewash,” said Michael Yellow Bird, associate professor of indigenous nations studies. “It’s a colonial invention of the U.S. government. I don’t believe in it.”
Yellow Bird is Sahnish and Hidatsa. His official blood quantum level is 28/32, while several of his brothers and sisters have a perfect blood quantum level of 4/4, even though they have the same parents.
“A lot of people don’t regard tribal enrollment systems with a lot of respect and credibility,” he said.
A copy of the letter from the Comanche Nation’s enrollment office was sent to Yellow Bird in 2006 when he was director of the indigenous nations studies department. Yellow Bird said he wasn’t concerned because many people who are Native are not enrolled members of a tribe and because some people who are enrolled members aren’t really Native.
“I asked him and he said he was,” Yellow Bird said of Pierotti. “That was good enough for me.”
Yellow Bird said what mattered was the performance of a person. He said Pierotti had guided a lot of students through KU and Haskell, many of whom have become successful scientists. Yellow Bird said students gravitated toward Pierotti.
“He was a good mentor,” Yellow Bird said. “He showed up to meetings (of the First Nations Student Association) when no other faculty did.”
Dustina Abrahamson, a second-year graduate student and one of Ray Pierotti’s students, said Native governments were the only ones that required a pedigree for citizenship.
She said that was problematic because many Natives don’t have a high enough blood quantum for any one tribe to enroll. Even some full-blooded Indians cannot register with certain tribes because their blood quantum is so diverse among different tribes, she said.
Abrahamson has worked under Ray Pierotti and taken several of his classes. He is her adviser in the Indigenous Nations Studies department at KU. She said Pierotti inspired her to come to KU for graduate school.
“In my perspective and my view, Dr. Pierotti is as much Native as I am,” she said. “His spirit, his heart is truly indigenous.”
Abrahamson is a full-blooded Shoshone Indian. Shoshones and Comanches are considered cousins.
Abrahamson said a lot of people look at how others look on the outside rather than who they are on the inside.
“He doesn’t fit the mold in a stereotypical view of what Native instructors are supposed to be,” Abrahamson said.
She said what matters is being proud of your heritage and who you are, and Ray Pierotti is.
Abrahamson said she and other students had been made aware of the allegations by an e-mail that was sent out to a select group of students and faculty members in the indigenous nations studies department last semester. She said the e-mail was “mean and hurtful and ugly.”
WHAT THE FAMILY SAYS:
Nick Pierotti said in a phone interview that his brother decided to create a false Comanche identity many years ago in order to take advantage of affirmative action when he was struggling to get a job. He said Ray chose Comanche because the Comanche Nation didn’t keep good records of family history.
David Pierotti, Ray’s other brother, said their grandmother on their mother’s side was Comanche. He said Nick made up the allegations as an act of retaliation.
David Pierotti said the brothers were not immersed in their Comanche heritage growing up in a middle-class suburban neighborhood, but that he remembered stories his grandmother would tell about animals and growing up in the West.
As an adolescent, David Pierotti said his heroes included Crazy Horse and Tecumseh. He said his family was not interested in gaining tribal membership, which he said was for people who were trying to receive tribal benefits. He said his mother tried to find out more information about their Native ancestry but was unable to.
David Pierotti said he and Ray both worked with Native groups and that they had never sought or received any gain from it. He said he thought it had actually hurt his brother’s career, but that Ray got a lot of gratification from helping Native students.
“He and I have both done this kind of thing because we felt a sort of obligation to help,” David Pierroti said.
David’s wife, Josephine, said she recalls his mother telling stories about her background — both Polish and Comanche — on “many, many occasions.”
Nick said that their mother was aware that Ray identified himself as Comanche and that she thought it was wrong.
“There were never any stories told around the kitchen table that we were Native American,” Nick said.
Their grandmother died before Nick was born, when David was just four years old and Ray was eight-years-old. Her son Joe Orie — uncle to the Pierotti brothers and brother of their mother — said in a phone interview with The Kansan that his mother was not Comanche. He said she was born in Natrona Heights, Penn., and lived her entire life in that area. He said his mother’s parents were of Polish descent and came to the United States from Europe.
Jack Orie — cousin of Ray, Nick and David — corroborated that statement. He said he and his family were “shocked” when they heard about the claims of Comanche heritage. Orie’s father, John, could not be reached for comment.
Joe Orie said that he had not seen his nephews, the Pierotti brothers, for many years but that he talked to their mother (his sister) on the phone every few months until her death in 2003.
The identity issue:
Linda Fund, assistant director of the KU Office of Human Resources and Equal Opportunity, said that for University purposes, it was up to each individual to identify his or her ethnicity and the University did not require faculty to provide evidence.
According to the most recent survey of faculty done in Fall 2007, 11 faculty members, including three associate professors, identify as American Indian. American Indians had the smallest representation of any ethnicity out of 1,534 total faculty. The University declined to say whether Pierotti was one of the 11.
Fund said that the University did not give special consideration to applicants of a minority ethnic group, but that the University did strive to ensure that the KU campus was reflective of the population’s diversity and demographic make-up.
In his statement about diversity, Provost Lariviere has stated: “The community of KU reveres individual worth and dignity and believes that advocacy for diversity and inclusion is a major responsibility entrusted to all campus community members.”
Marilyn Harp, executive director of Kansas Legal Services, said there was no law that made it illegal to falsely identify oneself as being of a certain ethnicity but that people had been terminated from jobs for breaching the trust of their employers.
“Because race isn’t supposed to be a factor, to say that has something to do with his hiring and success suggests that the laws aren’t working well,” Harp said. “Except people are paying attention to race, which isn’t supposed to be a factor.”
The Comanche Nation expressed concern to the University that Pierotti was using his claims of Comanche heritage to acquire employment-related benefits, to enhance his credibility in the classroom and on grant applications and to gain support and academic acceptance for his scholarship.
In his article, “The Morale of Faculty, Students, and Staff under a Corporate Model: The Case of the University of Kansas,” Pierotti wrote that he was only “the second Native American tenure-track faculty member at KU.”
He is also identified as Comanche on an annual report for a research program he led, Recruiting Native American Students into Environmental Sciences, for which he and others received more than $400,000 in grant money from the National Science Foundation. The report states: “Being of a Native American (Comanche) heritage and familiar with many of the problems faced by Native students planning careers in environmentally oriented research, Dr. Pierotti acts as a mentor …” As of 2002, the reports for that program stated that it had helped more than 25 Native students to graduate with science degrees from the University, some of whom went on to attend graduate school.
Mehl said she had benefited from Pierotti’s grants as one of his students.
“Any claim that he would be getting rich off of some claim to Native American identity is ludicrous. I’ve never met two people who are more honest or more transparent,” Mehl said of Pierotti and his wife, Annett. “They go out of their way to provide opportunities to students through those grants.”
Mehl said Pierotti should be commended for his actions.
Abrahamson said Pierotti brought an indigenous perspective to science. Instead of looking at land as something to exploit as many do, Abrahamson said Pierotti taught his students that they were equal with nature.
Mehl said she appreciates Ray Pierotti’s indigenous world view and holistic approach to sciences. Mehl said Pierotti teaches that everything is connected.
Mehl said people who are trying to reconnect with their heritage should be embraced.
But if Pierotti is not Native, he is teaching under false pretenses and could be denying a job to someone who is a Native.
“They’re being taught Native values by someone who isn’t,” Nick Pierotti said. “There are plenty of Natives that could be holding the position that my brother is in.”
The question that has been raised by Nick Pierotti and others is not whether Ray Pierotti is an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation, which he is not, but rather whether he is Comanche at all.
Cornel Pewewardy, who is a member of the Comanche Nation and taught at the University from 1996 to 2005, said that falsification of tribal identity was like identity theft.
Pewewardy said that he didn’t know Ray Pierotti well but that he saw him at pow-wows for the First Nations Students Association and that they were on a committee together.
“There was all kinds of conversation,” Pewewardy said about Pierotti’s claims about his ethnicity. “I’m pretty sure he’s not. He contends that he is.”
Pewewardy said a basic element of identity is knowing who you’re related to. “If nobody knows you from back home and they’ve never heard of you, it becomes suspect,” Pewewardy said.
— Edited by Jared Duncan