Artist Accused of Faking Indigenous Identity Quits University Post

Gina Adams’s work “Broken Treaty Quilt: Fort Laramie” (photo courtesy the artist)

Artist Gina Adams, whose claim to Indigenous identity raised doubts, has resigned from her post as assistant professor at Emily Carr University, according to a statement released by the school yesterday, September 6. Adams, whose multimedia work explores themes of heritage, ancestry, ritual, and land, was hired in 2019 at Emily Carr as part of a targeted cluster hire of new Indigenous faculty members. Emily Carr is a public post-secondary art and design school located in Vancouver, Canada.

The school’s statement was released following the publication this week of a long-form report in the Canadian magazine Maclean’s by writer Michelle Cyca, a former employee in the Communications Department at Emily Carr. The article amplifies questions first raised by NoMoreRedFace, an anonymous Twitter account that has since been deleted, which beginning in 2020 accused several individuals claiming Indigenous ancestry of fabricating their identities. (Adams resigned on August 25, prior to the article’s publication.)

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Adams has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.

Before assuming her post at Emily Carr, Adams was an assistant professor of visual art at Naropa University, a small, private college in Boulder, Colorado. When she joined the faculty in August, Adams was introduced in a university announcement as “a contemporary Indigenous hybrid artist of Ojibwa Anishinaabe and Lakota descent of Waabonaquot of White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.” (On Adams’s website, her bio specifies that she is “a descendant of both Indigenous (Ojibwe) and colonial Americans.”) Adams taught a required first-year class and a class entitled “Aboriginal Material Practice,” which focused on techniques employed in traditional and contemporary Indigenous art.

In a 2017 essay for an exhibition of Adams’s work, art critic Lucy Lippard mentioned in a footnote that Adams had “few regrets about her lack of tribal membership papers,” which the artist apparently called “a form of apartheid; ‘No piece of paper could make that bond any stronger,’ she says.” Lippard deemed Adams’s most “moving body of work” a series called Honoring Modern Unidentified, photographs of anonymous Indigenous people shrouded behind encaustic symbolizing historical erasure and identity loss that Adams connected with her grandfather’s purported life.  

In March 2021, NoMoreRedFace alleged in a lengthy Twitter thread that Adams’s grandfather was not Ojibwe as Adams had posited, but a White man named Albert Theriault who was born to French-Canadian parents. In response, in a 1,500-word statement shared privately with certain people affiliated with Emily Carr, Adams claimed that her grandfather was Chippewa, raised on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota and forcibly removed to the Carlisle School, an assimilationist boarding school, when he was eight years old. “To those people on social media who have questioned my legitimate heritage, I say nothing,” she wrote in her statement, as quoted in Maclean’s. “To my gallerists, my university and my wider Indigenous communities whom I deeply respect, I am happy to share my family lineage.” 

Cyca and Maclean’s independently verified historical records that list Adam’s grandfather’s race as White. Cyca also reached out to several of Adams’s living family members, who were not able to confirm Adams’s claims of Indigeneity. When Cyca and a Maclean’s fact-checker contacted White Earth Nation, which Adams claimed an affiliation with, the enrollment director of the tribe was not able to find any records for her, either of her parents, or any of her grandparents. 

“Emily Carr University takes very seriously the allegations that a member of our faculty made a false claim to Indigenous identity,” the school’s statement reads, adding that an “Indigenous-led external review” would be initiated to establish better procedures for confirming the veracity of claims of Indigenous identity in their hiring process. But the university rejects that Adams’s hiring involved any explicit failure. “This was a rigorous process that involved interviews with ECU’s hiring committee, which included Indigenous faculty and staff, a public presentation, and one-on-one meetings with Indigenous students, Indigenous and non-Indigenous faculty members. While this is an evolving area, ECU is confident this hiring process followed best practice at the time,” the statement adds.

The saga over Adams’s identity claims recalls similar cases of Indigenous ancestry coming into question in the academic sphere. Last year, former SFU Galleries Curator cheyanne turions resigned after confessing in a blog post that she was unsure about her Ojibway ancestry. Turions had accepted over $100,000 in grants from Canadian funding entities that were intended for Indigenous individuals.

In her article, Cyca writes, “Creating new hiring policies is a start. But universities must also examine their pasts, and not only after they are prompted by a media investigation. I don’t think their reluctance to do so stems from indifference. I think that university leaders believe themselves to be allies of Indigenous people, and can’t confront the truth that their efforts may have done more harm than good.”


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