Allegations of identity fraud against a distinguished professor and author are roiling Oregon State University, pitting faculty against one of their own and causing graduate students to turn against a mentor.
The catalyst that caused a long-simmering controversy to boil over: an investigative report released Oct. 25 by the North Carolina-based Tribal Alliance Against Frauds. The Indigenous watchdog group says it investigates people who “falsely represent American Indian cultures, histories, and spiritual practices and/or falsely claim American Indian identity as individuals for profit or fame.”
The most recent subject of the group’s scrutiny is Qwo Li Driskill, a tenured associate professor of Women, Gender and Sexual Studies & Queer Studies in OSU’s College of Liberal Arts. Driskill, 48, identifies as “trans, nonbinary, two-spirit, and queer multiracial and Indigenous,” according to a faculty biography.
After a four-month investigation, the group determined Driskill’s claims of Indigenous and Black ancestry were bogus.
“The Tribal Alliance Against Frauds is asking Oregon State University to fire…Driskill for academic dishonesty and ethnic fraud unless Driskill makes a public statement admitting that they are not American Indian at all and gives a public apology,” the group wrote.
Misrepresenting one’s ethnic identity is an explosive charge with a long history. The issue burst into the public consciousness in 2015, when Rachel Dolezal, then president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Wash., was outed—by her own parents—as being white rather than Black as she claimed.
Critics say fakers steal the identities and authority of cultures they imitate, for motivations that include monetary gain, prestige and authority, all at the expense of groups, such as American Indians, that have long been exploited.
In this case, the Tribal Alliance Against Frauds alleged that Driskill’s claims of ancestral ties to the Cherokee, Lenape and Osage tribes were concocted.
“[Driskill has] zero ancestry from any American Indian tribal nation whatsoever,” the group’s report said. “This is supported by hundreds of unimpeachable genealogical documents that trace Driskill in a direct line back several generations on both sides of their family. It is also supported by letters from all the nations they falsely claim ancestry from.”
The Corvallis Gazette-Times and Inside Higher Ed reported on the fraud report earlier this month.
Lianna Costantino, the director of the fraud detection group, tells WW the number of people falsely claiming American Indian ancestry is skyrocketing: Between 2010 and 2020 there was an 86% increase in the population of people claiming to be Native.
“Obviously, it’s not from immigration or a big baby boom in Indian country,” Costantino says.
People falsely claiming American Indian ancestry, Costantino says, are stealing jobs, defrauding students and colleagues, and perpetuating a genocide and appropriation that began hundreds of years ago. She compares it to people who falsely claim military service.
“It’s kind of like stolen valor,” Constantino says. “This problem is huge. It’s a plague upon us, and we’re drowning in it.”
Costantino’s group has released eight fraud reports since its founding in May 2022, questioning the credentials of professors, an author and a singer, drawing on U.S. Census Bureau and tribal records.
The group, Costantino says, made numerous attempts to reach Driskill with no response. Costantino says that’s typical.
Joseph M. Pierce, an associate of professor of at Stony Brook University in New York, is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and one of the academics who compelled U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to renounce her claims of Cherokee ancestry.
Pierce, who specializes in queer and Indigenous studies and moves in the same academic circles as Driskill, says Driskill wrote their best-known book, Asegi Stories: Cherokee Queer and Two-Spirit Memory while fraudulently claiming Cherokee ancestry. “Driskill helped establish queer indigenous studies as a field but did so under false pretenses,” Pierce says. “We as a people decide who belongs to our tribe. The Cherokee Nation has determined Driskill doesn’t belong.”
Driskill, who did not respond to requests for comment, remains on the job. The university wouldn’t comment (or release Driskill’s photo, although it’s a public record), despite OSU’s professed commitment to academic integrity and a “land acknowledgment” mea culpa on its website taking responsibility for “impact that its land grant history had on Indigenous communities in Oregon.”
Driskill’s attorney, Craig Crispin, says the investigative report is wrong and his client will be vindicated: “I anticipate a release in the near future identifying Dr. Driskill’s ancestral relationships with Native and Black Americans, rendering allegations to the contrary false and defamatory.”
Indeed, an Oct. 5 complaint Driskill filed with the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industriessays they are the real victim.
“I have been targeted for retaliatory actions, subjected to multiple and persistent microaggressions as well as macroaggressions, excluded from work-related positions and activities, and excluded from relevant and important department communications due to my gender identity, race and racial identity,” Driskill wrote in the complaint against OSU.
The report about Driskill’s ancestry comes on the heels of other concerns.
On July 31, seven graduate students submitted a nine-page letter to faculty leaders and Dr. Larry Rodgers, OSU’s dean of liberal arts, accusing Driskill of “biased and abusive behavior towards graduate students and graduate employees.”
The grad students cited instances of favoritism, bias and intimidation and pushed for change. “We demand that Dr. Driskill is replaced as director of graduate studies,” they wrote.
On Sept. 5, seven of Driskill’s faculty colleagues followed up with a letter to Rodgers, supporting the grad students’ “perceptions of a culture of favoritism, manipulation, coercion, and fear of retaliation.”
“Many of us have witnessed firsthand Dr. Driskill’s differential treatment of students and the consequences these behaviors have had,” the faculty members wrote. They asked for Driskill to be placed on administrative leave.
In a follow-up message Sept. 19, the faculty critics added more specifics, alleging Driskill discriminated against some grad students based on gender, ethnicity and national origin and displayed a “willingness to harm faculty colleagues in the process of amassing power and control.”
Even before the watchdog group issued its report, Driskill’s colleagues raised the issue of their ancestry, alleging Driskill “has committed academic fraud by misrepresenting themselves as Indigenous and two spirit,” the faculty letter said. (“Two spirit” refers to an Indigenous understanding of people who are gender nonconforming.)
“This racial misrepresentation also has repercussions for our graduate students who will be harmed by this fraud, both personally and professionally, and our program whose academic integrity will be damaged.”
Driskill punched back, filing the BOLI claim.
The complaint alleges that, beginning in December 2022, Driskill repeatedly notified OSU adminstrators about “a culture of backchanneling and triangulation that created a hostile work environment, particularly toward trans persons.”
The BOLI complaint, newly obtained by WW, was submitted right before the release of the fraud report. That report prompted Driskill’s colleagues to amp up the pressure, emailing OSU president Jayathi Murthy and provost Ed Feser on Nov. 9. They cited concerns that Driskill was bullying “queer trans and nonbinary students,” and demanded an independent investigation.
In response to WW’s questions, university spokesman Rob Odom issued a statement.
“OSU does not comment on personnel matters,” the statement said. “While we cannot comment on the particulars of any individual situation, OSU is committed to maintaining a working, learning, and social environment in which the rights and dignity of all the staff, faculty, and students of the university community are respected.”
One of Driskill’s students feels anything but respected.
When Mateo Rosales Fertig arrived on the OSU campus in 2019 to begin graduate school, part of the draw was Driskill.
Fertig, now 30, grew up in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, with Chicano and Native American ancestry. Fertig uses they/he pronouns and identifies as queer and transgender. In Driskill, Fertig saw a role model and mentor.
“I had known of them as a poet, and I was looking to do some work in poetry as well,” Fertig says. “That’s one of the reasons I applied to the program in the first place.”
Fertig took classes from Driskill and eventually became their assistant in Driskill’s role as director of graduate studies in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program.
Today, Fertig is one of more than 200 people who have signed a petition calling for Driskill to be fired.
“It’s been devastating,” Fertig says. “Students are continuing to be actively harmed, but I feel our claims are pushed aside and dismissed.”