My first encounter with Kay LeClaire, formerly known as nibiiwakamigkwe, was mid-October 2019 when they were lobbying The Bur Oak (then The Winnebago) to change their venue name. My band The Hasbians had just played Gender Fest at The Winnebago which sparked conversations in the queer community over social media regarding the problematic nature of the venue name in connection to local Indigenous communities and calls for accountability and a venue name change. I was easily drawn into the conversation and didn’t question the information that LeClaire was providing, in part due to my own ignorance on local/regional/national Indigenous cultures, as well as their own posturing as an expert on the historical implications of the use of the venue name and their connection to local queer and Indigenous activists.
I did not meet LeClaire in person until this past fall when they were a speaker at the OPEN Annual Dinner where they spoke on Indigenous ways of being, their experiences growing up, and their experiences as a Native American artist, activist, and co-founder/co-owner of the anti-capitalist, queer, and Indigenous-owned tattoo healing collective giige (now Red Clover Tattoo Collective). They were in regalia, were accompanied by other Indigenous folks, and spoke with confidence and conviction. I felt honored that I was present for such a gift of insight into the intimate experiences of an Indigenous Two-spirit artist and activist. I never would have expected or anticipated that by the end of the year we would all learn they had fabricated their Indigenous Two-spirit identity. They were a Pretendian, a fraud, and were going to be exposed before the end of 2022.
I was alerted to LeClaire’s deception through posts on social media in late December 2022. The posts included links to the forum newagefraud.org which showed extensive research of LeClaire’s ancestral claims done by an anonymous, Indigenous, self-described “hobbyist genealogist” using the handle advancedsmite. The detailed forum showed LeClaire had no ancestral ties to the Native American Indian tribes they claimed, including Métis, Oneida, Anishinaabe, and Haudenosaunee, as their familial lineage was proven to be German, Swedish, and French Canadian. Additionally, LeClaire’s claims to having grown up in Northern Wisconsin were shown to have been fabricated. LeClaire was actually a white person from Sussex, Wisconsin (near Milwaukee).
The forum also revealed they had been intentionally altering their appearance by dyeing their hair black and darkening their skin. They had been masquerading as an Indigenous person, collecting Indigenous artifacts, sacred items, cultural history and practices, regalia, and art, and were profiting from the ruse materially, socially, and academically. They presented on panels that focused on issues unique to Native American communities, including involvement with Wisconsin’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force. In the ultimate act of neo-colonialism, they had taken opportunities that were intended for Indigenous artists and activists, and had spoken about ethnic trauma they never experienced, all while claiming an anti-colonial platform.
It was also uncovered that much of the art that LeClaire claimed to have created, art that had propelled their image as an Indigenous artist, had actually been purchased by LeClaire from Native and non-native artists. Most notably a ribbon dress that they had sold to the Overture Center and presented on as their own creation was actually bought off Etsy.
LeClaire’s ethnic fraud has been reported in detail by Madison365, The Cap Times, and WPR, and has spread to national and international news outlets, with friends, colleagues, and community members weighing in on their experiences with LeClaire. Native American leaders not connected to LeClaire have also weighed in on the continued conversation regarding white appropriation of Indigenous identities and tribal affiliations.
Since the revelation of LeClaire’s ethnic fraud, they have been legally removed from giige/Red Clover Tattoo Collective, have resigned from their position at UW–Madison’s School of Human Ecology, and according to a statement they made to the media they have stopped using the name nibiiwakamigkwe and have removed themselves “from all community spaces, positions, projects, and grants and will not seek new ones.”
Colonization’s Deep Impact
There is undeniable generational trauma from settler colonization, including forced removal and criminalization of Indigenous tribes and traditions. Residential schools and child welfare removals, as well as forced assimilation have disconnected and displaced many ethnically Indigenous people from their tribes. Only since 1978 with the passage of the Indian Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) and Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) have Indigenous people in the U.S. been able to legally and openly practice traditional beliefs and receive recognition of the harm of forced removal of Indigenous children along with legal dedication to tribal rights over their welfare. These landmark laws undoubtedly led to many displaced Indigenous folks seeking to authentically reconnect with their tribe(s) and reintegrate their ancestral identity. But false claims to Indigenous ancestry, and ethnic frauds (now commonly referred to as pretendians), have occurred for centuries, requiring some federally recognized tribes to rely on blood quantum in order to prevent outsider exploitation and to ensure tribal sustenance.
Blood quantum, or the amount of Indigenous blood an individual possesses based on genealogy and ancestral tribal enrollment, was invented in the 18th century as a tool of colonization used to place limits on the citizenship rights of Native Americans, and later was used to limit the availability of benefits to Native Americans. Blood quantum is used by some federally recognized tribal nations to decide who is considered a citizen, able to be formally enrolled and added to tribal membership rolls. Use of blood quantum to establish tribal membership varies by tribe and is considered highly controversial by some, as it relies on genealogical records which can be difficult to trace accurately, but is also a protective measure as a means of preserving tribal history and traditions, a way to pass their cultural legacy on to future generations, and to limit tribal exploitation and appropriation by outsiders. Qualifications for enrollment vary across tribes and it is not necessarily uncommon for Indigenous folks to be members of more than one tribe. Contrary to popular belief, DNA testing is not sophisticated nor accurate enough to provide information regarding specific tribal ancestry.
Blood quantum, genealogy, and DNA are not the penultimate deciding factors on tribal affiliation, as evidenced in many of the articles covering LeClaire’s deception where it is cited that tribal affiliation is dependent on whether or not the tribe claims you. In some Indigenous cultures direct blood ties are not required for an individual to be claimed, but rather they are a member based on their actions, connections to the land and community, and a kinship-like sense of belonging. Being claimed by a tribe does not necessarily equate to tribal enrollment or membership, or give an individual full access to tribal rights or to elevate themselves into positions of leadership or tribal expertise. There has been no evidence that LeClaire was ever claimed by any tribe.
Academia’s role in ethnic fraud
Academia is rife with fraud, including several instances of ethnic fraud being uncovered in 2020 alone. Academia favors a positionality that is not usually accessible to those with the lived experience that culture commodifiers crave. Academia prizes the individual and individual achievement, which is more difficult to access without racial and financial privilege, power, and status. Success in academia also depends on maintaining inequitable relationships with esteemed professors, making exploitation of marginalized academic hopefuls more accessible. Ethnic frauds have access to whiteness which can help them exploit white people, regardless of power imbalances, and Black and Indigenous people without fear of recourse; they always have whiteness to fall back on. Several articles on ethnic frauds have stated these frauds could have had successful careers in ethnic studies and could have been fierce allies. Instead they chose ethnic fraud and stole opportunities from the communities they claimed.
Known racial/ethnic frauds Jessica Krug, CV Vitolo-Haddad, and Kay LeClaire were all connected to the UW-Madison. Unlike Krug and CV, LeClaire was not a student at UW, but rather their connection to the university was educational, representative, and ultimately performative. While both Krug and CV altered their appearances to appear more racially ambiguous, LeClaire also wore traditional regalia. Additionally, while Krug, CV, and LeClaire exploited their stolen identities to advance their careers, LeClaire seems to be the only one of the three to have also participated in plagiarism by passing off artwork created by others as their own. While it should have been relatively easy for the UW, the Overture Center, and other institutions to research the items that LeClaire passed as their own original art, it took Indigenous people to do the research to expose LeClaire’s plagiarism. And while I do not condone unnecessary investigations of Black or Indigenous folks, one would think there would be reasonable standards in place for ensuring that educators and exhibitors are not passing off work done by others as their own.
Queerness’ role in ethnic fraud
We must reckon with the fact that CV and LeClaire were both members of the queer community. We must recognize the impact that claiming multiple marginalized identities had on their ability to exploit white folks and communities of color. White queer folks are culpable. White queer multiple marginalized folks are culpable, because our marginalized identities do not cancel our whiteness and we are just as guilty as cisheteronormative white folks of promoting whiteness, tokenizing LGBTQ+ communities of color, and performative allyship. We cannot distance ourselves from our complacency in racism and colonization especially when Black and Indigenous queer and transgender women continue to be the most vulnerable members of our community.
Accountability & moving forward
Solutions to the occurrences of racial/ethnic fraud in academia, activism, and in the queer community require a dedicated community response. As white folks we need to put in the work in cultivating meaningful relationships with the communities most impacted. It takes time and energy to foster trusting, authentic relationships, which includes doing the work to be anti-racist and to unlearn the revisionist history regarding colonization, enslavement, and white supremacy. It requires a willingness to be uncomfortable, to be challenged, to be called out and called in, and to be left out/excluded from certain aspects of the lived experiences of Black and Indigenous folks (and marginalized communities we are a part of in general). While it is not the responsibility of white folks to question Black and Indigenous folks racial/ethnic identities without undeniable and overwhelming evidence, we are responsible for the fallout. Regardless of our relationship or proximity to the white person and their deception, we must hold ourselves accountable to do better by our communities of color. Imagine if Indigenous folks who had doubts about LeClaire felt safe enough to entrust white folks with their concerns without fear of repercussion or exploitation.
It is not the responsibility of Black and Indigenous people to provide solutions to the problems of whiteness, it is our responsibility considering how we benefit from racial/ethnic representation within primarily white organizations and institutions. We cannot continue to do this work in silos and absolutely need to engage Black and Indigenous communities beyond tokenization and performativity in order to create meaningful and sustainable change that is not centered in whiteness, while also not placing the burden of educating us without equitable compensation when we have already been given access to knowledge, insight, and tools on how institutions need to change and how to fight racism for decades. We must find ways to meaningfully address the continued white commodification of racial/ethnic identities without general suspicion, the use of surveillance, or invasive and racist vetting processes.
We must unlearn our entitlement to traumatic stories of racism and do the work of dismantling the systems built on and benefitting from racism and colonization. We have to do this work not only with the communities most impacted, but also by giving marginalized communities resources without expectation of performance instead of elevating and centering individuals. Our overreliance on personal clout and individual expertise, as well as the tokenization and commodification of racialized identities will continue to result in the platforming of problematic people and the flattening of racial/ethnic identities and lived experience.
While not every institution and organization is ready to embrace decolonization, land back, reparations, or other justice-centered solutions, these are not the only ways in which there can be meaningful progress made toward equity, parity, and rematriation. There is not one perfect way to make progress; it takes many people working from many different angles to make meaningful and sustainable change.
Red Clover Tattoo Collective has been doing some amazing community work as a way of healing from the wreckage LeClaire left behind. Co-founder/co-owner, Indigenous artist and tattooer Nipinet Landsem, along with collective members Mar, Bear, Ari, and Harlowe, has been working to sort through, rematriate, and redistribute LeClaire’s relinquished Indigenous art, crafts, crafting supplies, and other sacred items within the indigenous community. Landsem has also been holding community spaces with other Indigenous artists and activists in order to foster deeper and intentional Indigenous community connections and healing.
These actions are part of the accountability that the collective called for in a statement released following LeClaire’s separation from giige that detailed what happened, how they were holding themselves accountable for the harm they unwittingly participated in, how organizations that had given LeClaire a platform could show accountability through public statements and donations to Indigenous organizations that were harmed, and included accountability measures for LeClaire demanding a formal apology detailing their fraudulent actions to everyone impacted by their ethnic fraud. There have been calls by other Indigenous folks who were harmed by LeClaire to pay reparations for the money they received for their fraud, in addition to calls for actionable, sustained, and dedicated accountability to the organizations and individuals they exploited.
LeClaire has since disappeared from the public eye and social media. To date they have only released the aforementioned ambiguous statement to media outlets seeking comment and have not yet admitted to nor given any explanation for their ethnic or art fraud. Hopefully they follow through on calls for accountability and reparative actions from Red Clover Tattoo Collective, the Indigenous communities they defrauded, and those closest to them. There is no blueprint or checklist on how to work to repair the harm of ethnic fraud; however, it could help bring closure to the community if LeClaire shared the truth regarding their actions, the full extent of the harm they caused, and why and how they did what they did. n
Author’s note: The ICWA mentioned is under attack by the conservative Supreme Court. It is essential that this act is upheld in order to ensure that Indigenous children are raised within their tribes. We can all take action to reach out to our political representatives in support of upholding the ICWA, trans rights, and reproductive rights.
jilip nagler is President of the Board of OutReach LGBTQ+ Community Center, member of OutReach’s Madison Area Transgender Association Leadership Team, a musician, and a community activist and organizer dedicated to collective liberation. Everything ze knows about justice ze learned from Angela Davis, bell hooks, and queer/trans People of Color.