Woman who faked Native American heritage was awarded university residency

The University of Wisconsin-Madison paid $5,000 to a woman who faked her Native American ancestry so that she could help develop ‘a toolkit and curriculum around cultural appropriation.’

Academics, journalists, and artists who fake their heritage often build professional reputations based on their identities.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW Madison) awarded a $5,000 residency to Kay LeClaire, a woman recently exposed for faking her Native American ancestry. 

LeClaire is the latest “pretendian” who profits by providing art or expertise to universities, museums, or other institutions, all of which are pushing for inclusivity in curriculum, faculty makeup, and exhibitions. 

[RELATED: University implements plan to pay tuition for Native American students]

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that LeClaire served as “community leader in residence for the Center for Design and Material Culture,” a residency dedicated to “the development of a toolkit and curriculum around cultural appropriation.”  

John Lucas with UW-Madison Communications told Campus Reform that “LeClaire is a prominent figure in the community,” and the university learned about her faked ancestry “through reports on social media and local media.”

LeClaire’s campus residency was ending at the end of 2022,” he continued. “She resigned before the formal end date. It will not be renewed.”

LeClaire, who allegedly identifies as “two spirit,” an indigenous term for identifying as both male and female, previously criticized UW-Madison for raising a tribal flag, calling the gesture “performative,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

The Center for Design is a program of UW-Madison’s School of Human Ecology, which operates an Indigenous EcoWell Initiative. The initiative belongs to a larger collaboration between UW-Madison’s other academic departments and Wisconsin First Nations to promote their scholarship and artwork.

Academics, journalists, and artists who fake their heritage, as the New York Post and Campus Reform have reported, often build professional reputations based on their identities. 

A writer and activist developed a list to call out these accused “pretendians.” One is the Dartmouth administrator “forced out as director of the school’s Native American Program over allegedly faking membership in the Eastern Delaware Nations,” according to the New York Post. The administrator, Susan Taffe Reed, still works at Dartmouth as an assistant dean of undergraduates. 

More recently, Campus Reform reported that University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) professor Elizabeth Hoover said that she can no longer claim Native American ancestry because she has no proof of her family’s tribal membership. Hoover belonged to UC Berkeley’s diversity cluster hiring initiative, according to Berkeley News

[RELATED: REPORT: Students must acknowledge benefitting from genocide to take classes]

Renowned Oneida bead artist Karen Ann Hoffman told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that pretendians like LeClaire cause “[r]eal damage.” 

“Opportunity is stolen, causes are damaged and communities are shaken,” she said. 

UW-Madison’s textile collection did not receive anything from LeClaire, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, though she did collaborate with the Overture Center for the Arts. She passed a jingle dress made by another artist as her own and explained its significance in educational videos and presentations at the center. 

Like the rest of the community, we were notified of the allegations against Kay LeClaire by an external party,” Overture Communications Director Shari Gasper told Campus Reform.

Overture respects the confidentiality of contracts made between the organization and the artists for their work. However, I will confirm that the contract was less than $1,000 for the jingle dress and participation in an educational video and presentations/meetings about the jingle dress.”

LeClaire also profited from her fake heritage by receiving $1,000 to speak at an event hosted by an LGBTQ organization and serving on a Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) task force addressing missing and murdered indigenous women, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Gillian Drummond, the Director of Communications for the Wisconsin DOJ, told Campus Reform that “LeClaire’s involvement was limited to attending a few subcommittee meetings as any member of the public can.”

Campus Reform contacted all relevant parties listed for comment but could not obtain LeClaire’s contact information. This article will be updated accordingly.