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Friday, April 12, 2024
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Former UW-Madison Community Leader in Residence misrepresented an Indigenous identity

Kay LeClaire, formerly known as “nibiiwakamigkwe” received nearly $5,000 through the School of Human Ecology’s Center for Design and Material Culture

In March 2022, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Human Ecology Center for Design and Material Culture (CDMC) hired Kay LeClaire, who used the Ojibwe name “nibiiwakamigkwe,” as their “Community Leader in Residence.”

However, in late November, one user on the New Age Fraud online forum indicated they saw a social media post from “nibiiwakamigkwe” on their feed and had suspicions about their background after looking through more of their profile. The user used publicly available information to trace LeClaire’s genealogy and found several discrepancies in their story. Based on this information, the user determined that LeClaire’s ancestry was limited to German, Swedish and French Canadian. 

LeClaire did not respond to requests for comment by the Daily Cardinal but provided a statement to Madison 365 in which LeClaire apologized and indicated they would no longer go by the name “nibiiwakamigkwe.”

The university community partnership was funded by grant money from the Equity and Justice Network's Community Leader-in-Residence Program and aimed to connect artists —  especially those from underrepresented backgrounds — to academic settings. LeClaire received approximately $4,876 in private funding from March to December 2022, according to a statement from the School of Human Ecology. 

According to the initiative’s website, LeClaire was responsible for partnering with staff and students and tackling questions related to cultural appropriation and appreciation in the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection (HLATC). Before starting this role, LeClaire participated in the CDMC’s conversation series in October 2020.

LeClaire’s position with the university was set to end on Dec. 31, 2022, however, they resigned from the position on Dec. 29, 2022. The university also indicated they had not received any materials from LeClaire for its textile collection.

“Moving forward, my efforts will be towards reducing harm by following the directions provided by native community members and community-specified proxies,” LeClaire said in the statement to Madison365.

In a statement from the university, Director of Media Relations and Strategic Communications Kelly Tyrell highlighted the harm of misrepresentation of ethnic identities.

“Instances where people mischaracterize their racial or ethnic identities or backgrounds can be upsetting, disturbing and even harmful to those affected,” she said. “There is a long and painful history of erasure and cultural appropriation in the U.S., which has had an immense impact on people's lives.” 

Madison community responds 

The Madison community knew LeClaire as a queer Indigenous activist and artist who co-owned the art collective and tattoo shop giige. They identified with several Indigenous tribes and identities including Oneida, Anishinaabe and Metis, and claimed to be both Cuban and Jewish.

Nipinet Landsem, an Anishinaabe tattoo artist at giige, recalled meeting LeClaire in 2019 and working together while LeClaire was the events coordinator for the shop.

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“They made it seem that this position [at UW-Madison] was them being recognized as an expert in cultural appropriation, so that helped establish their credibility,” Landsem said. “Kay warmed their way into the ceremony, Kay got invited to events, Kay got personal stories from people by lying to them and saying they had similar stories and experiences, so people are really really hurt. I think it’s just overall made people wearier of interacting with anybody, especially white-led institutions that platform them.”

Landsem also noted that LeClaire allowed white organizations and individuals to present themselves as an ally to Indigenous art and activism while LeClaire misrepresented those communities.

“Kay was the perfect Indian to white people,” Landsem said. “They did a really good job about playing up the trauma, the stereotypes and the sad, sad stories and making white people feel like they were doing something good by letting Kay talk, when really it was an inaccurate representation of a community.”

Landsem indicated that their coworkers had communicated with LeClaire since the allegations became public. Coworkers were working to recover and redistribute LeClaire’s Indigenous items and gifts to the proper owners.

While the UW-Madison Indigenous Student Center (ISC) did not directly reference LeClaire in an Instagram post from Jan. 26, 2022, they established the definition of a “pretendian.” ISC indicated tangible and emotional reasons for being a “pretendian,” expressing the harm this causes to indigenous communities and tribal sovereignty. ISC also presented resources for Indigenous students on campus to connect with.

LeClaire is not the only individual who misrepresented a racial background in UW-Madison’s recent history. After Jessica Krug indicated she faked a black identity in a now-deleted Medium post, a colleague of CV Vitollo-Haddad’s indicated their suspicions about Vitollo-Haddad’s claims. Vitollo-Haddad, who was a graduate student and TA in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, later apologized and indicated they are Italian — not Afro Latinx.

Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and leader of the Equity and Justice Network Leadership at the School of Human Ecology Janean Dilworth-Bart echoed this local and national phenomenon in a statement. The same user who traced LeClaire’s genealogy also indicated they had received several new tips from other individuals about other “pretendians” in Madison.

“The allegations reflect a sad pattern of appropriation throughout the country and are incredibly upsetting, particularly for our Indigenous community members,” Dilworth-Bart said.

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Noe Goldhaber

Noe Goldhaber is the college news editor and former copy chief for the Daily Cardinal. She is a statistics major and has reported on a wide range of campus issues. Follow her on Twitter at @noegoldhaber.

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