Madison’s Indigenous and arts communities are working to disentangle themselves from a web left behind by Kay LeClaire, a white woman who has been claiming to be an Indigenous two-spirit person for at least five years.
Since we first reported on LeClaire’s deceptions, the story went viral internationally. But much of the public’s attention has moved on, leaving artists, Indigenous people, businesses, nonprofit organizations and even government agencies to pick up the pieces.
As Madison365 first reported on January 3, LeClaire had been claiming Anishinaabe and Metis heritage since at least 2017. They used that identity to claim positions of leadership in Indigenous communities, including membership and co-ownership of giige, an Indigenous and queer artists’ collective. LeClaire also successfully applied for a number of grants, fellowships and other positions based on the false claim of Indigenous heritage.
LeClaire told colleagues that they identified as “two-spirit,” a gender identity specific to Indigenous people, but did not identify as non-binary. Nonetheless, LeClaire still uses they/them pronouns.
LeClaire apologized in a statement emailed to Madison365, but has not yet directly acknowledged that they lied about being Indigenous.
Following the money
LeClaire has been paid at least $67,000 over the past four years for roles and opportunities they were given based at least in some measure on their claim of Indigenous heritage. The bulk of that was their wages at giige, where they served mostly administrative functions 20 hours per week, earning a total of $60,716 since 2019, according to tax records shared with Madison365.
Nipinet Landsem, another cofounder and member of the collective, said the organization also paid a buyout of an undisclosed amount when it separated from LeClaire.
LeClaire was Community Leader in Residence at the University of Wisconsin School of Ecology’s Center for Design and Material Culture from May through December 2022, for which they were paid $4,876.56. Officials there said Indigenous heritage was not required for that residency, but it was a key part of how LeClaire presented herself in her application.
LeClaire claimed to have made a “jingle dress” for an Overture Center exhibit; they actually purchased the dress from a maker on Etsy. An Overture Center representative confirmed that LeClaire received a stipend for participating in that exhibit; Overture did not disclose the amount but said it was less than $1,000.
LeClaire “participated in a one-day workshop in September 2022 where Wisconsin Historical Society staff met with members of Wisconsin’s Native community to discuss Native perspectives and input as it relates to Society programming,” WHS spokesperson Colleen Lies said in an email to Madison365. For that, LeClaire was compensated $599. Since learning LeClaire is not Indigenous, WHS has donated $599 to the Wisconsin Indian Education Association.
Jennifer Bastian of Communication Madison confirmed in an email that LeClaire was a member of the Communication Press editorial board from March through July of 2021, but was not compensated for that service. Communication did pay LeClaire $100 to design a t-shirt. Additionally, LeClaire was a guest on Conduit, a “live-streamed series that connected arts, culture, and community in Madison at the beginning of the pandemic,” produced by Tone Madison, Communication and Underbelly Creative. The producers collected donations from listeners and passed those along to the guests; LeClaire, who spoke specifically about their Indigenous heritage on that stream, raised $80.
Bastian said Communication has donated $100 to a Native-owned business, $90 to the UW Indigenous student organization Wunk Sheek and $90 to Little Eagle Arts Foundation.
LeClaire also apparently received a settlement after claiming racial discrimination when they were fired from Monroe Street Arts Center; the center, LeClaire and LeClaire’s attorney all declined to disclose the amount of that settlement.
LeClaire was nearly paid another $13,500 before the deception was exposed. They had been approved for a $10,000 fellowship in Springboard for the Arts’ Rural Regenerator program, for which they claimed to be Indigenous and provided a rural address, even though they currently live in the city of Madison. LeClaire was set to join the 2023 cohort of that fellowship, but the $10,000 will go to the remaining members of giige instead.
Dane Arts Mural Arts (DAMA) had also contracted with LeClaire to pay $3,500 for them to create a mural on the side of the giige building on Williamson Street. Landsem said LeClaire asked Landsem to draw the art based on LeClaire’s concept, and only begrudgingly agreed to split the stipend with Landsem.
DAMA Executive Director Veronica Figueroa told Madison365 that LeClaire never cashed or deposited the check DAMA had written for their half of the commission, so they simply canceled that check and have committed to pay Landsem for the project.
LeClaire was also a member of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force Data Subcommittee, under the auspices of the state Department of Justice. They were not compensated for that work, but was able to contribute to policy recommendations. Subcommittee Cochair Dr. Jeneile Luebke said LeClaire identified not only as Indigenous but as a victim of trafficking – a claim Lueble now doubts.
“What I find so disturbing about this is having people weigh in on recommendations that we’re giving as a task force when they truly may not have that lived experience that they’re speaking from,” Luebke said.
Luebke said LeClaire’s relative silence has been hurtful, too.
“It’s just hurtful because I kind of expected there to be some kind of a statement or a response of some sort. But (they) just disappeared, and people are just kind of left hanging,” she said.
LeClaire did provide a statement to Madison365 for inclusion in our first story, and a second statement for this story.
“I apologize for taking up space, voice, and opportunities for Native people. I am sorry for the pain and anger that I have caused, most especially to Indigenous communities and to those who placed trust in me,” LeClaire said in an email. “I have vacated all community spaces, positions, projects, and grants.”
They declined to answer several specific questions, including whether or not they consider themself to be Indigenous.
They did answer one question specifically, though: in a previous statement to Madison365, they said they would no longer use the Indigenous name that was given to them. Asked who gave them that name, they at first demurred, but in a second statement said the name was given to them in their teenage years by an Ojibwe woman who has since passed away, and whom they declined to name.
“I do not want this situation to further impact her family,” LeClaire said.
Landsem and Cunningham said that’s not what LeClaire told them; they said LeClaire’s earlier story was that they’d been given the name by an uncle during a train trip.
“We are resilient.”
“I think that one thing that we’re missing here is that we’re giving too much attention to her, and not really giving attention to the aftermath of this,” Figueroa said.
That aftermath has not only left Indigenous communities in need of healing, but also left rifts in Madison’s arts community as well.
A former employee of the Monroe Street Arts Center, for example, said LeClaire turned other arts community members against them after they were fired.
“Kay had gone around and spoke poorly of multiple of us, and we had kind of been shut out of multiple arts communities, because they supported Kay,” said the employee, who asked to remain anonymous. “As much as now the community knows, none of us still feel like we know how to reach out or know how to reintegrate ourselves into those things, because we got shut out for so long. And now trying to get back into it would almost feel harmful to us and to those people, because we’re all healing from the same thing.”
Luebke from the MMIW Task Force said her subcommittee met and decided to remove LeClaire’s name from its forthcoming report. And, more importantly, the Task Force’s work will go on.
“We will not let this situation with Kay impact our work,” she said. “We are resilient. Our commitment to addressing violence will continue without interruption.”
The studio, which has since rebranded as Red Clover Tattoo Collective, has also served as the clearinghouse for many cultural and culturally-related items – mostly clothing and jewelry – that LeClaire had collected and is now returning. Landsem and co-owners Mar Gosselar and Bear Cunningham said LeClaire is still in possession of some items.
Figueroa, the executive director of DAMA, noted the many boxes of Indigenous clothing and other items filling the studio space during a recent visit, and noted the time Landsem has spent sorting and distributing those items.
“It’s a lot of things that they didn’t have to do, but they did,” Figueroa said. “This wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t any of our fault that we trusted somebody that totally failed us.”
“We are going to continue being involved in the community and being a space for queer and Indigenous and other marginalized folks to do art, get tattoos,” Landsem said. “Kay was in control of how we interacted with the community in a lot of ways, because that was supposedly (Kay’s) job. So we’re gonna rebrand. We’re gonna open up a space for folks to use … We’re not going to change anything about our core ethics.”