Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Who are Your People?

Grey Owl in 1936. One of the world’s first environmentalists, author and lecturer.  It was revealed after his death that he was not Aboriginal at all but an Englishman named Archie Bellaney who had dyed his hair black and darkened his skin

The past several days social platforms and mainstream media have fueled the conversation regarding the Indigenous heritage of a well-known author, Joseph Boyden.  I really don’t know if he has Indigenous blood or not.  All you have to do is Google Joseph Boyden to read the varying opinions that have been written and discussed regarding Boyden’s claim to an Indigenous heritage. 


I particularly enjoyed reading the blog of former lawyer and active mystery writer, PeggyBlair. Specifically when she writes;For those rushing to Boyden’s defence, I would suggest they exercise a bit of care. We have to listen to what Indigenous people are saying.  As settlers, we hold enormous power. We have a responsibility to be cautious before we accord prominence to someone to speak about Indigenous issues. As tweeter Tom Fortington said, it’s too much to put the entire burden of accountability on First Nations.”


Most of my readers know that I am Densuline. I come from the shores of Lake Athabasca.  I am a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation since birth.  My parents were Isidore and Therese Deranger. I am very proud of my identity.

The question of one's identity can be complex and many dimensional. The issue of identity begins as a personal matter. In a recent conversation with a non-Indigenous friend, he laments, why do some people want to be something other than what they were at birth? That is a good question.

Identifying as Indigenous does not automatically mean you’re entitled to rights as an Indigenous person. Finding an Indigenous ancestor in your family tree can give a person the right to claim some form of Indigenous identity, but the issue of identity ceases to be purely personal when something tangible is at stake, like Aboriginal or treaty rights or the right to claim a prize intended for Indigenous writers, for example. Perhaps the criteria should be more clear for these prizes.  Furthermore, people applying for these should be asked for proof of their Indigenous heritage. 

Others became Indians through the loophole of the Indian Act. The law corrected this loophole in 1985 to bring the Indian Act in line with gender equality under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Many Indigenous women had their Indian status rights restored.  However, in my opinion it didn’t go far enough to correct the injustice of also conferring statutory Indian status rights under the Indian Act on non-Indigenous women who married a status Indian. Many of these women continue to reap the benefits of this loophole long after that relationship dissolved. A purely personal sense of identity morphs into a matter for public concern.

The concern arises when Indigenous identity is an opportunity to claim benefits that rightly belong to Indigenous peoples.  There is justification for these special benefits, which stem from colonization and marginalization of Indigenous peoples for hundreds of years. We have paid a great price to be afforded these benefits.  They belong to our Nations and communities collectively, not to every individual who happens to have an Indigenous ancestor.

No doubt, some of these people take on Indigenous identity and wear it proudly like their Sunday best; eventually they may come to believe a fabricated story of where they come from and will vehemently defend their story. Holding someone accountable to who their “real” people are does not mean we don’t appreciate and like them as a person. That is not the problem with this scenario. Joseph Boyden is not the first person to claim Indigenous identity and he won’t be the last. 

And, yes it bothers me. 

I guess I should feel some sort of gratitude towards people who claim to be Indigenous. After all they are saying, we love your culture so much so that we have embodied it and have appropriated it as our own.  People, you simply can’t just do that and you should stop it! If you are one of these people come clean and embrace your own culture and identity.  At the very least tell us who your people are.    

Still others simply just want to belong. Either way it is terribly wrong.  You can show your adoration for our rich Indigenous culture without pretending to be one of us.  We will accept you as who you really are.  Really.  We’re cool like that and I know this is something you love about us.  :)

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