Distinctive Dene jacket made by my mom, Therese Deranger
Distinctive Dene jacket made by my mom, Therese Deranger
Words and contexts matter. The subject of this blog may give rise to an emotional reaction. I write it from an Indigenous world view.
Why do some non-Indigenous people seek to identify themselves as Indigenous? I understand that sometimes it could be as simple as an individual trying to fill a void within themselves and seeking acceptance, belonging, and kinship. This is a basic human desire.
Throughout history leading to today, some non-Indigenous people have self-identified as Indigenous. This is not a new phenomenon. I do not take issue with that concept. However, I do take issue with someone who uses a recently assumed identity to access a system designed to help marginalized people.
A famous historical example is Archibald (Archie) Bellaney, better known as Gray Owl, and in more contemporary times, the controversy over author Joseph Boyden’s ever-changing claim as Indigenous was a heated topic in 2016.
The issue of identity begins as a personal matter. It satisfies a real need. In the era of Black Lives Matter, Indigenous peoples around the globe are standing up for their rights, on constitutional matters, and have begun the process of squaring colonial policies, like residential schools, and the 60s scoop with contemporary awareness based on human rights by reframing our perspective through the lens of colonialism. To put it bluntly, the attempted cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada is reprehensible and efforts to correct the damage is necessary.
Identifying as an Indigenous person 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. Think of Senator Elizabeth Warren. DNA analysis indicates that she apparently had a full-blooded Indian ancestor between 6 to 10 generations ago. This would mean that one of between 64 and 1024 of her ancestors was Indigenous. It is a source of some personal pride for her. But is it really meaningful?
Nevertheless 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 an award intended for people who are have been colonized. If you self-identify as an Indigenous person in order to have a legal right or to claim some award for Indigenous people, you must also be able self-identify as a member of a particular Indigenous community. And that community must also recognize you as its member.
Can we agree that Indigenous people are marginalized? Some are discriminated against solely based on their physical appearance. Government programs were designed to demean and break their spirit. Today programs and scholarships meant for Indigenous peoples are created to help level the playing field for the wrong that was perpetrated on them.
To that end, I have begun a conversation on how colonization continues to impact Indigenous people. I recently produced a podcast on decolonizing addictions, and in particular decolonizing substance use in a conversation about the harmful effects of stigma and why Indigenous peoples are overrepresented in addiction. Decolonizing substance use is about creating a collective understanding about where an addiction comes from, making clear linkages between colonialism, trauma, substance use and then addiction. It is just one issue where many Indigenous people must overcome. There are other areas where Indigenous people are overrepresented, like the penal system and the foster care system and these have an enormous negative impact on the lives of Indigenous peoples. The trauma resulting from these experiences is intergenerational, and this compounds the problem and complicates finding a way out of the trauma/addiction vortex.
Perhaps the criteria for self-identifying as Indigenous ought to be more difficult. But in an ideal world where people behaved with honour, we wouldn't have to worry about people applying in categories created for Indigenous people by those who don’t qualify. It just wouldn't happen.
If you are self-identifying as Indigenous, I will leave it to you and your conscience to reflect carefully on your reasons for applying under an Indigenous category. In what way have you been marginalized? The most challenging obstacle being Indigenous is our physical appearance. We cannot change the colour of our skin. If you look Caucasian, you have no idea what it feels like to be followed in the store watched in case you steal. You have no idea what it feels like to be sick, and instead of getting medical help, witnesses jump to the typecast that you must be drunk, Indigenous people have died because of this stereotype. If you haven't experienced an Indigenous life, can we agree you are privileged? And furthermore, to extend your privilege to the point where you think it is okay to accept a scholarship over a needy Indigenous person and not only show little compassion, it shows little comprehension on why Indigenous categories exist. Shame on you! The bottom line is taking what is not yours is not the Indigenous way.
As I mentioned earlier you may have found Indigenous ancestors in your genealogy, however applying for an award in an Indigenous category clearly suggest you do not understand the difficulty and struggles of Indigenous people have for hundreds of years since colonization.
In my view there are people who are opportunists and see this as an opportunity for themselves, to gain the system. And then there are people who genuinely admire Indigenous people and see their self-identifying as Indigenous as a way to elevate and give back to Indigenous peoples in some manner. Which one are you?
In the era of reconciliation, it is important first to be educated, secondly to reconcile the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous and not take advantage of the opportunities intended for Indigenous peoples. The lines of “Indigenous” and “non-Indigenous” are being blurred more and more all the time. It can’t be just about your bloodline. It must also be about your lived experience. To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, ask not what identifying as Indigenous can do for you, instead ask how identifying as Indigenous can improve life for your Indigenous community and Indigenous communities on the whole.
Being Indigenous for me is to function on a foundation of respect, honour, and reciprocity in a natural law context as my ancestors have done for millennia.
I am Dene. I live in unceded Algonquin territory This is my mom beading.