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  • Writer's picturereconciliactionyeg

Government’s Gift of the Gift to Decide Who We Gift

There is very little more complex than what it means to be Indigenous in Canada. The Government of Canada has its definition, communities have their own, and there are Indigenous people who self-identify and claim that space in their own way.

It is the government’s definition more often than not that is given weight when it comes to rights and responsibilities, however. Under Section 35 of the Constitution Act, “Aboriginal peoples of Canada” includes Indian, Inuit, and Métis people of Canada.[1] The term “Indian” has a very specific meaning, connoting a legal identity under the Indian Act, which expressly states who is and who is not qualified to be a registered Indigenous person in Canada. [2]

This definition erases Indigenous identity in the legal sense through a complicated, systemic approach to reducing Indigenous peoples in Canada. It is this definition that has also led to further disconnection and loss of culture for Indigenous peoples. It is also the definition used by institutions in providing programs and services.

The raptor distribution program is one such program. Administered through the Fish and Wildlife offices in the Province of Alberta, the distribution program allows Indigenous people access to feathers and body parts of birds who have passed on.[3] These feathers and other body parts hold significant meaning to many Indigenous cultures and are a sacred item unto themselves. Eagles as the most sacred of birds, carry prayers to the Creator and hold a special place in many Indigenous nations in Canada; their feathers a symbol of courage and bravery.[4]

It is then understandable why Elders at post-secondary institutions have expressed a desire to gift Indigenous graduates with an eagle feather of their own during convocation, when one receives their degree. A symbol of the courage and bravery it takes to walk in two worlds and to accomplish higher education as an Indigenous person.

Unfortunately, this program, as shown by the document above, is only available to Indigenous people who are themselves recognized under Section 35 of the Constitution Act, or who are gifting to other Indigenous people who also must be recognized under Section 35.[4] This leaves out Indigenous people who exist in our country, whose roots are firmly planted in that identity, but who for one reason or another are not registered “Indians.”

Interestingly, the policy also suggests that Elders, Knowledge Keepers, Medicine Men, and Bundle Keepers must also show documentation of their positions. It is not enough to be recognized and affirmed within and by one’s community. The Government requires written proof and a resolution from one’s Chief and Council.

It is both confusing and absurd.

In an era of Truth, Reconciliation, and UNDRIP, it is uncomfortable to see the Government continue to force Indigenous people to exclude and preclude their kin from culture and ceremony. It is baffling that they still look to colonial narratives of “proof” to justify traditional Indigenous leadership. It is worrisome that control over sacred items continues to be controlled by colonial systems.

It is a watering down of the honour of receiving the gift of an Eagle feather when it is a gift that is gifted only through the gifting of the gift from the government. This sentence is almost as confusing as the arbitrary systems put in place to control it.

The gifting of eagle feathers, or more so, the lack of ability to, is a reminder of how much further we must walk on this journey to Reconciliation, and how many battles must still be fought to ensure that Indigeneity is not only respected but able to exist without permission. A gift we no longer wait for but must take for ourselves.

Until next time,


[1] Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (U.K.), 1982, c. 11, reprinted in R.S.C. 1985, App. II, No. 44.

[2] Indian Act, R.S.C. 1970, c.I-6, amended by R.S.C. 1970 (2d Supp.), c.10; S.C. 1974-75-76, c.48, Office Consolidation.

[3] "Dene elder questions Alberta eagle feather policy" (2 May 2019), online: CBC <>

[4] Ibid.


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