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Indigenous Identity: Making Room for the Disconnected

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

This week, on the blog, we explored the complexities of Indigenous identity. We looked at status under the Indian Act, problems arising from self-identification, and the use of Indigenous Chancellors at Canadian universities. We have seen, time and time again, that individuals falsely claiming Indigenous identity can have harsh negative impacts on communities, and that government-imposed definitions of who is Indigenous and who is not can cause divisions between and within communities.

Photo Credit: Leah Dorion: Sister Paddlers <https://events.citypa.ca/Default/Detail/2020-07-31-1300-Part-4-of-the-Inter-generational-Metis-Artist-Ment>.

When we are having these important conversations about Indigenous identity, self-identification, and identity fraud, it is important to note that there is a large group of people who don’t cleanly fall into the categories of identity that have been constructed by both the Canadian state, and by nations themselves. “The 60s scoop, Indian Act exclusions, the scrip system, Inuit relocations, and residential schools are just some of the colonial enterprises that intentionally uncoupled individuals from their lands, communities, families, nations, and their Indigenous identities.”[1]

This is one of the reasons why Indigenous identity is so complex. In her recent report on Indigenous identity, Métis lawyer and scholar Jean Teillet explained how difficult it is to define ‘identity’. She states that identity is not solely subjective, and that identities are created and maintained in relation to others.[2] Teillet states that identity is built upon relationships, and that “Indigenous identity exists only if it is in relation to cultural ancestors and to existing Indigenous societies.”[3] I do agree that starting with relationships can be an important first step in defining identity, however, I also think that this approach can exclude Indigenous individuals who have been torn away from their communities through the state’s colonial project.

Without a doubt, I think that a current connection to the existing Indigenous society is incredibly important, but when we use this approach, we must be flexible and recognize that there are many Indigenous folks out there working very hard to reconnect to an identity and to relationships that were taken from them or from their parents or grandparents, through no fault of their own. When these individuals with Indigenous ancestry are reconnected to a community that they were once distanced from, it begs the question: when are they connected ‘enough’ to rightfully say that they are part of that community?

In my own experience, as a child, I wasn’t immersed in the Métis culture and didn’t have the opportunity to learn more about that part of myself until my late-teenage years. Over the last ten years of my life, I have made a real effort to learn more about my family, my roots, and my culture as a Métis person. I have tried to become involved in this community and have built many relationships along the way. The process of reconnection is very difficult and confusing. On one hand, you are striving for acceptance and belonging, but on the other hand, you may feel like you are forcing yourself into a group that you are not entitled to be in.

Now, as I enter the second half of my twenties, I am still working to build connections and “earn” my place in the community. I find myself constantly making an effort to prove that I belong here, and to prove that I am Métis, all the while feeling like I am not doing enough to rightfully call myself a member of the Métis community. This really goes to show that there is no way to easily define what it means to be Indigenous in this country, and reinforces the fact that we have to approach questions of Indigenous identity carefully, and with respect and understanding. Although there are, unfortunately, many non-Indigenous individuals wrongfully ‘adopting’ Indigenous identities for their own personal gain, there are also countless other Indigenous people that lack connections through no fault of their own. It is not helpful to look at the Indigenous identity question in black-and-white terms- it is much more complex than that.

Until next time,

Team Reconcili-ACTION YEG

[1] Jean Teillet, “Indigenous Identity Fraud: A Report for the University of Saskatchewan” (17 October 2022) at 12, online (pdf): <chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/23262696/jean-teillet-report-on-indigenous-identity-fraud.pdf>. [2] Ibid at 9. [3] Ibid.

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