The 'Pretendian' Invasion: Indigenous Identity Fraud
Updated: Nov 13
Megan generated this word cloud image using a compilation of social media comments regarding allegations of Indigenous identity fraud against a high profile public figure. She compiled comments from Facebook, X (Twitter) and news websites, removed all identifying information, input the comments into WordItOut’s word cloud generator, removed filler words and generated the above image.
Indigenous identity fraud refers to situations where non-Indigenous individuals falsely claim an Indigenous identity for material gains. There have been a number of high profile cases of Indigenous identity fraud in recent years, including academics, authors, and performers.
Jean Teillet recently prepared a report on Indigenous Identity Fraud, with particular focus on academic environments. Teillet outlines two main reasons this problem has occurred. First, Canadians and institutions are ignorant of the complexities of Indigenous identity. Second, institutions seriously underestimated the number of individuals who are willing to exploit that ignorance for their personal gain. 
Teillet also identifies other issues surrounding identity fraud. She questions whether the current focus on ancestry and membership/citizenship is problematic or acceptable. She also considers people’s and institution’s reactions to the harm caused by false assumption of Indigenous identity. 
Teillet identifies two types of Indigenous identity fraudsters. First are those who fully fabricate an Indigenous identity. Second are those who embellish their connection to Indigeneity through exaggeration or misstatement, often based on vague family stories, a distant relative or the results of a DNA test.  It is interesting then that DNA and DNA test appear on the word cloud generated from social media comments, suggesting that genetics are still commonly a significant aspect of the conservations around identity.
As we outlined in our post earlier this week, Indigenous identity is complex and fraught with issues stemming from historical and ongoing colonialism. In the Western tradition, identity is thought of as something individualistic, arising solely from the distinctive traits of an individual. However, in many Indigenous cultures, identity is in large part, defined by an individual’s relationships with others, as well as through kinship ties (which are not synonymous with genetic relatedness).  This community-based means of assessing identity can sometimes be at odds with a person’s self-imposed individualistic identity.
Indigenous identity fraud harms Indigenous people. By falsely claiming Indigenous identity and using that identity for material gain, the fraudster is taking opportunities and space away from Indigenous people. Every time a fraudster is given opportunities targeted at Indigenous people, they are directly taking that opportunity away from an Indigenous person. These opportunities can include scholarships, awards, speaking engagements, jobs and book sales
Particularly in the context of academia, the “outing” of an identity fraudster has a real and damaging effect on the academic institution’s reputation. However, this damage is not just done at the level of large institutions. It also has a damaging effect on individual students, particularly those who may have studied under the fraudster. Students may doubt the validity of what they have been taught by the fraudster. In particular, students who have been supervised by the fraudster at the graduate level may find their degree “tainted” by this association with a fraudster.
Finally, it is important to draw a distinction between identity fraudsters and people reconnecting with their Indigenous heritage and identity. Through colonial programs such as enfranchisement and the removal of Indigenous children from their families (such as the 60’s scoop and beyond), many Indigenous people have been separated from their communities, cultures and kinship ties. A person claiming this Indigenous identity and working towards reconnecting with their culture is not the same as identity fraud. When there is uncertainty, we should rely on honesty and humility.
Until next time,
Jean Teillet, “Indigenous Identity Fraud” Report for the University of Saskatchewan (2022) [USASK Report] at 4, online (pdf): https://indigenous.usask.ca/documents/deybwewin--taapwaywin--tapwewin-verification/jean-teillet-report.pdf.
Ibid at 4-5.
Ibid at 5.
First Nations University of Canada, “Indigenous Voices on Indigenous Identity: What was Heard Report” (2022) at 12-14, online (pdf): https://www.fnuniv.ca/wp-content/uploads/Indigenous-Voices-on-Indigenous-Identity_National-Indigenous-Identity-Forum_Report_March-22_June-22-FINAL.pdf