Nothing can be more political than one’s subjective identity formation. This is particularly so for Indigenous people in Canada. The oppressive power mediating Indigenous identity can be both paralyzing and disenfranchising. In this way the word “subjective” in “subjective identity formation” has its limitations.
Historically, Indigenous people valued (genetic) diversity and as such intermarriage, adoption, and assimilation practices were a part of our governance traditions. Indigenous people also kidnapped children when they were needed due to a loss of members through disease and war, and assimilated political prisoners into their nations. It is said that our process of assimilation was effective so much so that sometimes prisoners opted to remain with their new nation when given the opportunity to go home. Today these processes are much more controversial where as such tough questions are being asked such as who has the right to adopt a person into a First Nation? Can people without an explicit family (genetic) or marital link claim an Indigenous identity? Can people claim to be Algonquin, for example, based on a heartfelt hunch and an old photograph they hold of a female ancestor in braids? How about when someone claims to be Indigenous in a previous life and that this came to them in a dream or vision? What happens when a community consists primarily of people who cannot prove who they are in a family (genetic) linage sense?
In the contemporary political context these questions are important to consider in that what happens when a state such as Canada expects there to be a clear family (genetic) link to a past Indigenous ancestor? How does the state assure the First Nation is legitimate? Be sure, that I am not suggesting here that the state has the right to determine the criteria set a First Nation opts to codify and rely on. My point is that Canada has a right to ponder and ask these important questions; otherwise they could be negotiation with or dealing with a wannabe group that do not have Indigenous rights as per section 35 of the Constitution. It is in this way that today adoption may actually be an interference to the Indigenous nationhood movement (INM) currently taking place. Allyship may be the better option for many.
Vine Deloria addresses many of these issues in this interview. I encourage people to watch and listen as he is recognized as an important thinker.
Complicating the process of Indigenous identity in Canada is the legislation known as The Indian Act, and the government’s process of making registered status Indians and their process of unmaking status Indians as a mechanism to eliminate their treaty responsibilities. As most people know this process of identifying and eliminating registered status Indians has been, and continues to be, biased through sex-discrimination. What many do not know, though, is that there are actually more non-status Indians than status Indians. This stands to reason when we appreciate that the primary purpose of The Indian Act has been and continues to be, to unmake status Indians through enfranchisement, the second-generation cut-off rule, and issues of unknown and unstated paternity.
Complicating this process of identity is that, for the most part, Indian status registration and First Nation band membership are synonymous. This means a person has to be a registered status Indian before they can be a First Nation band member. And while treaty rights conferred such as the right to live in a reserve community, health care, and education continue to be chipped away by the government of Canada a person has to be a registered status Indian to be entitled to these treaty rights.
Then there is the topic of citizenship. Many First Nations have recently begun to establish and codify their own citizenship codes. Unfortunately, these citizenship codes continue to be informed by The Indian Act, meaning if a person is a registered status Indian, not only are they entitled to be a First Nation band member, but they are also entitled to First Nation citizenship. While this is the case, a person who is non-status Indian due to the sex-discrimination in The Indian Act, is more often than not denied First Nation band membership and consequently also First Nation citizenship. As a non-status Algonquin woman I am denied treaty rights, band membership, and Anishinabek citizenship.
Currently there is a counter-hegemonic Indigenous resurgence effort taking place. The goal of this resurgence effort is to establish a new hegemony where Indigenous Nationhood takes on more social cultural political s p a c e. Within this effort there is a call by some Indigenous thinkers and scholars for Indigenous people to move away from the “state created Aboriginal identity” and move toward a “genuine Indigenous identity” that is rooted in traditional governance. While I value these words of motivation, I also know that they are rooted in a dichotomous thinking process that has limitations, meaning in practice there is so much more to the issue than the binary offered. My above discussion outlines many of the issues to consider. Alternatively stated, while I agree the ideal may be for Indigenous people to move toward a “genuine Indigenous identity”, on the ground things are much more complicated. After all, even the politically confident and legally savvy Dr. Pam Palmater applied for and gained Indian status after the 2011 McIvor decision. This is not a criticism but rather an important observation and reality to consider.
It is always the disenfranchised and most vulnerable that must be heard in moving forward. Many have said this. I have also said it. In 2005 I completed my Master of Arts work on Indigenous identity and recently I completed the process of converting my thesis into a thirty page article suitable for publication. It has now moved through the peer-review process and the copy editing stage and is due to be published in June 2013. In this article I offer an analysis of one man’s process of gaining Indian status registration, and as a result Pikwàkanàgan First Nation band membership, and more recently Anishinabek citizenship. What is more, once he gained Indian status registration this person was instantly recognized and catapulted into being an Algonquin elder. Through this process of acceptance and affirmation he has also gained spiritual wellness. Today he is a pipe carrier. I am genuinely happy for him and I deny him nothing; actually I helped him gain this new place of acceptance and spiritual wellness.
To this end, my purpose in offering this Black Face blog and for that matter my soon to be published article is to point out the complexity of Indigenous identity. While I value the use of a dichotomous cognitive model, that positions a “state Aboriginal identity” and a “genuine Indigenous identity” at either end of a binary as a tool to motivate people where the goal is to shift the hegemony, Indigenous identity must simultaneously be understood in broader terms.
Resurge, resurge, and resurge….
Lynn Gehl is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley. She has a section 15 Charter challenge regarding the continued sex discrimination in The Indian Act, is an outspoken critic of the Ontario Algonquin land claims and self-government process, and she recently published a book titled Anishinaabeg Stories: Featuring Petroglyphs, Petrographs, and Wampum Belts. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and see more of her work at www.lynngehl.com.
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