Pretendians in our midst

Hill Times November 8, 2021

Pretendian: Canadian of settler descent and values who claims to be Indigenous in order to gain monetary benefit. And so deeply ironic. Indigenous peoples have a lower life expectancy, higher risks of disease and mental illness, higher risks of intergenerational trauma, much higher risks of experiencing racism. Our existence is our resistance. And yet, some want to be like us.

Indigenous peoples are still described with the annoying and stereotypical noble savage trope, and we’re all close to nature and all shamanic and wearing feathers and such (two provincial school curriculums come to mind). Just in case anybody is still pushing this crazy message here’s a news flash—this racist thinking is so 1950s. But this is the superficiality that some crave.

Identity superficiality may be all one needs to get a scholarship or job in academia or in governments. And here is the crux of the problem. There is an emerging risk-reduction scramble to add vetting layers for Indigenous peoples for jobs and scholarships, and risk-reduction always carries the risk of going too far. Ethnic identity is often characterized as shared values, cuisine, language, physical characteristics, geographic origin. But in Canada there is a new layer that goes beyond general identity theory—connection to community. Ideally every First Nation, Inuit, and Métis individual and family would have strong connection and belonging to community. Ideally, every human would have strong connection to community.

But this is not always the case.

The residential schools system was the gold standard to remove the community from the kid. Then the 60s Scoop handily erased community connection for thousands now mid career and looking for opportunities for advancement. Add to this group the huge number of Indigenous kids about to age out of child welfare who grew up out of community. First Nations, Inuit, and Métis individuals who live outside of community and have yet to secure a safe connection to community should not be penalized for their lack of knowledge of their community: they simply have not had the opportunity yet. The 60s Scoop survivor looks a lot like a pretendian in the first years of cultural and identity development:  desperately trying to become, to be, to belong, to learn the social mores to be part of something bigger. So how can we tell the difference between those striving to align self to Indigenous identity, versus fraudulent claims for personal gain?

It might be impossible to checklist what positive Indigenous identity looks like. It’s not like there’s a checklist! If there is one, please throw it out. Instead this might actually be like finding counterfeit currency—it’s much easier to see the counterfeit than the legal bills. Counterfeit Indigenous claims usually include the red flag of the “Cherokee great-great” cheat which started in the U.S. It goes like this: individual does genealogy, finds Indigenous grandmother from the mid 1850s or earlier, so claims the identity. But identity is not only genealogy, because blood does not make family.

What makes family and community? Indigenous identity check-listers should not add trauma to the list. Tlingit identity is not predicated on being traumatized. Métis belonging is not predicated on having intergenerational trauma. Inuit identity is not about mental illness.

Family and community cannot be determined by a checklist, nor by those outside of community. This question must go back to the grandmothers to determine. Grandmothers might just uphold a principle of grace—just like holders of counterfeit currency, the holder might not know it’s counterfeit. And grandmothers might just adopt people like we used to do traditionally. Reconciliation means the outsider never defines nor restricts an Indigenous individual’s identity nor belonging. It is up to the community.

Every single time.