Assimilation and eradication have always been the answer to the Indian problem. From germ warfare, bounties, starvation tactics, forced relocations, corralling onto — and scooping off — of reserves, to coded identification. And now, it’s snipers picking off Indigenous individuals one by one.
The federal government decides who they “recognize” as Indigenous, worthy of consultation and benefit agreements. With the rise of cultural pride alongside equitable economic opportunity, the Indian problem may be getting worse.
Métis (and non-status First Nations) are able to decide their own identity and jurisdiction criteria as they have not been subjected to Indian Act determinations, whereas Indian reserve populations are controlled and defined by the Canadian nation. No wonder people are confused — and angry.
Indigenous artists, academics, and Knowledge Keepers cover a spectrum of veritable identities: status, non-status, lost status, Bill C-31 (regained) status, fair skinned, urban, reserve-raised, adopted, Métis, dispersed, ceremonial, Christian, mixed blood, Buddhist, northern, and rural are all part of the mix.
The dividing line becomes those perceived as “privileged Indigenous” versus those who have been intergenerationally subjected to the reserve system. Accusations range from knowing too well how to succeed in the whiteman’s world, to not having suffered enough, to stealing opportunities away from “real Indians.”
Belonging to any community is a mutual agreement. But, if one lacks community membership, is one less Indigenous?
The issue of distant or non-existent Indigenous ancestry — upheld and protected by colonial institutions’ identity-box-ticking policies — must not be confused with the complex categories of Indigenous identities across this country. This is the heart of the problem. This is where the sniper ends up aiming at the wrong enemy. Those who self-identify as Métis outside the Red River, do not hold membership to a politically driven association, or claim non status First Nation identity, become easy enemies of those suffering other injustices while being held under water by the Indian Act.
Interestingly, sniper-focus is on individuals rather than on institutional systems, colonial power and corporate greed, competing political agendas, historic truths, or policies that manipulate Indigenous identities. Peculiarly, non-Indigenous career genealogists are assuming (or assigned?) authoritative voice on Indigenous identities and interpreting family histories.
It can take decades to analyze genealogy from both living and recorded memory sources. Data systems may print out names but not delicate truths about covert assimilation tactics, bias by omission, linguistic power, and racial authority combined with plain human error and conjecture.
The Indigenous Screen Office is currently developing an Indigenous identity policy so that government agencies can permit certain Inuit, Métis and First Nation individuals to collaborate, make art, fill designated positions, win prizes, and smile in front of the all inclusive-Canada camera. Indigenous people are jumping through hoops to prove to their oppressor who they once were, who they currently are, or how willing they are to get on the “right side” of power.
If the end result is proof of carded identity, membership affiliation, or genealogical print outs for ad hoc approval, Indigenous statistics across this country will diminish. Indigenous voices will be silenced, Indigenous arts will fade, and Indigenous funding and programs will end up on the killing fields. Indigenous peoples will continue to exist but as white-washed Canadians. War heroes will then be decorated by the army sergeant for having finally solved the Indian problem.
Waving the white flag over identity politics is long overdue — it is time for all Indigenous peoples of this land called Canada to hear each others’ stories in order to unite rather than divide — for each other’s sake. Imagine how strong one Indigenous nation would be.
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