Opinion: The problem with labeling people ‘Pretenders’
Drew Lafond is president of the Indigenous Bar Association.
The recent trend to label people who fraudulently claim to have Indigenous ancestry as “pretenders” has spawned a particularly toxic, divisive and insidious interpretation of what it means to be Indigenous. Problematically, it also distracts from the tireless work that Indigenous nations are doing to rebuild their own citizenship laws and decolonize how Indigenous citizenship decisions are made and who makes them.
Increasingly used in the mainstream media and by Indigenous peoples themselves, the term “claimant” is applied when people are publicly “revealed” as non-Indigenous based on a myopic focus on a person’s lineage or ancestry and without a deeper understanding of richness and diversity. the relationships that Aboriginal nations have internally and with others.
Kinship and belonging in Indigenous societies is much more than a ticked box on an application form or a Crown-issued card, but these deeper conversations are stifled by the “Pretendian” brand. The narrative becomes one of engaging genealogists or historical records, all of which miss the point: indigeneity is never about who you claim to be, but fundamentally about who claims you as part of their community.
The irony of the term “claimant” is that the concept of lineage and amount of blood as a means of determining whether a person is indigenous is itself a colonial construct. The inherent contradictions would be comical if they did not cause harm and engender lateral violence in our communities. At its core, the term has all the hallmarks of the divide-and-conquer tactics that have fractured and undermined Indigenous nations since before Confederation.
With respect to the issue of aboriginal citizenship, original sin dates back to colonial legislation prior to the Indian Act, which imposed on Indigenous peoples artificial and rigid definitions of who was and who was not an “Indian” by attributing “Indian status” to some individuals and not to others. The system established by the Crown was gendered, excluded, and categorized Indigenous peoples as enslaved.
The concept of Indian status has been used to deprive Indigenous peoples of their lands, disrupt Indigenous governance systems, and deprive many people, especially Indigenous women, of their fundamental rights and freedoms. It also created internal divisions between Indigenous nations, communities and families and arguably spawned the first “pretenders” – people unable to produce an Indian Act status card to “prove” that they were indigenous. The cases of Indigenous women such as Sandra Lovelace and Sharon McIvor, who had to turn to the courts (another colonial institution) to prove the discriminatory nature of these “status” distinctions, clearly illustrate how problematic these labels can become. .
Unfortunately, the oppressive Indian Act system, including its determination of “Indian status,” persists to this day. Indeed, many Indigenous nations have internalized this system as a means of drawing boundaries between themselves and “others”. For many Indigenous communities still governed by the Indian Act, funding for everything from health and education to community infrastructure such as sewage, water and housing is based on the number of ” Registered Indians”. In these circumstances, calling the suitors “suitors” becomes an all-too-familiar witch hunt driven by poverty, or financial or political goals, and has nothing to do with how Indigenous communities would choose to define themselves.
The way forward must be based on Indigenous peoples taking back control of the definition and decisions of Indigenous citizenship within their communities, guided by our own laws, traditions and customs, and free from financial or political coercion. Indigenous peoples around the world have affirmed this path in Article 9 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states: “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right to belong to a community or indigenous nation, in accordance with the traditions and customs of the community or nation concerned. No discrimination of any kind may result from the exercise of such a right.
In recent years, Indigenous Nations have made great strides in revitalizing Indigenous governance, including citizenship laws and processes. Guided by Indigenous elders, knowledge holders, scholars and others, we reveal that Indigenous kinship systems are incredibly rich and based on complex understandings of nation, relationships and what it means to belong to a particular indigenous community. This exercise involves an in-depth examination – by the Indigenous community itself – of factors such as shared history, lived experience, contributions and ongoing participation in the nation’s culture and heritage, to name a few. only a few. In some cases, the issue of ancestry, in a purely biological way, is not even a factor at all – such as in adoption cases where kinship and community acceptance are key. The purpose of this exercise is to bring to life Indigenous practices of kinship and belonging, and I encourage institutions to respect the work Indigenous nations are doing to build their own systems of citizenship.
Rather than fostering these nuanced discussions, the preoccupation with identifying “suitors” only serves to distract from this larger goal of self-determination, placing control of these fundamental issues back into the control of Indigenous peoples themselves. themselves. The “pretentious” concern perpetuates racist and colonial conceptions that lineage and amount of blood is all that matters and encourages “exit” from non-Indigenous society in ways that can cause incredible harm to people who have separated from our communities by colonial actions and are working legitimately to reconnect and belong. Like the labels of “status” under the Indian Act, “claimant” should be rejected because it does more harm than good.
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