Smash­ing Iden­tity Al­go­rithms, Yes Please

While sta­tus reg­is­tra­tion un­der the In­dian Act is a con­struct, claim­ing sta­tus iden­tity is an im­por­tant fac­tor in In­dige­nous iden­tity and cul­tural trans­mis­sion

Geist - - Geist - Lisa Bird-wil­son

The Joseph Boy­den In­dige­nous iden­tity de­ba­cle that started late 2016 and re­ally hit its high notes by 2017 un­der­scores not only the im­por­tance of know­ing and claim­ing your her­itage ac­cu­rately, but also of re­ceiv­ing ac­cep­tance from your com­mu­nity. Most read­ers will re­mem­ber that Boy­den, one of Canada’s most com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful “In­dige­nous” au­thors, was the sub­ject of in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism by Jorge Bar­rera (APTN) ex­pos­ing Boy­den’s In­dige­nous iden­tity claims as un­founded. It’s not only about who you claim to be. It’s about who claims you, too. This mantra dom­i­nated dis­cus­sions about Boy­den’s claims of In­dige­nous her­itage. Granted, Boy­den made some epic fuck-ups, in­clud­ing chang­ing his claims about which In­dige­nous na­tion he is from. Boy­den’s in­abil­ity to pub­licly iden­tify his link and lin­eage to an In­dige­nous com­mu­nity, and then his fail­ure to ad­mit his short­com­ings, led to wide­spread re­jec­tion of him as an In­dige­nous writer and le­git­i­mate In­dige­nous voice.

Boy­den’s was an un­pleas­ant fall to watch, and many of us did so qui­etly from our own po­si­tions of in­se­cure iden­tity. I am an adopted In­dige­nous per­son, raised out­side my fam­ily of ori­gin, cheated by both harm­ful govern­ment pol­icy and poor record keep­ing that of­ten failed to trans­fer In­dige­nous iden­tity rights to the child in adop­tion; the ques­tion who claims you is fraught with anx­i­ety for me. The dis­cus­sion about Boy­den leaves many of us won­der­ing about stan­dards of iden­tity and if we mea­sure up. Re­gard­less of the abil­ity to be reg­is­tered as a “sta­tus In­dian,” or as a mem­ber of the Métis Na­tion, many of us ques­tion how we fit into the more sub­tle iden­tity cat­e­gories.

Lynn Gehl’s new book, Claim­ing Anishi­naabe: De­col­o­niz­ing the Hu­man Spirit (Univer­sity of Regina Press, 2017), is ti­tled par­tially in re­sponse to the Boy­den con­tro­versy and fall­out. The no­tion of be­ing claimed by a na­tion or com­mu­nity can be dicey for some In­dige­nous peo­ple who have been sep­a­rated from their com­mu­ni­ties of ori­gin through forced adop­tion, re­moval of chil­dren, alien­ation, sex­ist leg­is­la­tion of the In­dian Act or a com­bi­na­tion of these vi­o­lent acts of colo­nial­ism. In Gehl’s case, the vi­o­lence of colo­nial acts com­mit­ted by Canada meant her abil­ity to be­come a reg­is­tered mem­ber of her fam­ily’s com­mu­nity and re­ceive ben­e­fits un­der the In­dian Act was re­jected based on an un­known pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther who is as­sumed by In­dige­nous and North­ern Af­fairs Canada pol­icy to be a non-in­dian per­son. Gehl took the fed­eral govern­ment to court over a sneaky 1985 amend­ment to the In­dian Act that de­nies full sta­tus to chil­dren in cases of un­known or un­ac­knowl­edged pa­ter­nity, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for women in such cir­cum­stances to pass their sta­tus on to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. This amend­ment fails to rec­og­nize the re­al­i­ties of sex­ual vi­o­lence and do­mes­tic abuse faced by In­dige­nous women. The le­gacy of his­tor­i­cal colo­nial vi­o­lence, in the form of res­i­den­tial schools, forced as­sim­i­la­tion poli­cies, crim­i­nal­iza­tion of In­dige­nous cul­tural prac­tices and so on, has left First Na­tions women vul­ner­a­ble.

Gehl is clear about her claim to In­dige­nous iden­tity, stat­ing that de­spite the fact that Canada de­nies her reg­is­tra­tion as a sta­tus In­dian, and as a re­sult her First Na­tion de­nies her band mem­ber­ship, “I my­self claim I am Anishi­naabe.” Gehl writes, “I do this even though my In­dige­nous na­tion is un­able to claim me as a cit­i­zen or mem­ber. I am de­col­o­niz­ing my spirit and claim­ing my­self Anishi­naabe.”

Cur­rent leg­is­la­tion in­cludes com­pli­cated rules for reg­is­ter­ing un­der the In­dian Act. For in­stance, peo­ple reg­is­tered un­der sec­tion 6 of the In­dian

Act are di­vided into sub­sec­tions 6(1) and 6(2) and are treated dif­fer­ently in re­gard to their abil­ity to pass sta­tus on to chil­dren. As Chelsea Vowel notes in In­dige­nous Writes: A Guide to First Na­tions, Métis and Inuit Is­sues in Canada (High­wa­ter Press, 2016), “This might be a good time to get a cof­fee, be­cause this next bit is al­ways con­fus­ing for peo­ple.”

Be­low is a break­down, as shown in Chelsea Vowel’s In­dige­nous Writes. I feel it im­por­tant to add that talk­ing about peo­ple in this man­ner is ab­so­lutely de­hu­man­iz­ing, dispir­it­ing, and the epit­ome of colo­nial op­pres­sion. The leg­is­la­tion, summed up in the di­a­grams, re­veals a cold and com­pli­cated for­mula for hu­man iden­tity.

Eli­gi­bil­ity for reg­is­tra­tion, or the de­nial of such eli­gi­bil­ity, is fun­da­men­tally linked to cul­tural re­ten­tion and iden­tity, as Sen­a­tor Lil­lian Dyck, a mem­ber of Ge­orge Gordon First Na­tion in Saskatchewan, points out. She notes the sex-based discrimination in the In­dian Act “has alien­ated hun­dreds of thousands of peo­ple like my­self where we don’t have con­nec­tions to our com­mu­ni­ties that we should have had…it’s a forced as­sim­i­la­tion…it’s an­other method of cul­tural geno­cide.” Leg­is­la­tion that re­lies on such for­mu­laic ap­proaches im­pacts the hu­man spirit, dig­nity and self-worth. It re­in­forces the myth of the van­ish­ing In­dian and threat­ens the free­dom to live and love by choice rather than ac­cord­ing to pro­grammed mea­sures nec­es­sary to preserve cul­tural iden­tity. It’s re­duc­tive in a slip­pery way that di­min­ishes peo­ple to cat­e­gories and num­bers and im­poses hi­er­ar­chies of worth. For in­stance, a per­son who is reg­is­tered as a 6(1) has a greater “sta­tus” and abil­ity to pass their lin­eage to a child than the per­son reg­is­tered as a 6(2). Sim­ply dis­cussing hu­man be­ings in this man­ner is de­hu­man­iz­ing and soul-crush­ing.

Re­cently the Se­nate of Canada forced the fed­eral govern­ment to amend a new piece of leg­is­la­tion, Bill S-3, to ad­dress fe­male gen­der discrimination in the In­dian Act once and for all and bring it into com­pli­ance

with the Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms. Orig­i­nally Bill S-3 pro­posed to ad­dress gen­der discrimination only from 1951 on­ward. The sen­a­tors were able to have the leg­is­la­tion changed to ad­dress the sex-based discrimination, which af­fects In­dige­nous women who mar­ried non-sta­tus men, all the way back to 1876 when the In­dian Act came into ef­fect. Sen­a­tor Dyck stated, “Fi­nally In­dian women will be rec­og­nized in law as hav­ing equal rights as In­dian men to trans­mit sta­tus as reg­is­tered In­di­ans and all that goes with it—your lan­guage, your cul­ture, your con­nec­tion to your fam­ily, your con­nec­tion to your com­mu­nity.”

The lack of a dead­line for con­sul­ta­tions and im­ple­men­ta­tion for Bill S-3 leaves many peo­ple skep­ti­cal be­cause— let’s face it—bro­ken prom­ises are the norm for fed­eral govern­ment ac­tions to­ward In­dige­nous peo­ple. As Sen­a­tor Dyck states, “We should not trust the govern­ment. We don’t trust the govern­ment.” And if we heed Lynn Gehl’s words that “the pur­pose [of In­dian Act leg­is­la­tion] was, and re­mains, Canada’s need to elim­i­nate its treaty re­spon­si­bil­i­ties,” we will see more of the many ways and many times Canada has tried to elim­i­nate reg­is­tered In­di­ans—largely through In­dige­nous women and their ba­bies.

Re­gard­ing the sex-based discrimination in the In­dian Act, Sen­a­tor Murray Sin­clair makes the valid point that the prob­lem was not cre­ated by In­dige­nous peo­ple: “[Govern­ment] cre­ated this prob­lem, not First Na­tions peo­ple and not In­dige­nous women… The govern­ment has to solve this.” First Na­tions did not cause the prob­lem of gen­der discrimination, but through pro­cesses of col­o­niza­tion and the in­tro­duc­tion of leg­isla­tively sup­ported pa­tri­ar­chal vi­o­lence and marginal­iza­tion of women in our com­mu­ni­ties, First Na­tions, led mostly by male chiefs and coun­cils pop­u­lated by men, and not nec­es­sar­ily act­ing in the best in­ter­ests of women and chil­dren, be­gan to im­ple­ment the In­dian Act reg­u­la­tions to ex­clude In­dige­nous women from their com­mu­ni­ties. It bears re­peat­ing: in ask­ing the ques­tion and de­mand­ing re­dress, In­dige­nous women are not re­spon­si­ble for know­ing the so­lu­tion. It’s the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the govern­ment to find ways to solve it.

An­other cur­rent con­ver­sa­tion, this one about elim­i­nat­ing the In­dian Act al­to­gether, which Gehl notes is ex­tremely com­pli­cated, in­cludes dis­cus­sions about self-gov­er­nance and fee-sim­ple land set­tle­ments—led, again, by mostly male First Na­tion gov­er­nance struc­tures and not nec­es­sar­ily in the best in­ter­ests of In­dige­nous women and chil­dren. While it is true that sta­tus reg­is­tra­tion un­der the In­dian Act is a govern­ment and colo­nial con­struct, the con­cept of claim­ing sta­tus iden­tity has clearly be­come an im­por­tant fac­tor in In­dige­nous iden­tity and cul­tural trans­mis­sion. With so much at stake, there can be no sim­ple pen-stroke abol­ish­ment of the In­dian Act in the name of de­col­o­niz­ing.

Gehl’s work, as she notes her­self, can be “a bit of a cog­ni­tive wres­tle,” but of­fers a cur­rent and crit­i­cal dis­cus­sion of In­dige­nous iden­tity. In the process of de­col­o­niz­ing and lo­cat­ing our­selves as con­tem­po­rary In­dige­nous peo­ple in the Cana­dian so­cial, cul­tural and le­gal con­text, such dis­cus­sions are nec­es­sary and timely. As Gehl says, “par­a­digm shift­ing re­quires men­tal ac­tiv­ity and con­cep­tual think­ing.” To which I say, fewer In­dian Act al­go­rithms and more of what she says, please.

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