When my Algonquin mother married my Irish immigrant father in 1960, she lost her status. This was the same year aboriginal people were given the right to vote without having to forfeit their treaty rights or status. The government giveth, and the government taketh away.
My parents eventually divorced, though, and in 1985, Parliament passed Bill C-31. It amended the Indian Act to allow, among other things, women who had lost their status through marriage to seek reinstatement. My mother began the process, and eventually a letter arrived from the government.
“Dear Mrs. Nolan,” it read, ”thank you for applying to become an Indian.”
As a child of this mixed marriage, I had no status, and never felt the need for it.
I knew I was Indian because I was my mother’s daughter. I knew I was Indian because my little brother’s elementary-school teacher lifted his long hair in disgust and called him “a dirty little Indian.” I knew I was Indian because in the summers we would travel from Winnipeg to my mother’s home community of Kitigan Zibi, where we would live in the bush with my aunties and uncles and cousins in my grandparents’ camp.
For me, the decision not to seek status was one of resistance, and of pride. I knew where I came from, who my people were, and a government telling me that I was an Indian would not make me any more so. I was raised in the city, I never lived on the reserve, and I did not need support from my mother’s band to pursue an education. I found that the way to strengthen my connection to my roots and to my culture was through work, through education, through my elders and my teachers, whom I found in books, and in schools and on the streets of the cities in which I lived, Winnipeg and Saskatoon and Toronto.
Growing up, I have identified as aboriginal, as Algonquin, as Anishinaabe, as indigenous, as first nation, as native. I have identified as a half-breed, thanks to Maria Campbell reclaiming that term for us. I have only ever identified as non-status when I have been completing a form that offers that box as a choice, for statistical purposes, because I want to keep reminding whoever is keeping count that we are here, in the cities, working and participating in our communities.
So when the news came down on Tuesday that I was indeed Indian, in the eyes of the law of the land, I was surprised to feel a measure of pride. I was also exasperated and a little bit embarrassed by my pleasure in being “recognized” as an Indian. I have been told all my life that I look white, that I could “pass,” and I didn’t “need to do that … that Indian thing.” (This from a friend, after I wrote a short response to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.)
Once again, I am in the position of being validated – or not – by the government.
Will it change things for me?
Not immediately, at least. I am the same person today I was earlier this week, still half Algonquin, half Irish, still living and working in a city, going out to round dances in Dundas Square or along the banks of the South Saskatchewan.
But I think it may change things for us, all of us, as people living together here on this land.
The decision may open the eyes of urban dwellers to the presence of their aboriginal neighbours, who go to work and drink lattes and live in condos and pay taxes and are not assimilated, and do not want to be, thank you very much.
The decision may inspire people who demand, “What do they want now?” to seek out the information that is there for all to read on the Internet and in libraries, the treaties and the Royal Commission Report on Aboriginal Peoples, and to educate themselves about how we got here.
This decision that acknowledges me as an Indian may also spark some anger. The most common response that I have heard and read reduces the Supreme Court decision to one of money, with more than one person commenting, “Uh-oh, this is going to cost me.”
I understand the fear of losing something you believe is your right and how that fear can lead to hate. But being Indian has never been about money. Not for me, not for any Indian I know.
And I do not feel that the government has any more responsibility to me today than it did before. I want the same things from it that I wanted last week and last month and last year. I want it to recognize its role in the ongoing struggle of aboriginal people, to articulate that we are all treaty people and to work with us to find a new way forward.
But there is one difference now, I suppose. This decision has reunited my family in an odd way: my late mother, who was an Indian, then wasn’t, then was again; my two brothers, who were born without status but have had status conferred on them by C-31; and me, the non-status eldest child, Anishinaabe kwe, born of this country, a literal and metaphoric product of the residential school system.
I’m an Indian, too. Ooo ooo.
Yvette Nolan is playwright, director and former artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts. She is currently directing Café Daughter by Kenneth T. Williams. She splits her time between Saskatoon and Toronto.