I’m sure you remember the classic quote from the sitcom Seinfeld, when’s he’s complaining about his dentist to a priest. “I wanted to talk to you about Dr. Whatley. I have a suspicion that he’s converted to Judaism purely for the jokes.” When asked if it offends him as a Jewish person, he replies “No, it offends me as a comedian!”
With that said, many in our community wonder about people who find the need to “convert” clandestinely to First Nation and Métis beliefs. Is it for the jokes? The bannock? The special and unique relationship we have with the various police forces? These members of the dominant culture, frequently referred to as “settlers” or “the colour challenged,” go out of their way to not only embrace the practices of another people, but also claim their history and identity. Essentially, they wrap themselves in the blanket of thousands of years of our culture they picked up at The Bay (irony is in the history).
I think Indigenous, therefore I am Indigenous.
Scarcely a month or two goes by before somebody is “outed” in the media as what we now call a Pretendian. And understandably, it’s usually Indigenous people who call foul. Many mainstream organizations go on faith when somebody says they are Indigenous, feeling that questioning heritage might be deemed insensitive. So that responsibility falls upon us. I would claim we have an innate ability – honed over a hundred years of being told to abandon our culture – to detect culturally scented bull crap. We like to think of it as a sense of well-earned Pretend-dar.
Interestingly, it’s usually in the realms of arts, academia and a few others where Pretendians prefer to gather, like gazelles at the watering hole. You don’t find a lot of accusations being thrown at butchers, Uber drivers or janitors. Curious, I asked some experts in those fields as to why they feel the grass is greener on their side of the metaphorical Rez.
Niigaan Sinclair, an Anishinaabe associate professor at the University of Manitoba, feels Pretendians’ presence in the rarified air of academia has a tinge of irony to it. “In academia – in places that have historically marginalized and ostracized everything indigenous – the pendulum has now swung, leading to fraudulent claims of Indigenous identity sometimes involving ancestry and other times none at all. This move to posing as Indigenous … further distances universities and places of ‘higher’ learning from the real-life intellectual and activist work actual Indigenous peoples are doing.”
In addition to this, Janine Willie, who has worked in the world of employment equity (and is my partner), feels the issue has grown exponentially. “Originally, the only requirement for people to demonstrate their Aboriginal identity was their own self-identification. While this system worked, for the most part, there were two distinctive difficulties: People who were Aboriginal would chose not to self-identify for a number of reasons (being accused of getting the job because of Aboriginal status, feeling uncomfortable or unsafe identifying). And non-Aboriginals who wanted the real and/or perceived benefits of being Aboriginal.
“At the time, we only secretly addressed people who did not want to self-identify. Now, identifying ‘Pretendians’ has been taken on with great verve by Aboriginal faculty and the outside community”.
Dene, Cree, Inuvialuk actor, playwright, director and producer Reneltta Arluk is constantly dealing with these kind of issues. “The arts is an enticing place of influence for those looking for connection. It’s unfortunate when that connection is misidentified. When Indigenous artists gather, it’s a like a reunion of sorts. I don’t know if Pretendians realize that,” he said.
“We Indigenous peoples all know each other in some capacity and our knowledge of familial and artist connections run deep. There are shared values there. The unfortunate thing is that Pretendians don’t serve community through value-based Indigenous teachings. How could they? So they ultimately end up serving themselves and that’s usually about when they are found out. It hurts us deeply when this happens, though, because we are not pan-Indigenous, and our value systems carry different teachings. This disruption doesn’t align us, it separates us, and that is the most damaging.”
For the final word, I shall leave it with Amos Key Jr., self-described as Mohawk, researcher, business executive and faith keeper from Grand River Six Nations Territory. He has more of a legal opinion of the issue.
“As a Mohawk from the Onkwehonwe civilization in Ontario, I do not have to hide behind having to ‘self identify.’ Culturally steeped, I am proud and privileged to state and identify: my nation, my clan, my residency at Grand River, my traditional name and title, the heritage and lineage of my parentage, then finally my given English names. I can even flash my government sanctioned ‘Indian Status Card,’ if need be. I am not so sure all those who are claiming Indigenous status and agency can do the same,” he said.
“It is much more than ‘passing,’ it is covert ‘social and cultural fraud.’ More importantly, as it has been suggested, is it ‘fraud’ under the Criminal Code?”
Is it? I don’t know. That would make for an interesting court case though. “Can you prove you have a thousand generations of grandmothers telling you what’s right or wrong? Your honour, the defendant can’t tell the difference between a croissant and bannock. The people rest their case.”
Now there’s something worthy of Seinfeld.
Drew Hayden Taylor is an Anishnawbe playwright and humorist.
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