Drew Hayden Taylor is an Anishnawbe playwright and humorist.
There’s a derogatory term used to describe Indigenous people who have embraced the dominant culture’s value system. They are called “apples” – red on the outside, but white on the inside. In this era of non-Native people claiming Indigenous heritage, I have not yet come across any type of food metaphor for the opposite, that is white on the outside and red on the inside – a yogurt-covered maraschino cherry? But as you can see, the metaphors start getting messy and complicated.
The latest salvo in what I call the IAW (Indigenous Authenticity Wars) has been fired. Last week there was a call for federal legislation making it illegal to claim Indigenous ancestry that would allow individuals access to certain grants, awards and jobs intended specifically for Indigenous people. Haida filmmaker Tamara Bell, a 20-year industry veteran, wants to prevent appropriation of the Indigenous spotlight, as in the situations of filmmaker Michelle Latimer recently and author Joseph Boyden a few years back. Bell is calling for the creation of an Indigenous Identity Act, hoping it will prevent “Pretendians” from getting backstage passes to the Indigenous concert of life – under penalty of jail terms and fines.
The idea for this proposed Act sprung from a similar law in the United States set up to guarantee the authenticity of Indigenous art, in all its many forms. The Indian Art and Craft Act of 1990 makes it “illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian-produced.” Such a law is popular in Indian country because it makes sense. It’s theorized in Canada that a good number of Norval Morrisseau’s works might be counterfeit. And I doubt those arrowheads you see for sale in all those little tourist-trap shops have ever been caressed by the knowing hands of an Indigenous artisan – just try and bring down a decent-sized moose with a few of them (I’ve tried).
Back on topic, I understand where Bell is coming from. I am – as is the vast majority of this country’s Indigenous population – tired and annoyed of every Tom, Dick and Harriet thinking the grass is always greener (or in this case, redder) on the other side of the fence. A fence which, I must point out, was established by settlers. We as a people are putting ourselves together and thriving after several centuries of colonization and oppression. Identity and history are very personal, important concepts, to be cherished and protected.
Though understandably amorphous at this point, the Indigenous Identity Act suggests creating a process to legitimize who can dance in the circle, possibly via a letter from an elder, a relative, the community or a First Nation to verify which community certain individuals are from. On the surface, it sounds like a good idea. “The Feds frisked me and found non-fat Greek yogurt instead of deer jerky. I’m screwed.”
With that said, I do have some reservations (see what I did there?) about establishing or enforcing any sort of Indigenous authenticity law. I’m worried it may be a slippery slope. Most definitely something needs to be done, but mandating specific requirements makes me a little uncomfortable. For instance, there is talk of setting up a way of verifying Indigenous identities. I thought there already was one – called the Indian Act. There are very clear, specific definitions of who is what and can be what. Cards were even issued. If you missed the news since 1876, it’s pretty much accepted that did not turn out so well.
What a better solution is, I admit I don’t know. Many Indigenous cultures of Canada have always been ones of inclusion, not exclusion. Some nations in the East argue there is no such thing as the Eastern Métis because historically, anybody with mixed blood was automatically welcomed into their communities. They were not considered separate.
As things stand, it is ridiculously easy to claim Indigenous identity. Too many government forms, grant applications and other such documents ask for your cultural background – a simple click of a button and you are First Nations, Inuit or Métis. Frequently, that’s all it takes – and to the best of my knowledge, there is practically no follow-up.
Thus my quandary. I see the problem, and agree with Tamara Bell about that. But I am reluctant to embrace the concept of an Indigenous Identity Act, given that I can envision a lot of potential difficulty in its formulation, application and enforcement.
“Yeah, I’m doing two years less a day for pretending to be Cree. All I did was point with my lips. I’m hoping to get my record expunged before they put me on the Indigenous Offenders List.”
Unfortunately, a lot of Cree and other Indigenous people do prison time for actually being Indigenous – but that’s a whole other story.