“To thine own self be true…”
Nothing like starting off National Aboriginal Day, or whatever they call it these days, with a Shakespeare quote. Recently though, it seems apt. Other than the continued and increasingly obscene travesties of the residential school system, conversation around the water cooler (an ironic saying in our community since so much of our water is undrinkable) frequently focuses on identity. Who is who? And who is Indigenous enough? And who can accuse who of what?
Joseph Boyden and Michelle Latimer aside, the issue continuously arises in many different forms. Publicly, the discussion usually centres on people in the arts. Most recently it has spread to Queen’s University, where an anonymous report has called into question the Indigenous identity of several of its faculty and staff.
It is a testy subject, understandably. Few things are as personal and important as identity. Just recently, the government has offered to financially assist First Nation people who want to reclaim the Indigenous names that were taken away from them when they entered residential school. The government taketh and the government giveth back.
Several decades ago I dealt with identity issues in my own life and pretty much turned it into a career. I wrote an essay, still fairly popular, called Pretty Like a White Boy, which explored my journey from the reserve to life in Toronto as a – and this is the new term being bandied about – white passing Indigenous man. That’s where I coined my classic and now ancient joke: I’m half Ojibway and half Caucasian, that makes me an Occasion. Either a special occasion or a memorable occasion. Based on that particular essay, I went on to write others about the trials and tribulations of identity, ending up with the publication of a book exploring the topic, Funny, You Don’t Look Like One.
For a while I thought I’d write my own version of the classic John Howard Griffin book Black Like Me, except it would be called White Passing Like Me, where I would explore the wonders and privileges of settler life. Only problem is I’m not very knowledgeable about the marvels of low fat Greek yogurt or stock car races. But even today it’s still a topic of great emotion in the community in general.
On Twitter, I often find some Indigenous people rallying for several reasons against white-passing First Nation people. Criticisms about them not being willing to acknowledge their privilege is common. Granted, there is an argument there. I know that when I enter a department store, I don’t have to worry about store security following me around, positive that I plan to steal something. My blue eyes are a shield. (But I can promise you that if I do steal something, I will do it as a white person.) I also know that if I am stopped by the police, I have little fear something tragic will happen as a result of my status card. Unless possibly they find it.
Frequently when somebody is angry with me, pissed off at something I’ve written, has had a few drinks too many, or just has too much attitude, the first thing they will say to me is “You’re not Indian. You just think you are,” or some variation of that clever argument. Yet my credentials are better than most. I may be biracial but essentially I’m unicultural. I grew up on my reserve with just my Anishawbe-speaking mother before I ventured off to college. If you listen closely, I have a slight accent. My breath smells of sweetgrass, and corn soup runs through my blood. At night when I sleep, I dream of nothing but North of 60 episodes.
Also, I think neo-Nazis don’t really care about the colour of a person’s hair or eyes. They will beat up dark and not-so-dark Indigenous people, regardless of their appearance. Oddly, they’re kind of democratic that way.
This identity issue has been an ongoing topic in the community and will probably be so for a long time to come. Part of me is happy these arguments are happening. The days of Grey Owl are far behind us. Indigenous heritage is something definitely worth fighting for, but not, I also think, at the expense of creating our own casualties due to friendly fire. I sometimes wonder how productive these accusations really are.
I am tired. In the end, I just keep my head down and do my work. Answers to questions of identity are, at best, complicated. I know who I am.
Drew Hayden Taylor is an Anishnawbe playwright and humorist.