Michelle Good is a Cree writer, legal professional and a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. She is the author of the novel Five Little Indians.
As a child, I often saw young settler kids playing at being Indian, replete with pleather headbands, multicolour feathers and plastic tomahawks. Of course, how could the game be played without the cowboys? All the kids wanted to be cowboys. Who could blame them? The Indians always ended up dead in pretend burnings, hangings, beatings, shootings and other inventive executions. However, the “Indians” were always stoic and noble, even when facing their dreadful demise. It was baffling to me. None of my Indigenous relations looked or behaved like that. Now I understand it differently. Little settler kids were giving life to the colonial history they learned in school and the ubiquitous myth of the noble savage. Just so, the hallmark of the Play Indian is an overblown, Hollywood-esque idea of Indigenous knowledge, not to mention the visual trappings – costumes, tattoo identification art, feathers and such.
There are settlers who just won’t give up playing Indian. With the drive to indigenize the academy and for industry to have an Indigenous presence in their consultation processes, some of these imposters come to occupy places and positions that should be occupied by Indigenous people. The arts are no exception. The problem is not only that these Pretendians are asserting themselves in places they have no right to be; they are promulgating yet another round of fabricated history, transferring the mantle of the noble savage to a new generation of Play Indians.
This is an act that transcends the individual. This is about a colonial imperative that works against us just as all the other implements in the colonial toolkit work against us. Playing Indian and following the settler script of what “Indian” means is no different and no less harmful than any other colonial effort to apply a settler overlay on everything Indigenous; to create us in their own image and to expect our collaboration in their effort to do so. Just as church and state collaborated in their assimilation and termination plans, the Play Indian’s promulgation of made-up ideas about indigeneity works in concert with modern society’s toleration of and government inaction regarding everything from the continuing quest for justice for our Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls to the wholesale apprehension and warehousing of Indigenous children to the absence of potable water in many Indigenous communities, and many other items on that long, long list.
This false image of indigeneity arises from the fact that these people are not Indigenous. True, they might run a DNA test and find that somewhere in the annals of history a soupcon of Indigenous blood is noted. But blood quantum is not how Canada (or Indigenous peoples, for that matter) define indigeneity. Rather, in Canada, to be legally recognized as an Indian, a person must meet a legislated definition. By the contortions of the relevant sections of the Indian Act, Indians are defined in Canada as those who meet the conditions set out therein. Too many Indigenous people have failed and continue to fail to meet the requirements of the act in terms of what it means to be a registered Indian. These people can then be legally denied membership in First Nations communities, and with that they are denied the right to participate in their own community affairs. If Indigenous persons who know their own genealogy going back generations can still be denied legal recognition of their indigeneity, shouldn’t these play actors be held to a commensurate standard when they claim to be Indigenous? Shouldn’t they also be required to produce a painstakingly accurate family history to warrant calling themselves Indigenous? Something beyond a tiny spike on a DNA test?
These Play Indians express tenuous links, often to a single, solitary Indigenous person from hundreds of years ago. That kind of weak historical link does not create a right to identify as being of the Indigenous community. For example, consider my circumstance as a person of mixed blood. I have one Indigenous parent; the other is French and English. Let’s say some genealogical history is undertaken, and it’s discovered that there’s a 600-year-old paternal link to the British Royal Family. Can I call myself a royal? Am I entitled to be considered a member of the community the Royal Family comprises? Of course not. And why? Because being a member of a community is much more than finding a blood link from long ago.
In the world of the social scientist, the idea of what community means is measured by a number of factors. A community is a group of people whose connections and relations are formed by their shared history, traditions, experiences, geographies and identities. Let’s look at two high-profile cases: the writer Joseph Boyden and the director Michelle Latimer, the latter whom doubled down on her suspect claims in an interview with The Globe and Mail earlier this month. Neither of them can establish anything beyond the most tenuous of DNA links, and neither of them can establish substantive identifiers of belonging to the Indigenous community. Regardless of the outcome of spitting in a test tube, those banking on DNA to demonstrate their indigeneity simply cannot be considered Indigenous. There is no way of telling precisely when or how a drop of Indigenous blood ended up in a settler’s DNA, and it most certainly does not confirm membership in any particular group. How would a person establish themselves as Indigenous pre-DNA testing? By way of what has always been done: identifying connections through shared history, community, tradition, geography and family.
I often think of Mr. Boyden’s insistent claim articulated in the form of a meme: him proudly crossing his arms so we can see his feather tattoos, sporting a Chicago Blackhawks T-shirt, completely tone-deaf to the decades-long struggle to end the era of Indigenous peoples being reduced to sports-team logos and mascots. He states, almost petulantly: “If I have been traditionally adopted by a number of people in Indigenous communities, if my DNA test shows I have Indigenous blood, if I have engaged my whole career defending Indigenous rights, am I not, in some way, Indigenous?”
No, Mr. Boyden. You absolutely are not. Even if he were adopted by an entire community, as opposed to a few individuals making space for him, that would not make him Indigenous. It would make him adopted. Just as an adopted child can never be made the biological child of the adoptive parents, a person adopted by an Indigenous community becomes welcomed and accepted as a part of the community but is not magically, suddenly, Indigenous. Mr. Boyden claims to have defended Indigenous rights his whole career and that this advocacy should privilege him with the right to call himself Indigenous. Should every non-Indigenous lawyer who has fought in solidarity with Indigenous peoples for the recognition of our rights be considered Indigenous? The very idea is preposterous.
As for the Indigenous individuals and/or communities that have or will elect to adopt Play Indians, it is their right to do so. That is their own business, which must be respected, just as it must be respected that such adoption does not render the adoptee Indigenous.
The residential school legacy and many other limitations and imperatives imposed on Indigenous peoples were and are entrenched in the law. Virtually every aspect of Indigenous life has been legislated and controlled by policy arising from law. For white settler descendants, this kind of domestic or settler hegemony goes hand in hand with a perceived birthright to everything. The history of this country is based on the taking of everything from Indigenous people. It is not controversial that Canada’s colonial period (and postcolonial period) was and is nothing less than brutal for Indigenous people. Neither is it controversial that the deep harms done to Indigenous peoples during colonial times remain and are often exacerbated by the systemic nature in which Canada continues to reflect its colonial foundation.
This is where Play Indians find such a deeply ingrained sense of entitlement. They believe it is within their right, should they so deign, to usurp our very being and make it over in their own noble savage image. This is not a new phenomenon. The work of Dr. Darryl Leroux of Saint Mary’s University follows the emergence of the so-called Eastern Métis, and further identifies and analyzes a long history of pretendianism dating back to the 1600s. The term aspirational descent evolved from the academic works of Dr. Leroux and Dr. Kim TallBear, among others, and refers to those Caucasians who assert a claim to indigeneity even when it is roundly found to be false. These charlatans aspire to an identity they believe will give them an advantage or benefit of some sort, even if that benefit is a proud sense of self they can’t find in their true identity.
Many Indigenous people who lost touch with their ancestry through colonial efforts at assimilation and termination suffer great loss and struggle through their lifetimes looking to reconnect with family, territory and tradition. In the face of this, it is exponentially egregious when individuals, already occupying a position of privilege, use that privilege to assume an imagined persona as an Indigenous person. At a certain crossroads, these Play Indians determine that their lives will be improved if they pretend they are something they are not.
To all you Play Indians, if you want to play Indian in your own back yard, like the children I watched decades ago, well, it’s your yard. Playing the noble savage there will not harm too many people, but playing it out in the world, our world, most certainly does. Pretendianism is no different than the Indian Agent telling the Indians just exactly how they are to be, stripping away the reality of being Indigenous in Canada which, in addition to the beauty of who we are, is characterized by the highest likelihood for poverty, violent death, suicide, incarceration, homelessness and addiction. It’s easier to embrace us when you don’t have to worry about being among the high percentage of Indigenous women who are sexually assaulted; or that you live on a reserve with no potable water; or that you or your relative may be incarcerated because you or he couldn’t afford a lawyer and stood no chance in a system riddled with systemic racism; or your relative (like mine) might be dead because he was the wrong colour looking for help on a country road. These terrible assaults on Indigenous people are among the shared experiences we have that form our bonds of community and have done so for more than 500 years. These Play Indians have neither the intergenerational knowledge that binds our people together as community nor the intergenerational trauma – the scars of colonialism we uniquely bear, recognizable only to one another. As I once wrote in a poem, “we know our own relations by our star quilts made of ghosts.”
And then, of course, is the inauthentic and uninformed manner in which Play Indians represent what it means to be Indigenous. In effect, they alter Indigenous reality by representing their sanitized and contrived ideas as real, wielding their privilege to render genuinely Indigenous people powerless to object or, importantly, to correct.
Further, the phenomenon adds layers of complexity for Indigenous people trying to find their way home. As more and more Play Indians are exposed, some Indigenous individuals and communities are becoming wary of people who very well might be legitimately Indigenous. So many of our communities are generous and welcoming to people coming home. Yet it is deeply embarrassing to be duped by play actors pulling the wool over our eyes. Not wanting to be burned twice (or a hundred times), I see Indigenous people becoming more reticent about accepting self-identification. My beautiful, gentle Nokom would have welcomed any person into her home, made them tea and fed them. Maybe she wouldn’t have been so welcoming if she were being lied to with some regularity. So it goes with our communities in response to Play Indians. Their fakery becomes a change agent in the Indigenous community, as open arms are replaced by increased suspicion.
Recently, after the outing of Michelle Latimer, Haida filmmaker Tamara Bell came forward promoting the idea of legislation similar to the American Indian Arts and Crafts Act. This act acknowledges the unique ownership of Indigenous art, and levies hefty fines – up to $250,000 – and jail terms of up to five years as penalties for non-Indigenous artisans who fraudulently present their art as Indigenous. She notes correctly that Canada tends to turn a blind eye to this kind of fraudulent profiteering. I would add that Canada takes, at best, a tsk-tsk approach. Or worse, literary and other luminaries defend the Play Indians as though it is Indigenous people who are misguided in their efforts to protect a place in the literary, art and academic worlds – places we did not enter easily or without struggle. Notably, the American Act does not apply to literary works or film productions.
I do believe that given these insidious, pervasive and continuing actions by non-Indigenous writers and filmmakers, the time is right for comparable legislation in Canada. Such an act would be quite different in this country, given our legislative tradition of proportionality, and it would require inclusion of literary and film works in its definition of art. Certainly, when a lucrative career can be forged on a false identity, and the Play Indians remain undaunted by moral outrage, there must be recourse in the law.
Every time another Play Indian is exposed, I feel as though someone has pulled the rug from under me, incredulous that it’s still happening. We can’t go back in time and gently correct those kids with their plastic tomahawks. They are grandparents now. What have their children and grandchildren absorbed from those beliefs entrenched on the playground? Colonial attitudes of oppression are intergenerational. We are equally powerless to erase the discomfort and confusion of little Indigenous kids watching such games and how they add to the colonial browbeating that’s a central feature in Indigenous lives. But if we talk the talk of supporting the rights of Indigenous peoples, surely that must start with standing firm against fakery. No matter the quality of the art produced by these Play Indians, they must be held accountable for using their privilege to step over the backs of Indigenous people to reach for their golden ticket.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.