Drew Lafond is president of the Indigenous Bar Association.
The recent trend of labelling people who fraudulently claim to have Indigenous ancestry “Pretendians” has spawned a particularly toxic, divisive and insidious interpretation of what it means to be Indigenous. Problematically, it also distracts from the tireless work that Indigenous nations are doing to rebuild their own citizenship laws and decolonize how Indigenous citizenship decisions are made, and who makes them.
Increasingly used in mainstream media and by Indigenous people themselves, the term “Pretendian” is applied when people are “outed” publicly as non-Indigenous based on a myopic focus on a person’s lineage or ancestry and without a deeper understanding of the rich and diverse relationships that Indigenous nations have internally and with others.
Kinship and belonging in Indigenous societies is much more than a box ticked on an application form, or a card given out by the Crown, but these deeper conversations are muted by the “Pretendian” brand. The narrative becomes about engaging genealogists or historical records, all of which misses the point: Indigeneity is never about who you claim to be, but is fundamentally about who is claiming you as a part of their community.
The irony of the term “Pretendian” is that the concept of lineage and blood quantum as a way of determining whether a person is Indigenous is itself a colonial construct. The inherent contradictions would be comical if they were not creating harm and breeding lateral violence in our communities. At its core, the term has all of the hallmarks of the divide-and-conquer tactics that have fractured and undermined Indigenous nations since before Confederation.
When it comes to the question of Indigenous citizenship, the original sin dates back to colonial legislation that predated the Indian Act, which imposed on Indigenous people artificial and rigid definitions of who was and who was not an “Indian” by assigning “Indian status” to certain individuals and not others. The system established by the Crown was gendered, exclusionary and classified Indigenous people as subservient.
The concept of Indian status has been used to disentitle Indigenous people from their lands, disrupt Indigenous governance systems, and strip many – particularly Indigenous women – of their basic rights and freedoms. It also created internal divisions among Indigenous nations, communities and families, and arguably spawned the first “Pretendians” – individuals who were unable to produce a status card under the Indian Act to “prove” that they were Indigenous. The cases of Indigenous women such as Sandra Lovelace and Sharon McIvor, who had to turn to the courts (another colonial institution) to prove the discriminatory nature of these “status” distinctions, provide clear examples of how problematic these labels can become.
Sadly, the oppressive system of the Indian Act, including its determination of “Indian status,” persists to this day. Indeed, many Indigenous nations have internalized this system as a way to draw boundaries between themselves and “others.” For many Indigenous communities still operating under the Indian Act, funding for everything from health and education to community infrastructure such as sewage, water and housing is based on the number of “status Indians.” Under these circumstances, calling out “Pretendians” becomes an all-too-familiar witch hunt motivated by poverty, or financial or political aims, and has nothing to do with how Indigenous communities would choose to define themselves.
The path forward must be founded on Indigenous peoples taking back control of the definition and decisions of Indigenous citizenship within their communities, guided by our own laws, traditions and customs, and free from financial or political coercion. Indigenous peoples from around the world affirmed this path in Article 9 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states: “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right to belong to an Indigenous community or nation, in accordance with the traditions and customs of the community or nation concerned. No discrimination of any kind may arise from the exercise of such a right.”
In recent years, Indigenous nations have made profound strides in revitalizing Indigenous governance, including citizenship laws and processes. Guided by Indigenous elders, knowledge holders, scholars and others, we are revealing that Indigenous kinship systems are incredibly rich and based on complex understandings of nationhood, relationships and what it means to belong to a particular Indigenous community. This exercise involves a thorough examination – by the Indigenous community themselves – of factors such as shared history, lived experience, contributions to and continuing participation in the nation’s culture and heritage, to name only a few. In some instances, the question of ancestry, in a purely biological way, is not even a factor at all – such as in cases of adoption where kinship and acceptance by the community are key. The objective of this exercise is to breathe life into Indigenous practices of kinship and belonging, and I encourage institutions to respect the work that Indigenous nations are doing to build up their own citizenship systems.
Rather than fostering these nuanced discussions, the preoccupation with identifying “Pretendians” only serves to distract from this larger goal of self-determination, putting the control of these fundamental issues back in the control of Indigenous peoples themselves. The “Pretendian” preoccupation perpetuates racist and colonial understandings that lineage and blood quantum are all that matters and encourages “outing” by non-Indigenous society in ways that can cause incredible harm to those individuals who have been separated from our communities by colonial actions and are legitimately working to reconnect and belong. Like the labels of “status” under the Indian Act, “Pretendian” should be rejected for doing more harm than good.
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