Douglas Sanderson (Amo Binashii) is the Prichard Wilson Chair in Law and Public Policy at the University of Toronto’s faculty of law. His book Valley of the Birdtail (with Andrew Stobo Sniderman) was the winner of the J.W. Dafoe Book Prize.
I am Douglas Sanderson, the son of Doug “Sandy” Sanderson (from the Dog Creek Reserve) and Esther Young (of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation). I am also Amo Binashii, Beaver Clan, of the Cree Nation. I came into these identities not all at once – but over time. I am Cree. I am also an Indian. The former is a tribal lineage, while the latter is a government-issued legal imprimatur. I also have a number, not just a SIN – I have a treaty number, printed on the federally issued ID card that affirms my legal identity as a status Indian.
I am also a Canadian citizen. But I was not born here – I was born in Germany and had to elect to shed my German citizenship at the age of 16.
I wasn’t always an Indian. I have always been Cree. My clan identity passed through my mother – we Cree are matrilineal, so I was born Cree and of the Beaver Clan. I wasn’t an Indian until some time in high school when, owing to one lawsuit or another, the federal rules around Indian-ness changed, and suddenly I was, legally, an Indian. I was given a number, and later, the card. My name, Amo Binashii, was given to me by an Ojibway elder from the Serpent River Indian Reserve in the late 1990s.
I am, I think, well-credentialed to comment on matters of Indigenous identity because I have experienced a wide range of Indianness, legal and otherwise.
I feel comfortable in my Indigenous identity, backed and stamped as it is by the state, but I know that even without that, I would be who I am. I would still have a community to return home to, a place where my aunties and uncles and cousins would see me for who I am: a community member, in an Indigenous community.
There is something both harmful and self-idolizing to pretend to be an Indian. Maybe you would do it for some perceived economic advantage, or to claim a community that you otherwise lack, or maybe being Indian would qualify you, or make you seem more qualified, to take up a teaching position or run for the U.S. Senate. No matter the reason why it is done, to claim an identity that isn’t yours is a special kind of theft, and it speaks to a particularly loathsome kind of character.
In the past few years, many non-Indians have been outed: pretendians, we call them. Some cases are easy: with no Indigenous adoption, or lineage, or family or community connection, you’re lying if you call yourself Indigenous; you’re passing yourself off as someone you are not. But it’s easy to imagine harder cases: what about someone born of Indigenous but non-status parents, who is then adopted by a family who teaches their children to hate Indigenous people? Can they tick the Indian box if it means a different admission line to med school? If yes, then Indian-ness is just a bloodline, and this is the definition preferred by the Ottawa bureaucrats who decide who is and is not a status Indian.
But there are few Indigenous people who would default to that exclusive a definition. It’s absurd that a distant government agency should have the power to define identity, bereft as that definition is of reference to culture, community, history, family, tribe or clan. It feels equally wrong for someone who isn’t in that community to say, with an outsider’s authority, “You do not belong.”
Here’s how I think about it. Indigenous identity is not in one’s blood. To me, Indigenous identity is a question of culture and place; it is defined by attachment to a community, and what that community says about me. What matters is that there is a community of Indigenous people who claim me as their own. I do not get to decide if I am or am not Indigenous; it’s not up to me. What matters is that I have a community of Indigenous people who know me as one of their own.
In the end, I don’t much care about genealogies, or birth records, or bloodlines. Those are measures of something, I’m sure, but not Indigenous identity. To hold Indigenous identity is to be part of an Indigenous community, and it does not matter if you were born into that community. Adoption is a millenniums-old tradition in our communities. A community that calls you its own has always been the appropriate measure.