Novelist and essayist Michelle Good examines how what she calls ‘playing Indian’ allows settlers to “create us in their own image and to expect our collaboration in their effort to do so.”
Good is of Cree ancestry and is a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. Her novel Five Little Indians was chosen for Canada Reads 2022. This excerpt is from Truth Telling, a collection of essays published earlier this year.
Pretending to be Indigenous is an act that transcends the individual. The phenomenon rises from 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 efforts to assimilate and terminate Indigenous Peoples, the Play Indian’s construction of made-up ideas about Indigeneity works in concert with societal and governmental inaction regarding everything from the continuing quest for justice for our Missing and Murdered, to the wholesale apprehension and warehousing of Indigenous children, to the absence of potable water in dozens of Indigenous communities, and many other things on that long, long list of injustices.
False images of Indigeneity arise from people who are not Indigenous. True, they might run a DNA test and find that somewhere in the annals of history a soupçon of Indigenous blood is noted, but blood quantum is not how Canada (or Indigenous Peoples, for that matter) define Indigeneity. Blood quantum is an American legal term and a complex, termination-oriented system used in the U.S. to enumerate, and ultimately reduce, the number of Native Americans with recognized tribal affiliation. 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 (the Act), Indians are defined in Canada as those who meet the conditions set out therein. The word Indian is a legal term as defined by the Act and a word generically applied to the first peoples of what is now Canada. I specifically use the word “Indian” in this essay when I am referring to how we are identified in a legal context. It was used in common and unquestioned parlance through the colonial period and onward. In the search for more accurately representative words, Indigenous people began articulating preferences for how to be properly addressed. The nomenclature transitioned, starting around the early ’60s or so and onward. We went from Indian to Native to Aboriginal and, most recently, to Indigenous when speaking of us as the first people generally. Increasingly, Indigenous people seek to be addressed by who they are, for example, Neheyaw, Anishinaabe, Nisga’a, Siksika, or Seneca.
Too many Indigenous people find themselves unable to meet the imposed standards that define the requirements of the Act to be a registered Indian. This is a direct result of the forces of colonialism and its concerted attempt to undermine the integrity of traditional Indigenous communities. Entire communities were relocated. Sometimes several diverse communities with different languages and traditions were lumped together for administrative convenience. Communities were, in effect, disintegrated by the forced removal of children and the criminalization of cultural, spiritual, economic, and governance traditions. For the longest time, provisions of the Act stripped Indigenous women of their legal status as Indians if they married non-Indigenous men. Their white counterparts, however, were accorded legal Indian Status if they married an Indigenous man. The children of those unions were recognized by the Act as Indian. Think of that. Matriarchs out, white women in. Further, joining the military, getting a university degree, and being called to the Bar as a lawyer all at various times required a surrender of Indian Status.
Our people, victimized by the multi-headed spear of identity deconstruction, can be and often are denied legal recognition as Indian and, as a result both membership and the right to participate in matters of importance in their communities. I was one of those people.
My mother, Martha Soonias, was the child of Charles Soonias and Sarah Wuttunee Soonias. Charles Soonias was the son of Chimichees (Jean) who was a direct relation of Mistahimuskwa (Big Bear). My kokum Sarah was the grandchild of Old Wuttunee, brother to Okimaw (Head Man) Red Pheasant and signatory to Treaty 6. The proper name for our place of belonging is not Red Pheasant, the name of the reserve. It is Mikisiw-wacîhk, the Eagle Hills. This is what my moshom, my grandfather, told me. He was born a mere seven years after the 1885 so-called Frog Lake Massacre.
In 1950, my mom married my dad. His father was English, his mother was French. In accordance with the Act, my mother’s name was struck from the membership rolls of the Red Pheasant Indian Band, as it was known then. When she passed, I remember seeing correspondence from Indian Affairs in her papers confirming that her removal from the list was complete and attaching a cheque of about a hundred and twenty bucks to provide her the balance of her entitlements under treaty. Her identity as an Indian woman was erased. Stripping her of her Indian Status did not render her white. Only on paper. When my siblings and I were born, our Indigeneity was in our bones but not in our paperwork. We were not Indian according to the Act but rather characterized under the interesting term “non-status Indian.” We were not Indian but not white, reminiscent of the “coloured” status in South Africa during the apartheid era. Though we maintained connections with our family at Red Pheasant, neither my mother nor her children had any legal rights to be there. We were born and raised 1,800 kilometres away from our homeland.
My siblings and I were fortunate in that we knew our family and community, even if we were so far away. We were never an integral part of the community beyond our extended family because of the distance, and though we visited and spent most of our summers there as children, that is not the same as being there day to day for birth, death, and everything in between. It wasn’t until Bill C-31 was passed in 1985, in response to legal challenges about the discriminatory provisions of the Act that we were able to reassert our legal rights as Indians. Bill C31 provided a formula that restored Indian Status to some women and their children, but the criteria also excluded many people. There were several subsequent Bills, each with a new formula for restoration of status but each of these was also sown with discriminatory and exclusionary terms. The power remained with the federal government to define Indian Status and so long as the federal government remains the arbiter of who is and who is not an Indian, Indigenous people will continue to be excluded. These “legitimacy” issues create deep complexities in terms of their relationship with their communities of origin, their place of belonging.
So, if Indigenous people who know their own genealogy going back multiple generations can be denied legal recognition of their Indigeneity by the convolutions of federal law, shouldn’t these Pretendians 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? The double standard is beyond ironic.
Some people, including some Indigenous people, do not agree. They instead argue that requiring people who claim they are Indigenous to demonstrate the veracity of their claim is no different from the divide and conquer tactics used against Indigenous Peoples for hundreds of years; that outing Pretendians is a demand for proof of blood quantum, even though, as mentioned previously, the blood quantum test has never been used in Canada. I have yet to see a case in Canada in which Indigenous people demand that an imposter produce proof of blood quantum. Further, I agree with the critics of the blood quantum approach; first, because as a formula, it has no relevance or force of law in Canada. Second, because I believe there is much more to Indigeneity than biology. However, biology is a necessary indicator. I mean, really, would anyone claim to be Japanese or Italian or Ethiopian if they had not a single drop of Japanese or Italian or Ethiopian blood? Case in point, Hilaria Baldwin was outed for not being Spanish as she claimed to be. No one agreed with her stance that spending time in Spain when she was growing up made her Spanish. That is because it is a ludicrous claim. Claiming that a lifetime in the Indigenous community makes one Indigenous is equally ludicrous and, in fact, contrary to the very meaning of the word Indigenous.
Excerpted from Truth Telling: Seven Conversations about Indigenous Life in Canada, by Michelle Good ©2023. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.