A Small Treatise on Indigenous Identity

Irrespective of the issue under discussion, the colonial project has worked toward erasing Indigenous people in order to steal our lands and all the resources they represent. Erasure has meant everything from murder and physical genocide to racial eradication with the colonially imposed notion of blood quantum. Our Indigenous community consists of various kinds of groupings from smaller enclaves of more or less intact traditional communities on traditional lands, to completely detached and isolated diaspora eking out a homeless existence in inner cities and many other configurations in between.

Colonial project tactics of erasure included: violating or ignoring nation to nation treaties; the reduction of Indigenous nationhood to domestic dependent nations in the United States with congress exercising plenary power over Native Americans; the reliance on the Doctrine of Discovery in the 1763 Royal Proclamation, the establishment of the Indian Act that reduced Indigenous people to the status of wards of the federal government, the designation of Indian communities as bands, and the establishment of elected Band Chiefs and Councils as extensions of the federal government in Canada.

Indigenous resistance to this erasure of identity has occurred from the very beginning of colonial genocidal efforts. Indigenous people fought government forces both openly and covertly. Indigenous languages, cultures, connections to the land, ceremonies and governance continued, often hidden from the colonial gaze of Indian Agents, police forces and government officials. Even with these concerted colonial eradication efforts many Indigenous identity and cultural distinctives remain. In fact, a renaissance of Indigenous culture is underway in Canada, the United States and around the world. Decolonization and retraditionalization efforts are deconstructing colonial ideologies, institutions, and ways of being on the land. Indigenization is restoring hope for a better and more flourishing way of being in the earth.

Since colonizers still try to remake Indigenous people into their own image, it is clear that assimilation was and still is the chief tool of the colonial project; Indian Residential Schools the main institution wherein this policy of erasure was enacted. For over 145 years it was partially successful since our children were physically, sexually, culturally, and emotionally abused and some died and were buried at these schools; our languages were forbidden, some becoming extinct, our identity was assaulted, and we were made to feel ashamed of who we are as Indigenous people; The legacy of this violence on our persons was sown like a seed in our communities reaping a devastatingly painful harvest.

The message was and is, you are not right, there is something wrong with you, you need to change, you need to forget your community, you need to forget your identity, you need to forget your language, you need to leave your pagan ways, and you need to become like us, your colonizers. You need to think like us. You need to act like us. You need to speak like us. You need to be like us. The colonization process has, to varying degrees, stripped some of us from our languages, ceremonies, and cultures. And, some of our ancestors were made to feel shame for Indigenous identity and never spoke of this.

This denigration of our identity as Indigenous people had the demoralizing and destructive effect the colonizer wanted. While we languished on the margins of colonial society our lands were free for the taking. Our treaties, which invited settlers into the land to share in its bounty, were actually written up as bargain basement sales of our lands that cut us off from our Mother the Earth and all the abundant provision we knew for millennia. We were bereft. We were embarrassed. We were powerless.

Mood changers like alcohol drowned our sorrows. Pain killers salved emotional pain as well. Drugs of all sorts offered an escape from a living nightmare with only the promise of diminishing returns for higher and higher costs. The prison of residential schools was the beginning pathway ending in federal penitentiaries. The stealing of our children for the residential schools morphed into the adopting out of our children in the 60’s scoop, the 70’s scoop, the 80’s scoop, the 90’s scoop and now the Indigenous child welfare apprehensions of our current reality. 150,000 of our children went to residential schools but now 163,000 of our children have been apprehended from our families and taken away from our communities.

When we protest this ongoing colonization of our people and theft of the precious little of our lands that remain, we are often branded criminals and thrown in jail. Since the passing of the United Nations Declaration on the Right of Indigenous People and the release of the Calls to Action of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report we have witnessed an awakening of empathy for Indigenous suffering. Allies have sprung up and have stood with us, suffering consequences with us in our protest against injustice.

Some people have identified with us for their own benefit and elicited a community outcry against appropriation, not only of our culture but of our identity as well. We at Indigenous Pathways (NAIITS and I-Emergence) understand these concerns and want to offer guidance from our perspective in these matters of Indigenous identity. Firstly, we must note that Indigenous identity is a multifaceted and sometimes very complicated issue. Secondly, that Indigenous Pathways is an Indigenous community of learning. Thirdly, Indigenous Pathways seeks the well-being and healing of Indigenous people in the whole family of humanity. Finally, Indigenous Pathways as a family is inclusive and mutually supporting of all aspects of Indigenous identity in a spirit of welcome and collective celebration.

Indigenous Identity is Multifaceted and Complicated

Indigenous nationhood means that it is the purview of respective nations to determine their own membership/citizenship. Some of our cultures trace our descent in matrilineal fashion, others patrilineal, and others through both sides of parentage. Traditionally all of our peoples were deeply connected to our ancestral lands, part of what has been described as “a narrated communal identity that is inclusive of land.”

Today, however, some of us have been displaced and are a widespread diaspora. Lakota children have been raised by Dutch parents in Holland, Michigan, and have made long journeys to reclaim their identities. Others were fostered through multiple facilities where their connections were obscured or completely lost. For some of us, a non-Indigenous parent imparted their culture to us and we were unable to also appreciate our Indigenous parent’s culture and way of being. Loss of actual relational connections over years of displacement played its role for many of us as well. Still others of us grew in urban centres where access to our cultural ways was limited or non-existent. Colonial legislation caused still others of us to be excluded – in some cases from our very families and communities. Some of our people, addicted to substances, found freedom to be Indigenous in prison during Ojibway sweat lodges even though they were Mohawk or Salish. We found ways to be.

Suffice it to say, we all have individual and community journeys in the loss – and recovery – of our Indigenous identity, its current unrecovered or unrestored state. Indigenous Pathways is a place where you are safe to make this journey of restoration. We are not gatekeepers of your identity because that, it would appear, is the purview of others. When you sit down to coffee with us you will not be asked for your Indigenous identity proof. Those who appropriate Indigenous identity unduly out themselves by their outrageous behaviour since appropriation is outrageous. Forming strong and mutually enriching relationships is the Indigenous contrast to the self-serving spirit of colonial exploitation.

Indigenous Pathways is an Indigenous Community of Learning

Learning is life long. Colonialism in the Americas is 529 years old and it will take a very long time to deconstruct it and rebuild our Indigenous lives. From our very first Symposium we have sought to demonstrate transparency by networking with non-Indigenous scholars and witnesses to our learning. Non-Indigenous people have been welcomed and will always be welcome.

Our Symposiums have always been invitational to academics and practitioners. Every heady idea must meet the warm sweet earth if it is to have any real meaning in the Indigenous imagination. Learning is embodied. The Haudenosaunee Peacemaker, for example, was one to draw people into the circle of peace, not find ways to shut them out. Indigenous Pathways seeks ways to be Indigenous and welcoming to those who are not Indigenous. The value of our learning is measured by our lived-out relationships with each other within our communities and without.

Indigenous Pathways Seeks the Well-being of Indigenous People in the Whole Family of Humanity

Dr. Gabor Mate said Indigenous “culture produced stress-free, emotionally-present caregivers,” prior to colonization. There never was anything wrong with us! We were healthy and found a good way to live on our lands. The deconstruction of colonialism is a huge task, but Indigenization is the focus Indigenous Pathways is pursuing as a fulsome creative use of our energies. As we rebuild communities, and ourselves we are relearning the lessons our lands taught our elders. Our languages code these lessons and our communities are learning once again what it means to be “stress-free, emotionally-present caregivers.” Our children are the recipients of the benefits in this restored culture.

As we share Indigenous wisdom the whole community of humanity stands to benefit since the colonial project has set in motion a system of exploitation that is careening toward a violent environmental catastrophe. Indigenous relational sensibilities, which humbly view themselves as a dependent part of a symbiotic world, can mitigate approaching disaster, and heal the world family. Our well-being, experienced in the affirmation of our identity as Indigenous people is healing for other peoples too.

Indigenous Pathways is an Inclusive, Mutually Supportive, Welcoming, and Celebrating Family

You are welcome. Not to harm, but to bring the gift of you and your community. There is protocol for this, so sit down and listen. Take time to learn and to be in our community. Colonial people will have to get rid of the tendency to interrogate us by asking a million questions as soon as you meet us. That will not do. Relax. Tell us a bit of your story. Not the whole thing at once. You will overwhelm us and we will probably quietly slip away. Listen to our story. Listen to it and to us more than you may be comfortable with. Remember, we have been silenced for centuries. It is time for us to speak. Your time will come. Read the room. Stop talking when it feels a little like you should. Mohawk mentor John Maracle used to say, “The short-winded shall be heard from again!”

We will celebrate our identity, individually and collectively. We will walk into the New Jerusalem with the glory of our nations in our entire wonderful diverse splendour. We hope you find your nation and the glory the Creator made in making you there as well. We hope you are fulfilled in all that is you as a person and as part of a nation in this world.

Lastly, and very clearly, Indigenous Pathways is not the arbiter of your identity. That rests with you, your family, and the community(ies) of your origin.