Who am i? Who are you?


Identity is a funny thing really. There are so many aspects of who we are, that inform how we see ourselves in the world, who we believe ourselves to be. There are some aspects of identity that some believe to be quantifiable, such as blood quantum, genetic markers for sex/gender or race based on quantity of melanin in the skin. There are many more aspects of our identities that are far from quantifiable because of the complexity of how our identities are constructed.

Our identities are constructed on social scripts, our experiences (positive and not so positive), the cultures we participate in and much, much more. It is this nebulous nature of identity that creates challenges for us regarding our own and sometimes others identities. The whole issue of 'identity politics' is rooted in the quantifiable aspects of identity and often these parameters are used to gate-keep who may or may not belong in the community. While this can be framed as a positive thing, often it has very negative repercussions as it can lead to the enactment of significant lateral violence. This has become an increasingly difficult issue in Indigenous communities.

The pendulum has swung in some respects from the bad old days of residential schools and outright genocide to a 'politer', 'gentler' form. (This is stated ironically as i recognise there is NOTHING politer or gentler about the current genocidal practices enacted against Indigenous people) This swing in the pendulum, this 'embracing' of the beauty of Indigenous culture(s) has made it very popular in some instances to identify as Indigenous to Turtle Island, it's exotic, 'sexy', mystical and more. For some, it is seen as an easy way to bring in big bucks by selling half-baked versions of our ceremonies and customs. This is problematic for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that it puts participants in danger of ill health or even death. You see, there is a lot of experiential training that needs to happen before you can lead these ceremonies. It looks like a simple thing to the untrained observer - and THAT is the danger. But... i digress. We have non-Indigenous people who do a workshop, get the t-shirt and then start selling themselves as medicine people & healers. Not only does this cheapen (no pun intended) our ceremonies and OUR identities, but it has the effect of further dis-empowering us in our own land.

As oppressed people feel more dis-empowered, what tends to happen is an increase in lateral violence and community dysfunction. This is where the 'identity politics' rears its head - in claims that we need to be careful who is 'admitted' to our communities. That we need to protect what is ours and keep those who are unworthy away. Yes, i agree, we DO need to protect our communities and identity as Indigenous people and we need to protect our sacred ceremonies. However, i also have to acknowledge that it is also very destructive to individuals and communities to engage in what can be a very toxic process. Think about the Mohawk people who have been evicted from their communities for the 'sin' of marrying non-Indigenous partners, despite having lived in the community for years. This uprooting of families has been done in the name of 'preserving' the integrity of the community and the culture. While i have no membership in that community and perhaps, therefore, no position from which to speak, i do have the experience of being denied my identity and i know the pain that causes.

You see, prior to colonisation, we had no records... no 'proof' of identity. Your identity was rooted in your community and your culture, everyone knew who you were because they knew your parents, grand-parents and ancestors. It wasn't about blood quantum or the colour of your skin. Your community knew who you were because they watched and nurtured you as you grew. Then we got 'discovered' and everything fell to ratshit. The visitors decided that they would quantify and catalogue us, then they decided that they would get to decide who was or was not Indigenous via the Indian register and the Indian Act thereby taking away our inherent right to our own identities. For many of us, our families/ancestors were uprooted or otherwise disconnected from community and culture via a host of mechanisms. This happened through the enfranchisement process, residential schools and sometimes families making the decision to pretend to not be Indigenous in hopes of avoiding the worst of the racism and discrimination for your descendants. Others were lucky enough to be able to stay in their community (as difficult as it was & continues to be), retain their language and much of their culture.

Despite the disconnection from community and culture, there seems to be something at the cellular level that draws us back to our own people and the ways that connect us to the land and one another. Some of us have only tenuous oral histories that connect us to our Indigenous identity, having none of the 'white man's proof'. Some of us are able to cite chapter and verse who our ancestors are and where our community is. Which of us then is 'truly' Indigenous? Are any of us or is it only those that through the caprice of the colonisers maintained their connection with the quantifiable parts of their identities?

As a light-skinned Indigenous person with no 'proof' of my identity i live in fear every time there is some high profile exposure of a fraud. I have lived for many years knowing my family history and feeling the draw of my DNA towards... something and then having found it in the wonderful Indigenous community in Ottawa. I have also lived many years debating with myself whether i have the 'right' to claim my identity or whether i am Indigenous 'enough'. Whenever these exposures happen i wonder how long it will be before the lens turns towards me and my world, my reality and my identity is under attack.... it wouldn't be the first time. Luckily, i have encountered Elders who have helped me to move beyond my doubt so that i can 'mostly' balance that fear... but it still lurks.

Those same Elders have taught me that we ALL have a place in the circle, that yes... our teachings are OUR teachings... but not for us to hold away from anyone, rather to share for the benefit of all and especially of Mother Earth. We need to stop being afraid of one another, of creating divisions because as long as we do - we work against one another and we all suffer. We desparately need to stop playing to colonisers game of 'i'm more Indigenous than you". Don't fool yourself.... it IS the colonisers game, to divide and conquer us and render us less effective in the fight against colonisation. Identity is complex, it is not truly quantifiable, if we can let go of the need to quantify it, i believe we will return to the teachings of our ancestors where we all have a place in the circle, where the gifts of all are honoured and we no longer need to be afraid. We will be able to see who we are and how much we are and more importantly... to be able to accept it.

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