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A stock image of a status card
Many people were excluded from Indian status. (Indigenous Services Canada)

We need a better understanding of race, ‘status’ and indigeneity in Canada

Queen’s University recently released its highly anticipated report after a year-long exploration into the institution’s approaches to indigeneity.

The report came about after a call was made by hundreds of Indigenous academics and community members following the news that several white settler faculty claiming indigeneity were, in fact, “pretendians.”

The report offers several recommendations that touch on everything from verification processes to developing a more robust Indigenous Studies program. While some Indigenous academics and community members welcomed the report, others suggested it relies too heavily on “colonial, imposed cards” and the concept of “Indian status.”

This critique based on cards and status is confusing, as the report is clear that individuals who have been disconnected from their communities due to colonialism have other avenues to demonstrate their genuine, integral connections. The report highlights the fact that we need a better understanding of race, Indian status and indigeneity in Canada.

What does ‘pretendian’ mean?

The term “pretendian” is new and stems from what renowned Indigenous scholar, Vine Deloria Jr., termed, “the Indian Grandmother Complex.”

Recently, president of the Indigenous Bar Association, Drew Lafond, penned an opinion editorial suggesting the term “pretendian” is problematic. He said this is because the first people labelled as “pretendians” were “individuals who were unable to produce a status card under the Indian Act to ‘prove’ that they were Indigenous.”

But the word is actually a modern portmanteau that has gained traction with an established body of critical academic literature.

Lafond also suggested that the act of calling someone a “pretendian” has led to divisive and toxic interpretations of what it means to be Indigenous.

Read more: Stolen identities: What does it mean to be Indigenous? Podcast EP 8

Indian status and blood quantum

While the concept of Indian status was, and continues to be, a tool that is imposed based on how much “native blood” one has, it is dangerous to centre Indian status, and not white entitlement and settler colonialism, as the issues plaguing tenuous or false claims to Indigenous identity. It is also dangerous to suggest that these conversations are undermining Indigenous self-determination.

Read more: We are facing a settler colonial crisis, not an Indigenous identity crisis

Characterizing all individuals who have been called “pretendians” as simply people who don’t qualify for Indian status is misleading and has contributed to a rise in “anti-status” rhetoric that is, quite frankly, racist.

While Indian status is an imposed mechanism, “blood quantum” cannot be disentangled from race.

Indian Country Today looks into ‘the pretendian problem.’

There are hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people across this country who are visibly racialized and not only hold Indian status, but also carry the trauma of generations of Indigenous family members who have endured the Indian Act and many other forms of colonial violence.

While it is true that many people were excluded from Indian status under the Indian Act because of gender or kinship ties to multiple Black and racialized communities, some of these issues have been corrected due to tireless work, often led by Indigenous women — like Mary Two-Axe Earley, Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, Sharon McIvor, Jeannette Corbiere Lavell and Lynn Gehl.

The important work of addressing the erasure of Black and other racialized Indigenous kin through state mechanisms is ongoing. This is why challenging Indigenous identity fraud in academia must name and focus explicitly on structures of whiteness, white entitlement and settler colonialism so we don’t recreate the harms of past policies.

Misclaiming ‘non-status’

Ongoing efforts to challenge Indian status exclusion show us that there’s a massive difference between 1) someone who is a non-status First Nations person and 2) a white settler who has perhaps one or two Indigenous ancestors from before the concept of Indian status was introduced.

The term non-status is meant to reflect the experiences of people who carry a real and intimate connection to historical and contemporary colonial and non-colonial expressions of recognition. This is often expressed through both their exclusion to specific agreements (like the Indian Act) and their inclusion and acceptance within traditional forms of Indigenous kinship.

It is not a generic category for anyone who locates one or two distant ancestors.

The ‘Indian Act’ explained.

All institutions must be wary of and challenge the ideas that support the notion that Indian status = colonial, therefore any person inhabiting their Indian status = bad.

Because status is an imposed race-based mechanism based on “Indian blood,” many (not all) Indigenous people who hold Indian status in this country are racialized people and know what it means to walk into a settler colonial space and speak volumes as an Indigenous person without uttering a word.

Institutions that aim to advance equity, anti-racism and decolonization must centre the principles of integrity, truth and structural transformation. They must ask pressing questions like: Do your Indigenous employees include racialized, gender-diverse and socioeconomically diverse Indigenous people?

These questions don’t get answered when the loudest voices within the room say, “being Indigenous is not about race or status.”

The focus on status disrespects the millions of Indigenous people who struggle to survive in universities and other settler institutions while having to endure everyday forms of anti-Indigenous racialized violence.

The way forward must centre the lived experiences of Indigenous Peoples, while also refusing the efforts of settlers to re-centre themselves in the necessary transformations of colonial institutions.

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