Joseph Boyden and Indigenous Identity

By Lynn Gehl, Ph.Dcropped-gehl-close-up.jpg

In the last few weeks and months much has been said about Joseph Boyden and Indigenous identity. Situated as I am in a section 15 Charter challenge regarding the never-ending sex discrimination in the Indian Act—with my own claim to gain Indian status registration—along with my work speaking up about the cultural genocide of the Algonquin land claims process that forces Indigenous people into a small box, I have some thoughts on this topic.

It is true that Indigenous identity politics is a dense issue to navigate. For example, there is a difference between having a little bit of Indigenous ancestry and being and living as an Indigenous person. People such as Boyden need to understand this key difference. More specifically, as many have rightly noted during these discussions, being Indigenous is about what you give to your community, rather than what you get for being Indigenous such as financial gain, winning awards, or being eligible for grants. It is more about giving to your community and reciprocity, rather than taking from it. In this way, people are suggesting that Indigenous citizenry is about a responsibility-based citizenry rather than a rights-based citizenry.

Leading Indigenous thinkers and scholars are also clarifying that Indigenous identity is much more than DNA, blood quantum, or what a person looks like, and I will add to this, it is also much more than Indian status registration. While these are important elements, Indigenous identity is about so much more. It is about your sense of belonging, your allegiance and loyalty to the Nation, the practices you engage in, and what you feel in your heart.

Other thinkers and scholars rightly argue that Indigenous identity is more about ‘who claims you’ rather than ‘what you claim’ to be. This is an important insight. But I know all too well that this is not a universal Truth with a capital “T”.

I know this because I am a non-status Algonquin Anishinaabeg living in Ontario. I was recently in Ontario’s Court of Appeal seeking to resolve yet more sex discrimination in the Indian Act regarding Indian and Northern Affairs Canada’s unstated paternity policy, which is best known as an unknown and unrecognized paternity policy, that denies me Indian status registration because I do not know who my grandfather was. What is important is that because I am non-status, my grandmother’s First Nation will not accept me as a band member. While this rejection is unfortunate, I understand it has to do with band finances as only registered status Indians are funded by Canada. But there is more. Because I am not a member of my grandmother’s First Nation, I am also not a citizen in the larger Anishinabek Nation.

What is more, within the Algonquin land claims process, where the Algonquin in Ontario are being forced to relinquish and extinguish our land and resources for a mere pittance; and where both the status and non-status Algonquins are being collected, identified, confirmed through genealogical records and the oral tradition, enrolled as community members, and called beneficiaries of the Algonquin land claims—I have no desire to be claimed in this process even though I am eligible for enrollment because I know this is a process of land and resource extinguishment which leads to cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

So while it may be true that Indigenous identity is more about ‘who claims you’ rather than ‘who you claim,’ this too is not a universal Truth. I can’t and won’t speak for Joseph Boyden, but I can and will speak for myself:

Though no one claims me, I am Algonquin Anishinaabe.

Lynn Gehl, Ph.D. is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley.  She has a new book with University of Regina Press coming in the fall called, Claiming Anishinaabe: Decolonizing the Human Spirit. You can read more of her work at www.lynngehl.com

2 replies

  1. Vary informative. Both my parents are Metis. I do know from which aboriginal group that my ancestry is from: Mom is Huron-Wendat and French Metis with some Irish/Scottish. Funny thing though my Grandfather’s last name is in the Huron-Wendat archives of names. I haven’t been able to go any further with the geneology cause I don’t speak French and they don’t seem to want to talk to me. My Dad on the other hand is a mixture of Dutch/German with Anishnabe Kwi and French Metis. Aboriginal Grandmother’s on Dad’s side is from Cape Crocker reserve “Ninnawishinamin”.

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  2. I am treaty card holder indigenous person & living in a reservation; i speak the language of my grandmothers & practised traditional ways yet one set of my grandchildren are not considered indigenous or metis persons because their mother happen to be non-indigenous! For them to be ‘registered as metis” they would have to prove their connections with “red river colony”! When i first heard this i wanted to go to MMF & told them all the history ive heard from my grandmothers but i just held my grandbabies in my arms then in my heart! I’ve told them to be proud of their heritage & that no piece of govt issued paper is needed for them to know their true identity!!
    At the same token i cant understand why joseph Boyden insist to be known as an indigenous when I, 100% indigenous, have to fight for everything because I’m visibly indigenous woman in my reservation & in canada!! I’m one of the many people in my reservation without a house & if it weren’t not for a church building I’d be homeless!! I’d trade places with joseph boyden anyday lol See how long he would last LOL
    To me… my experience as being born as an indigenous female is to live in misery & yet still be able to smile & show love & continuously fight for justices!!!! Not something I wish on my grandchildren or joseph Bowden for that matter!!!

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