© Daily Herald staff
Jessica Iron Joseph
Most of the time I write with a particular person or purpose in mind. Today I’m writing something that I wish I could have found 10 years ago, or better yet 20 years ago, when I was stuck in those abysmal teenage years of uncertainty, where you are suddenly hyper-aware of everything and identity becomes an all-consuming fixation of epic proportions. Who am I? WHO AM I???
Truly, I don’t need this piece of writing anymore. I have my answers. But not everyone does.
Not long ago, a stranger said to me that I was a “half-blood” but having a treaty card didn’t make me an Indian.
Pretty rude words, by anyone’s standard, I would say. Naturally any explanation I gave this person fell upon deaf ears. She had decided that she’d figured me out, slapped an ugly label on me, and left it at that.
So, I’ll explain who I am for anyone who has never read my columns before.
I’m Cree. My mother belongs to the Canoe Lake Cree Nation, thus so do I. My late father was German. I have Indian status. Technically I am bi-racial, yes. But I was raised Cree, in every sense of the word.
Some people don’t understand that there are differences between being Cree (or Indigenous) and the rest of Canadian society, so every now and then I write columns which describe the differences (as I see them), to help people understand that there are differences. Many differences. It is all rooted in identity, in worldview, in traditions, culture and language. But I write those columns more from an awareness standpoint, not to create boundaries or divisions. I think if we understand people better, we are more likely to be compassionate and accepting, and these actions break down barriers. And sometimes the differences are just plain funny and I like to laugh at them.
I’ve never been ashamed of my father, my German ancestry or my fair skin. I love it all. I love myself the way I am, just exactly as the Creator made me. Believe it or not, my father encouraged me to embrace my Indigenous side. He loved First Nations people and I was proud of him for being so open-minded and showing me that identity was more about feeling than appearance. It’s about where you feel centred in the world, where you feel most at home in your soul. Whatever that looks like to you, that is exactly who you are.
So I’m writing this column on Indigenous identity for all those light-skinned “In-betweeners”, the half-breeds, half-bloods, mixed-raced, status, non-status or re-instated status Indians who feel that they are stuck somewhere between two races and cultures and don’t quite feel like they belong anywhere. I’m writing it for people who are still searching, or who are yet incapable of finding the words to describe what they’re feeling.
Why would a “full-blood” say such a rude thing to another Indian? You might be wondering.
Well, if you know me, I like to take tours down history lane to find answers, so let’s begin there.
With the cunning establishment of the 1876 Indian Act, the federal government was able to quickly categorize and divide up Indians according to their handy-dandy blood quantum formulas. The Indian Agents could now decide whether you were Indian enough or not and adjust your status accordingly. It suddenly mattered what percentage everyone was. It meant access to health care, education, and housing for band members.
Indian status is a long and complex topic that involves many legal detours to fully explain. There are many exceptions and contradictions and confusing questions, but one thing is for certain; blood quantum became a virtual obsession by everyone after the Indian Act was introduced. Ultimately, fewer band members = less sharing of resources.
Following complaints that the federal government arbitrarily decided who belonged to their bands, First Nations now have the option of defining their own band membership codes.
Having the authority to govern one’s own membership is a necessary step on the road to self-government. Deciding who belongs is now something that the whole community can participate in versus awaiting the government’s annual contentious list.
That’s one aspect to why the issue of In-betweeners might incite pernicious comments.
Another aspect is lateral violence and its very ugly and pervasive presence in Aboriginal communities. Sometimes members of a minority group who have suffered from oppression lash out at one another, creating a new dysfunction in the form of bullying, belittling and backstabbing. Is there ever a good reason for jealousy and pettiness?
Sometimes In-betweeners are treated unfairly in First Nation communities because their ties to another race, most likely European, falsely epitomizes a long history of grievances and injustices and it is convenient to use them as scapegoats.
Then there is the fear of cultural appropriation, which still exists in many First Nation communities. There are those who fear that outsiders will try to steal and profit from any religious or cultural items and/or ceremonies. It has happened, and naturally, people can be wary of those who do not originate from these communities. So, by virtue of association non-“full-bloods” are often studied with measured dubiety.
Sure some of these answers might seem far-fetched and amiss, but don’t forget that reason and logic usually escape the uncouth.
So just what does the perfect full-blooded Indian look like? It is rare indeed for any Indians to trace back their lineage and not find that bloodlines have been somehow altered by inter-racial marriage, particularly around these parts where the fur trade held such prominence.
Now, even if someone had “pure” bloodlines, where does it stop? Some people speak their language, some don’t. Some follow their traditional ways, some choose other denominations. Some are on-reserve, some are off-reserve. You can’t say that Indians who live exclusively like they did before contact are the only true Indians, because First Nations people have always adapted. They have always been progressive, regardless of antiquated and static interpretations of what it means to be an Indian.
I am not an “Indian” because I belong to a list and have a status card. I am part of two Cree families, Canoe Lake, and a larger Aboriginal community, all of whom have accepted me, whether or not one person disagrees with how I see myself.
This is who I have been for 34 years. If I choose to adopt a different identity at some point, that’s my choice. No one else’s.
We are all free to decide who we are; and ultimately what our identity is. Whether you call yourself Cree, or Canadian, or anything else in between is your business, nobody else’s. Don’t let a “full-blooded” racist define who you are.
Take your power and own it. It’s your right. But please be courteous to others who are still on an identity-journey.
Jessica Iron Joseph is a Prince Albert freelance writer. Her column appears every fourth Friday in rotation with Sharon Thomas, Lori Q. McGavin and Kevin Joseph.