Thursday, March 29, 2012

Identity Politics and Policies

I view the world in terms of continuums - as shades of gray, if you will; to me, rarely is something black and white, and usually only thus after a lot of consideration or experience.  I suppose that comes from years of learning how to think critically about what I see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or learn - those are usually good places to start, but it's a rare instance when there isn't something deeper behind the surface that needs to be considered.  It should come as no surprise that I am baffled by people for whom the world is a lot more black and white than it is gray.  So when I am confronted with a situation that asks me to define myself in a way to fit someone else's ideas, I'm conflicted.

I am currently seeking jobs outside of government, and outside of Canada is an open door for me.  And through the workings of history, I find that I can easily take up residence and work in the US, with fewer hassles - The Jay Treaty of 1789.  This treaty recognized that First Nations peoples migrated north and south with no recognition of an international border, and so under that treaty, I as a First Nations person, can enter the US (now extended to all of the NAFTA region) and get a job without having to go through the usual process.  However, through a strange quirk in the US system, I am required to prove to them that I have at least 50% blood quantum in order to be recognized as "an Indian." 

With no great difficulty, I can get a letter stating something to the effect that I meet the blood quantum, but I find it somehow demeaning that I have to do so.  My national government has seen fit to accept the evidence put forward on my behalf and deem me legally eligible for Indian Status, and I have taken it.  My band has deemed my father's family eligible to be members of that band, and so we are.  That recognition by a tribal government and a national government should be enough for the United States government.

This probably wouldn't be as sensitive an issue were I not so keenly aware of how non-conformity has shaped my father's family heritage.  My grandfather was a Treaty Indian, as were his first and second wives, and all his children.  My father was born a Treaty Indian, and so he lived for nearly a decade, until my non-conforming grandfather made a fateful decision.

He, a grown man with adult responsibilities, was not recognized as being in charge of his own life under the Treaty.  The government, through the Indian Agents on reserves, told him where he could live, how he could live, what he could do to support his family, what he could and could not do in his own house, where he had to send his children to school, what became of his estate after he died, and even what he was allowed to drink.  No, if he wanted to make those decisions that any other Canadian was and is entitled to make on their own behalf, he had to give up his Treaty status. 

The Government saw those and other actions as "proof" that the Indian was assimilating into the white culture, and so "enfranchised" anyone who took any such deemed action, "allowing" them to access the full rights and benefits of Canadian citizenship by stripping the Indian of their status. And around 1956 or 1957, that is what happened.  My grandfather, his wife, and his children were stripped of their Treaty status.  We were no longer allowed to be "Indians."  That my grandfather had Indian blood in his arteries and veins, and had grown up as an Indian didn't matter to the Government.  That such rules were not a part of the Treaties signed between First Nations and the Colonial or Canadian governments didn't matter either.  It was literally a whitewash.

For nearly 30 years, my father's family lived that way, until Bill C-31 in April 1985 revised the Indian Act, recognizing the damage that such policies caused for individuals and families on a personal level, but also recognizing the demoralizing, racist effects that the policies had on First Nations as a whole.  My grandfather, still the non-conformist, refused to take part, but as his children were of majority age, they could seek eligibility on their own.  After he died in the late 1980's, my father began the process.  I was young, so I had no idea what was going on, but one day in September 1991, I woke up, and I was an Indian. 

My family has gone through a lot with regard to its identity.  I'm very protective of that identity.  And I'm sorry, but some magic number blood quantum is not how I define that identity.


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