The Passionate Eye·Point of View

Identity wars: What makes an Indigenous person Indigenous, and how do 'pretendians' complicate things?

Drew Hayden Taylor examines the issue of ‘pretendians,’ those faking Indigenous heritage, in new documentary

Drew Hayden Taylor examines the issue of ‘pretendians,’ those faking Indigenous heritage, in new documentary

Why are there so many ‘pretend Indians’ these days? Anishinaabe author Drew Hayden Taylor investigates (Paul Kemp Productions)

By Drew Hayden Taylor, host of The Pretendians

To the vast majority of Canadians, the concept of a "pretendian" — somebody who claims some Indigenous ancestry but is unable or unwilling to prove it — was a vague one, with Grey Owl possibly coming to mind. Then Christmas of 2016 came with an exposé of Joseph Boyden by then-APTN journalist Jorge Barrera, shedding light on the shadows of the popular author's claims of Métis, Mi'kmaq, Ojibway and then, finally, Nipmuc heritage.

Since then, the floodgates have opened. Practically every month, somewhere in the country, some person comes under fire for claiming their ancestors frolicked with the moose instead of merely watching from the bushes. On occasion, an institution will receive criticism for encouraging and hiring these same people. It's become quite the cause célèbre in recent years, with everybody in the Indigenous community packing an opinion and many outside the community wanting to weigh in. It's the topic we set out to explore in The Pretendians, a documentary from The Passionate Eye.

Even the naming of the issue has become a popular pastime. The most recognizable term is pretendians, but other common appellations include race shifters, Karendians, wannabindians, and Indigenots. 

Granted, identity has always been a touchy subject for any culture. But there is a sense of irony attached to the pretendian question. It wasn't that many decades ago that some First Nations people would go out of their way to say they weren't Indigenous, such was the cultural and racial oppression that existed in Canada. They just tanned well, or dyed their hair or skin to get that just-right hue. But in these times of enlightenment (I use the term loosely), the flood of people wanting to walk two moons in our moccasins has become problematic, if not downright funny. 

Why are there so many ‘pretend Indians’ these days? | The Pretendians

2 months ago
Duration 1:56
Anishinaabe author Drew Hayden Taylor investigates how — and why — Indigenous identity, culture and art are being appropriated by those who are not First Nations

Since production started on this documentary, I have been getting strongly opinionated tweets and emails from individuals on both sides of the issue. One gentleman seems genuinely fixated on outing (in this case, the term is used for naming individuals who falsely claim Indigeneity) one single person currently in the media's eye. That's all he's interested in. I've tried to explain how the documentary is focusing on the practice itself, the issues around it and its consequences, not on outing individual people. Unfortunately, he does not seem interested and has told me that unless I name this one individual publicly, the documentary will have no soul or leg to stand on.

On the other side of the topic, another person has strongly and angrily urged me to walk away from the project, saying it's only going to bring discord and hostility to our already fractured community. It doesn't help anybody, this gentleman believes, and I'm the villain for even shedding light on it. 

So the controversy continues. 

Within our community, there have been many discussions about how to either simplify or expedite the decision on who's who. One woman suggested an act of Parliament, making it an offense to falsely claim Indigenous heritage. Others want to rely on the tried-and-true, traditional method of three questions: Do you consider yourself Indigenous? Does the community consider you Indigenous? And where does your family come from? That last one is usually the most difficult for fakes to fake.

In the midst of all this, there are the shades of grey (or red in this case). Is it nature or nurture that gives an Indigenous person the right to shake that rattle? That brings the issue of adoption into the discussion. On one hand, there's the "scoop up" generation. I am referring to those who were taken away by the authorities and farmed out for adoption by settler families. They struggle to find their way back to the family, and luckily most are welcomed home. They are considered Indigenous.

More problematic, some consider, are those settlers who are adopted as adults as a way of honouring and welcoming them. It's a cultural and respected tradition. But what many don't understand is that you are being invited into a family, a community, that wants you, but not into the larger culture. Nor can you speak for it. There's a big difference. I have an honorary doctorate. But I am not a doctor. Do you see the point?

In making The Pretendians, the documentary took us across the country. We saw the many different faces of the issue — some that were unexpected. Fake Indigenous art. Fake Indigenous communities. We saw a lot of anger. Some tears. 

Indigenous individuals have charged opinions, and it's no wonder this subject stirs up strong emotions. In past centuries, the dominant culture has tried to take so many things from us, leaving behind the one thing most important to us: who we are. 

Watch The Pretendians on The Passionate Eye.

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