Calgary·Opinion

Invaders to the buffalo hunt: False claims of Indigenous heritage in education

Indigenous post-secondary centres across the country have started to share stories of recent invaders to the buffalo hunt. These invaders are students who falsely claim Indigenous heritage to further their educational opportunities.

Colonialism is repeating itself as non-Indigenous people take advantage of the buffalo’s resources

Indigenous elders have claimed education is the new buffalo, because as Indigenous people become more educated, it helps communities achieve self-determination, economic freedom and cultural continuity. (CBC)

This column is an opinion from Sarah Jacknife, a member of Elizabeth Métis Settlement in northeastern Alberta and a master of public policy student at the University of Calgary. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

For Indigenous people of the plains, the buffalo symbolized life – it provided them with food, shelter, tools, and it sustained their communities.

Indigenous elders and scholars have claimed education is the new buffalo, because as Indigenous people become more educated, it helps communities achieve self-determination, economic freedom and cultural continuity. 

Yet, what happens when access to education is not being allocated to the people who need it the most? Old colonial practices of non-Indigenous people capitalizing on the buffalo are becoming problematic and prevalent within higher education.  

Historically, post-secondary educational institutions played a key role in assimilating Indigenous people, as attending university meant losing Indigenous status and rights. This has contributed to a drastic educational gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians that is still being felt today. 

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its Calls to Action, which resulted in higher education institutions making an effort to try to bridge that gap. Common examples included reserving seats in competitive programs or bridging programs. 

Recent invaders

As admission deadlines for post-secondaries rapidly approach, Indigenous post-secondary centres across the country have started to share stories of recent invaders to the buffalo hunt. These invaders are students who falsely claim Indigenous heritage to further their educational opportunities.

Some of these claims are not done in malice, but are based on a fictional story that has never been verified. Still, these claims to Indigenous heritage can be damaging.

University Affairs addressed this growing concern by noting some students are falsely claiming Métis identity to access competitive resources, such as academic grants that are reserved for Indigenous students. Many of these students will conveniently wave their "Indigenous" flag when it works for them, but disappear when it comes to building community or doing the hard work of speaking out against racism.

This highlights how colonialism is repeating itself as non-Indigenous people act out on a privileged delusion that they deserve to take advantage of the buffalo's resources.  

One solution to addressing this growing problem is for post-secondary institutions to develop centralized Indigenous student self-identification policies. These policies need to clearly define what the institutions consider Indigenous heritage, the documentation they will accept and appoint an Indigenous department, faculty or leaders as the final decision-maker for all appeals or complex cases.

The University of Alberta is leading the charge. It has created an Indigenous appeal panel that can review the legitimacy of students' claims to Indigenous heritage when documentation is not considered sufficient.

This​ ​internal appeal process allows Indigenous elders, Indigenous students, faculty and senior leadership to be the final decision-makers on all appeals and ensures that students are being held accountable to their claims.  

Involving communities

Alternative solutions include having Indigenous communities and leaders take part in this process, to ensure that students are not just claiming an Indigenous community, but that the community is claiming them.

Professor Chris Andersen, the dean of the faculty of Native Studies at the U of A, has argued that relying on self-identification is not enough, and that it is important that students are considering their connections to their community when they are identifying.

Understandably, many post-secondary institutions are hesitant to develop these types of policies or make documentation mandatory. Yet, the longer institutions wait, the more there is a risk of non-Indigenous students taking spots away from Indigenous students. This creates a dangerous precedent that suggests false Indigenous identity can be used to take advantage of the educational system.  

Post-secondary institutions need to move past their privileged guilt. They have an opportunity to begin to dismantle some of the barriers to education faced by Indigenous peoples. This starts by protecting the spots and resources meant to help Indigenous students succeed. 

An Indigenous self-identification admission process can be critiqued for enforcing colonial ideologies that put institutions as the decision-makers, and there is a risk it can become more regulatory than supportive. However, it is possible to create an equitable and inclusive policy by working collaboratively with Indigenous communities, leaders, students and faculty. 

If education is meant to be the new buffalo, then these self-identification policies need to be developed to ensure that education is accessible to those who need it the most.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah Jacknife is a member of Elizabeth Métis Settlement in northeastern Alberta and a master of public policy student at the University of Calgary. She has worked for the past six years in higher education supporting Indigenous students.

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