Getting over the 'status Indian hangover': let Josiah Wilson play

"While his status as an Indian under the Indian Act is an important fact, I worry that it is being used as the ultimately proof of Josiah Wilson's belonging. It’s as if Heiltsuk citizenship law is not enough," says Damien Lee.

Indigenous peoples do not need to rely on Canadian laws to determine who belongs

"I love basketball," says Josiah Wilson. "To come after me and tell me I can’t play, that really hurt me. It’s probably the best feeling in the world to be up there at All Native with my cousins, my family, playing basketball with a lot of the different tribes." (Facebook)

I have been following the story of Josiah Wilson intently. Wilson is the First Nations man who was refused entry into the All Native Basketball Tournament, in B.C., because he does not meet a minimum blood quantum requirement. Wilson is black, born in Haiti, and adopted into the Heiltsuk nation by his father, Don Wilson.

The media attention given to Wilson's story is a good thing. It is raising important questions about how indigeneity in Canada is defined, by whom, and whether adoption is valid grounds for indigenous peoples to claim individuals as citizens of their nations.

However, in each story I've read so far, the role of Indian status seems to re-emerge as the "real" proof that Wilson belongs as Heiltsuk. This is ironic and potentially damaging.

While his status as an Indian under the Indian Act is an important fact, I worry that it is being used as the ultimate proof of Wilson's belonging. It's as if Heiltsuk citizenship law is not enough.

Choosing who rightfully belongs

Adoption stories provide us with an opportunity to see inherent indigenous citizenship laws in action.

As Wilson's case demonstrates, inherent Indigenous citizenship laws are not based on blood quantum or race; they are based on families choosing to include all who rightfully belong. 

As Don Wilson said, "We as the Heiltsuk Nation accept my son as one of us."

Yet, in each story I've read over the past few days, Wilson's status card slips into the discussion seemingly as a authenticator.

On one hand, including Wilson's Indian status in this story is understandable.

Collectively, we are suffering from "status hangover" given that, for generations, Canada made Indian status a re-requisite for membership in an Indian band. Put simply, many now see Indian status as a pre-requisite to being indigenous.

However, over-emphasizing Wilson's Indian status in discussions about him being Heiltsuk runs the risk of hiding the most important element of this story, namely, that indigenous citizenship laws are alive and well. Such laws do not need the recognition of Canada to be valid.

Ultimately, it is up to indigenous nations themselves to determine who belongs with them. As Wilson's story clearly attests, Heiltsuk citizenship law clearly has survived the assertion of Canadian sovereignty.

This needs to be emphasized not only because it is the source of law that claimed Wilson as Heiltsuk, but ultimately because it demonstrates that indigenous peoples throughout Canada do not need to rely on Canadian laws to determine who belongs.


Damien Lee was adopted as a toddler into the Anishinaabe nation, Fort William First Nation, in accordance with Anishinaabe law. He is a PhD candidate in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba. @DamienLee