The Current

How author Lynn Gehl reclaimed her Indigenous roots

"Indigenous ways of knowing really embraces subjectivity and experience and personal truth."
Lynn Gehl shares her story connecting to Indigenous knowledge in her book, Claiming Anishinaabe: Decolonizing the Human Spirit. (Samantha Moss)

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Lynn Gehl grew up distanced from her Algonquin Anishinaabe roots. She had been denied her Indigenous status because of sex-based discrimination in how it can be passed on. 

After decades-long legal battle, Gehl finally won her case in Ontario's highest court in April 2017 — only to find out she received a lower level of status.

But in researching her family history in her fight to get status, Gehl also learned about her culture as an adult.

I can't really just become a status Indian without knowing what that means.- Lynn Gehl

This opened her eyes to adapting her world view to include the Indigenous knowledge she had not grown up with as a child.

"I felt, well, I can't really just become a status Indian without knowing what that means," says Gehl, author of Claiming Anishinaabe: Decolonizing The Human Spirit.

Growing up without Indian status

Gehl grew up in public housing in Toronto, in a family of eight children. She had a visual disability that meant she didn't learn to read or write beyond the primary school level until she was in her 30s. 

Her mother had Indigenous ancestry but identified more as French-Canadian.

Gehl's father brought Gehl along as a child to do cultural activities like fishing around the Pikwakanagan First Nation where he had his roots — but since they didn't have legal status and therefore legal fishing rights in the area, they had to do this in secret. 

Lynn Gehl (left) and her lawyer Christa Big Canoe have been fighting for decades to gain Indian status for Gehl. Both Gehl's grandmother and father have status, but Gehl was denied because she does not know the identity of one of her grandfathers. (Colin Perke/Canadian Press)

And this secrecy, which Gehl didn't understand the reasons for as a child, shaped how she felt about her culture.

"It was a process that involved some shame," she tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"That was difficult. When you think about that, eating feast food should be really a joyful time, a lovely time, a spiritual time. But for a lot of people, it was a shameful time. That whole process of eating was a ritual of embodying shame, and subjugation, and [not being] worthy."

Indigenous ways of knowing really embraces subjectivity and experience and personal truth.- Lynn Gehl

Learning more about her Indigenous heritage

Gehl went on to study chemistry in college, and worked in environmental sciences, in a lab measuring levels of toxic organic chemicals in Ontario water.
(University of Regina Press)

"I was trying to understand the nature of reality," says Gehl. "And that's where I went to — atoms and molecules."

But as she learned more about her Indigenous heritage, she realized Western science wasn't giving her a full understanding of environmental issues. 

"I realized the knowledge system wasn't working," says Gehl.

"It was a very profound knowledge system in that we could detect pesticides and herbicides at the parts per million level. But people were continuing to pollute, nothing was changing. There's some other aspect of human behaviour that the knowledge system wasn't capturing." 

It was a hard journey because it's a paradigm shift.

Gehl left that job and went on to do a PhD looking at anthropology and Indigenous studies, as well as becoming more fully immersed in the practice of Algonquin Anishinaabe knowledge.

"It was a hard journey because it's a paradigm shift," says Gehl. 

"You have to really think differently and conceptually. It's not just about fluffs and feathers and dancing. There's a real sophisticated knowledge system under that." 

Part of that paradigm shift involved moving past the idea that knowledge can only be objective.

"Indigenous ways of knowing really embraces subjectivity and experience and personal truth," says Gehl. "And it really values practiced knowledge and song and prayer and ritual."

But she doesn't think one type of science replaces the other.

"I would never say let's get rid of Western laboratory science," says Gehl. "But I think we have to value the limitations of it."

Gehl sees the suppression of Indigenous knowledge since the 1880s as part of Canada's cultural genocide against Indigenous people — something she still sees going on today. 

Learning the Algonquin Anishinaabe way of seeing the world was part of Gehl's way to reclaim her roots — and her spirit — but for Gehl, it was also important to learn that this knowledge was deliberately suppressed.

"It was good that I learned that because you do think you're unworthy," says Gehl. 

"Then you realize, oh no, this was something that was imposed on you. This was cultural genocide."

Gehl believes Canada and Indigenous people can work together, but doesn't see any progress on this front.

"[Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs] Carolyn Bennett is still promoting a model of land claim and self-government process that is rooted in extinguishment," she says.

"So no, nothing has changed."

Minister Bennett's office sent The Current this statement in response:

"Our government is advancing a new relationship with Indigenous peoples based on the recognition of rights, respect, cooperation and partnership. We are demonstrating this commitment through the Working Group of Minister on the Review of Laws and Policies which is ensuring the Crown is meeting its constitutional obligations with respect to Aboriginal and treaty rights; adhering to international human rights standards, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and supporting the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action.

We have established permanent bi-lateral mechanisms with Indigenous organizations to ensure their voices are heard at the highest levels of government. We are working to fully-adopt and implement the UNDRIP in partnership with First Nations, Inuit and Metis Peoples. We are also taking a new approach to negotiations with Indigenous communities, as demonstrated by our recognition of rights negotiation tables where we are currently working with 300 communities which represent 500,000 people to resolve historical wrongs and treaty disputes as well as advance self-determination agreements. We are committed to addressing issues like extinguishment and surrender, which do not fit with a recognition-based relationship."

Listen to the full conversation above.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.