Friday, May 13, 2011

Confused? You ain't seen nothing yet: Some context for pressures on identity for Aboriginal students

The following piece has been extracted from my Masters' Comprehensive Paper, The Boy Growin’ Up will be Young and Old: Emergent identity construction through hip hop in indigenous youth.  I decided to extract it out of the paper to start a quick examination of the identity politics at play in the lives of Aboriginal youth in our public education system.  This is by no means an exhaustive contextualization, I do not try to examine or explain the complexities of Inuit, or Métis identity, as the focus of the paper itself was with Status Indians and their identity construction in a small town in British Columbia.  The section I have placed here is just a surface summary of some of the pressures of legal definitions of identity and the legacies of oppression and colonialist thought on our understanding of self and identity, cultural and otherwise, within the Indigenous community in Canada.  The references at the bottom are what was used for this particular section, as are the footnotes.

Lawrence (2004) and St. Denis (2007) are among the many scholars able to offer excellent summaries of the legal legacy of colonialism in Canada.  The Indian Act, enacted in 1876, has set Indigenous people against each other by creating categories that delineate who is and is not a Status Indian, and by redefining for some such things as the traditional matriarchal systems of leadership and lineage into patriarchal systems.  In addition, the Act enabled the loss of Status for Indian women who marry out, while the addition of non- Indian women onto the Indian register complicates the question of who is considered Indigenous and who is not.  Losing Status under the Act meant that one was no longer considered Indian and was not recognized as such in their community.  The consequence of this policy created a crisis in Indigenous communities, splitting families and causing members to question each other’s claims of authenticity.  The residential school policies sought to remove Indigenous memory and culture, "to kill the Indian in the child” (Harper, 2009) by “slaying the language” (St. Denis, 2007) and disconnecting the child from his family and support systems; the reserve system sought to remove the people from their traditional territories which would serve the purpose of opening up the land for settlement and resource exploitation, particularly the rich agricultural industries of the Prairie provinces.

Indigenous women fought the discrimination regarding their Indian Status for many years in the Canadian courts and at the United Nations before Canada announced that it would amend the Indian Act to allow the reinstatement of Indian Status to some Indigenous women (Lawrence, 2004).  Bill C-31, though it brought many women back into the Status fold, along with their children, further divided communities as the internalized racism and mistrust, as well as limited availability of land, resources and government largess caused many communities to set new membership rules, designed to exclude.  In addition, the Bill set new rules about who can be considered Indian by setting a concrete lineage requirement known as the “two grandmothers” rule[1], to determine who could maintain Status thus creating two categories of Indian Status: sections 6 (1), or full status, and 6 (2), half status (definitions mine).  To qualify for full Indian Status, an Indigenous person needs both parents to be Status Indians, while half status requires only one Status parent both of whose parents are Status Indians (Daniels, 1998).  The children of half-Status Indians are not guaranteed Status[2].  Defining the identity of the Indigenous person, when that identity is disputed, and categorized by internal and external forces, becomes a complex and potentially agonizing experience for Indigenous people who have suffered under these policies. 

We also need to be aware of the meaning of racialization.  According to St. Denis (2007), this term refers to racial formation, or the process by which racial categories are formed, usually by external forces (p. 1071), in order to support the inequity and oppression of minority groups by the dominant group.  Race matters because racism is internalized by the minority and, arguably the majority as well, and it plays a determining factor in considering authenticity within the group (ibid.).  To start to believe what is claimed about your minority group, to internalize that racism is an arguably damaging aspect of colonialism, particularly the legal definitions of “Indian”, and creates cracks in the solidarity of the Indigenous groups in Canada.  The groups divided are viewing each other with suspicion, determining their value as “Indian”.  In addition to the legal definitions of identity, there are also less explicit aspects of oppression which play a role in identity construction among Indigenous people.  The dominant society has created a nation building myth that is used to create the national history of Canada (Mackey, 1994).  This nation-building myth depends on the minimization of the lived experience of Indigenous peoples under colonialism. Mackey argues that Canada has defined itself as a benevolent society that has developed in a much less violent way than the United States or other settled nations.  The nation building myth tells the story of Canada as a progressive, benevolent society that worked civilly with its Indigenous peoples in the building of the nation, in sharp contrast to the US creation, born out of revolution and built on the violent oppression of its Indigenous population.  Canada also defines itself as a tolerant and raceless state (Schick & St. Denis, 2005), using the concept of meritocracy as the means by which power is wielded in the country, implying hard work determines privilege rather than a racialized hierarchy.  The idea of racelessness is created by refusing to know the other (Dion, 2007), or more accurately refusing to recognize the differences and inequities created by oppression of one group by another.  Racelessness is misleading in that it ignores the reality of race in Canada and places the blame for inequity on the shoulders of the oppressed by implying any disadvantage may be the result of something inherently wrong within the group.  . 

This is the context within which explorations of identity and culture by Indigenous youth in Canada are currently taking place.  How is this viewed by the dominant society, the vast majority of who have ascertained that Indigenous cultures are dying and in need of rescue?  In what ways are the dynamics of identity politics and hierarchies of authenticity (Genaille, 2009) affected by this exploration?  Of particular concern is the effect that this has on Indigenous youth, who, like all youth, are attempting to construct an identity for themselves, while surrounded by these competing internal and external forces that are obstructing these attempts to find their voice and identity. 

Stuart Hall (1990) cited in St. Denis (2007), states the following: “Cultural identity is not something that already exists, transcending place, time, history and culture” (p. 1070).  Cultural identities are not static; people are constantly acting or not according to an infinite array of variables and therefore cultural identity may be different for youth than it is for their elders.  Those that experienced residential schools, for example, may have a memory of a pre-residential time and a different understanding of that time.    Indigenous youth do not have a memory of a time before residential schools.  In this regard, I am convinced that the culture practiced and the identity performed by Indigenous youth is an emergent cultural identity.  In this view practicing identity means constructing cultural markers and social memory for their group, connected to the past, but not able to relate to it.  Deyhle (1998) makes a similar argument in her study of the Navajo youth she worked with regarding identity and resistance.  In her study, the youth, in seeking ways to reconcile their identities as Navajo living on the reservation and attending a white school, explore break dancing and then switch to listening to heavy metal music as a means to define themselves as different from the white people.  This is how they resist the imposition of white culture.  At the same time, they are also resisting the Navajo culture which is expected of them, because it is foreign to their contemporary understandings.  It is something from the past and which they cannot be a part of.  I am interested in how youth are using contemporary art forms and popular culture touchstones to examine both their cultural roots and their understandings of self, to construct an identity that both honours the past and recognizes the changed face of society.


Daniels, H (1998), Bill C-31: The abocide bill, Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, 1998. From the web:, accessed March 27, 2010.

Deyhle, D (1998).  From break dancing to heavy metal: Navajo youth, resistance and identity, in Youth & Society, September. 3- 31.

Dion, S. (2007).  Disrupting molded images: Identities, responsibilities and relationship: Teachers and indigenous subject material.  In Teaching Education, Vol. 18, Issue 4.  329-342.

Genaille, R (2009), All my relations: Challenges doing research in your own backyard AESA 2009 paper

Harper, S, The Right Honourable Prime Minister (2009) Statement of Apology to Former students of Indian Residential Schools, from the website:, accessed March 28, 2010.

Lawrence, B (2004).  “Real” Indians and others: Mixed-blood urban Native peoples and indigenous nationhood.  Vancouver: UBC Press

Mackey, E. (2002). The House of difference: Cultural politics and national identity in Canada.   Toronto: University of Toronto Press

Schick, C. & St. Denis, V. (2005) Troubling national discourses in anti-racist curricular planning.  Canadian Journal of Education, 28(3), 295-317.

St. Denis, V. (2007) Aboriginal Education and Anti-Racist Education: Building Alliances across Cultural and Racial Identity, in Canadian Journal of Education 30(4). 1068-1092.

[1] To qualify for Status, both parents must have Status, or one parent must have parents with Status.  To qualify and pass on Indian Status as a full Status Indian, both your parents need to be Status Indians which means that both of your children’s grandmothers have Status.
[2] A news release, in March 2010, has announced that, in response to McIvor case, the government will be tabling legislation to extend Status to the grandchildren of Bill C-31 returnees.  The case saw Métis woman Sharon McIvor challenge Bill C-31, which did not allow women to pass on their Status to their children in the same way that men could.  What this does is essentially eliminate section 6(2) from the Indian Act and make Status accessible to many more people.  It is too early to know what the ramifications of this will be for Band membership and for the availability of resources from the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

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