Saturday, June 18, 2011

Further Pressures on Identity: My notes on Lawrence's "Real" Indians & Others

What follows are my notes from reading "Real" Indians and Others by Bonita Lawrence, a study of Urban Aborginal people in Toronto.  The book addresses many identity issues many FN people are struggling with today, particularly in the urban context.  There are many more that need to be explored, I do not necessarily see myself reflected in the her research, for example.  At any rate, these are my notes for the book... Something to consider when considering Aboriginal Education and planning around it.

“Real” Indians and Others, by Bonita Lawrence

Published in 2004.

-          Essentially is a case study that explores Aboriginal identity and how it is affected in mixed-blood, urban Indians- groups generally disconnected from their Native communities for a variety of reasons, and generally not recognized by those communities as Native, and often times, by each other, because there is the view that that person is “not Indian enough”.

-          Lawrence points out the fact that the experiences of urban Indians is very much tied to the genocidal practices of the Canadian government through the Indian Act and other acts designed to assimilate First Nations people in Canada

-          The categories are defined as status, non-status, Métis, Inuit and other (American Indian)

-          Interviews were conducted with 30 individuals who identify as native and who are active in the Toronto native community, over the space of one year.  Used self identification and active involvement in community as her standard for identifying the participants, so as to avoid colonial definitions of Nativeness.

-          Challenges included being an insider doing research within her own community and being put at risk of knowing things she would rather not know.

-          She also points out Tuhiwai Smith’s assertion that there is more at stake for Aboriginal researchers doing research.  With her doing research, there is a very real burden not to screw it up, or become a part of the colonialism that has damaged the community so completely.

-          There is also no guiding voice in an urban community (ie a band council) to help focus a researcher’s choices of research

-          Decided to focus on Native-white ancestry because there is a definite battle between the two groups in negotiating native identity, she did not exclude Indigenous mixed bloods from other parts of the Americas

-          21 participants are female, 8 are male

-          12 are status through their own lineage

-          7 are nonstatus with a connection to specific reserves, through parents or grandparents

-          10 are from families that never held Indian status (4 from territories not occupied by Canada)

-          2 grew up on reserve and one grew up in a northern metis community

-          2 spent time on reserves regularly, despite a lack of status on their, or their mothers part

-          2 visited a reserve occasionally

-          The rest had entirely urban existances

-          Racial appearance was varied from dark-skinned to looking white

-          Age range was 24 to 62, the older were chosen deliberately because they had had the longest time to consider and develop identity, the younger ones had the least to say

-          Education ranged from grade 6 to PhD students.  High education level did not necessarily translate into high-class background

-          She was challenged by interpreting the story, it is challenging to interpret Native stories, partly because of her own heritage, partly because the way stories are told is important, partly because the people have been silenced in one way or another for so long

-          This group can not be viewed as representative of the urban native community.  She does feel that they represent the current dialogue ongoing in the community

-          She looked primarily at Toronto because Toronto was the most cosmopolitan of Canadian cities and where Native people were actually invisible.  For all intents and purposes, Toronto represents the final stop in the urbanization process.  Government policies have also been in place much longer and the Natives here have been much more the product of that genocide.  She also used to live there.

-          Western cities such as Vancouver and Edmonton were dismissed because of the overt anti-Native thoughts that still existed.  It has not been enough time to make Native people invisible.


-          Indian Act and other policies changed the way that Natives were viewed and regulated.  They essentially defined who was Indian and who got to live in the communities.  Status Indians were given benefits denied to others but were also restricted in many ways.

-          The plan was to remove the Indianness from the people.  What followed were enfranchisement, either forced or wilful, as well as arbitrary removal of status.

-          The overall idea was to remove the Native from the land.  Once the government, who decides who is Native, removed the Native from the Native, by removing their status and declaring them no longer Native, would be able to remove any roadblocks to the land that they want to control.  Nation-building requires the absence of Native people for it to work.

Native Women

-          Gov’t removed women from the equation, by only negotiating and working with men.

-          Gave status and only recognized family lineage through the male’s line. 

-          Native women lost their status if they married a non-status male (in many cases, lost their band membership if they married a status male from somewhere else)

-          Indian Act rules allowed Indian Agents to declare Native women to be classified as prostitutes if they were too outspoken about their rights, which gave them the opportunity to remove them from the communities and strip them of their status

-          As well, their children lost the right to status and recognition.

-          Indian Agents had the power to enfranchise if you left the community to work.

-          Non-Native women could gain status if they married status men, primarily as a means to reinforce the male lineage as the recognized lineage in the communities.

Bill C-31

-          Native women fought long and hard for, to regain status and recognition as Native women.  Double-edged sword, which I will explain.

-          Bill C-31 returned status to women who could prove that they had lost their status previously and were entitled to it.

-          Bill C-31 also gave Bands the right to control their membership.  Why is this significant?

-          Estimates of up to a million people lost status as a result of the Indian Act prior to 1985.  Only 100 000 regained status after Bill C-31 came into effect.  Even fewer were able to regain Band membership.

-          The First Nations, tried very hard to block the reintegration of Native women into the communities and into recognition, even arguing that Canada had only been reinforcing through law a practice carried out by the First Nations themselves.  Women were kicked out to protect the Bands from White men.

-          Bands set up membership rules that would not allow for the return of many disenfranchised women or their children, even if they regained status. 

-          Some bands based their membership rights on culture and language; others used much more dangerous ideas like the blood quantum.  See page 78 about Kahnawake’s rules and regulations

-          Some leaders were upfront about not wanting the women or their children back, arguing that if you left, you lose your Indianness.

-          Bill C-31 also snuck in 6(1) and 6(2) status.  The first is partial status and the second is partial status.  For one to have status, you had to meet the two grandmother rule.  Both your grandmothers had to have status.  Designed to weed out the people again, so even if you had status, your children would have status, but their children would lose it unless they hooked up with a status person.

 Killing the Indian to Save the Child

-          participants identified three issues that had an incredible effect on their status as Aboriginal people and their connections to their communities.

o   Residential schools- none had attended themselves, but had parents or grandparents who had attended.  Very few of these people had been able to return to their communities and were considered lost.  The author gets the dates for closing of the schools wrong, however.  Should be 80s not 60s, but the focus is on central Canada, so the ignorance of the BC history is not surprising.

o   Loss of Indian Status- due to the discriminatory practice of the Indian Act, which is what ended up shaping this study

o   The “scoop”- Feds gave provinces powers over child welfare in Canada.  Native children went from less then 1% to 1/3 to ½ in care.  Whether adopted or fostered out, 70-90% ended up in white homes.  Many were adopted out of province or out of country to the US and Europe.  Did not recognize Aboriginal culture or understanding in their practices.  Many children subjected to racism and lack of understanding and a disconnect with their culture and family.  The parents who lost their kids often fell into alcoholism and substance abuse to deal with the loss.  All the participants who were adoptees or children of adoptees reported considerable problems.

 Urban Responses to a heritage of violence

The main coping mechanism for dealing with violence against them, either by other natives or non-natives, regarding racism, etc. was silence.  A culture of silence has existed for some time, where the person, or the family would deny their nativeness and hide it as best as possible.  They did not want to view this silence as shame however, just survival

Alternately, resistance was also an important coping mechanism, be it quiet, or overt.(pg 130)

 Negotiating an urban mixed blood native identity

 -          Urban Indians are often challenged as not being real Indians, by both rez Indians and white people, for a variety of reasons: not brown enough, don’t know the traditions well enough, etc.

-          Many had to deal with it inside their own families.  Some participants spoke of angry white fathers who resented their native children, while others had supportive white fathers who would support their native wife’s choices, including, in one case, buying a farm near her community so that she could be close to her family and her children could be a part of the life of the community if not an actual member

-          White mothers had a different aspect.  More willing to enter husband’s world, but this had good and bad connotations.  Some were supportive and interventionist to protect children, while others were obsessed with being the “mother of a Native child”, to be known as exotic.  They were often dismissed as wannabees.

 Maintaining an urban native community

-          who gets to be considered Indian

-          all participants thought that you required at least some Indian blood to be considered native, though how much was up for dispute

-          some felt you merely needed native experience, in life and history

-          all accepted self identification but were suspicious of people that looked very white

-          most rejected imposed identities from government policies

-          all felt that blood was required to show survival of the genocide, though because of the genocide that definition of blood had to be interpreted as widely as possible

-          all were concerned with wannabees, some dismissing it as the price of flexible identity while others were worried about it

-          1/3 were concerned about partners, needing a native partner

-          One woman would only partner up with status men, so she could pass on her status to her kids

-          Three were comfortable that their children would be Native regardless of status, blood quantum, their only requirement that their partner be comfortable with their identities

-          There is a desire to actively engage in cultural activities to battle the generations of silencing

-          There is also concern over a growing sense of classism in urban native communities, individualistic focus

-          There was also a break between traditional people and modernists who felt that traditional could not exist in the urban context, though they were careful to show respect for the traditionalists

-          There is a disconnect about how to be traditional without the land connection and whether or not a pan-Indian spirituality can exist

-          There is a schism between those raised on reserves and those that were raised in the urban setting

-          There is a lack of interest in relearning an aboriginal language, didn’t feel it was necessary, highlighting a more individualistic focus

-          There is a break because of lack of land base and the belief that traditionalism is also bad for women, not really acknowledging the changes in traditional practices that include women

Racial identity

Light skinned privilege

-          there is a perception that light skinned Indians have a privilege not enjoyed by dark-skinned Indians, there is debate around this but it does exist for those who already enjoy class and gender privilege

-          did light skinned want to look more Indian?  In some cases yes, in others no.  some were able to accept their own sense of self, others were troubled by knowing they were Indian, understanding they were Indian but looking in the mirror they saw a white guy


-          white looking Indians find themselves having to defend their nativeness and declare their nativeness to defend their native heritage

-          there are many that don’t feel comfortable in white or native society

-          white people are always willing to denounce claims of nativeness, as are native people who accuse you of being a wannabee, both because you don’t look the part

-          those that have all the other markers, status, band membership, lineage and heritage, it is less traumatic

Limits of Indianess

-          None of the participants were comfortable with the concept of racial ambiguity.  At what point do we stop being considered native?

 Where do we go from here?

-          Going back to a pre-colonial context, mixed bloods offer a very real, exciting way to rebuild the Indigenous nations of Canada.  Pre-contact did not kick people out because they were not pure.

-          With the growth of off reserve non-status Indians, there needs to be a reconstruction of the pre-contact acceptance of otherness in the community to strengthen the overall community in the face of an ongoing colonial assimilationist policy.

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