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'Who’s Your People?' A Note About Real Indians and Native Identity

Thing About Skins contributor Gyasi Ross talks about Native Identity
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Probably 8 years ago, a good friend of mine named “Chad” told me that 'Native identity' is going to be the biggest and most contentious issue in the future. I disagreed with him. I believed (and still do, to a large degree) that many Native nations were on the precipice of moving more toward a “nationhood” regime where blood quantum wasn’t the primary consideration of citizenship. I believe that, at some point in the near future, Native nations are going to publicly acknowledge that an ethnically homogenous populace is not required to be a nation. Instead, you need a certain level of common values, common language(s), and common goals.

I still think that’s gonna happen—Indigenous people will work together (as we saw in Standing Rock) because of common values and common goals. Standing Rock showed us that when Indigenous people work together because of common goals and values, irrespective of tribal or ethnic difference, we can change move mountains (and pipelines).

However, we’re not out of the “identity” era yet.

For those of you folks who do not know who Joseph Boyden is, he’s an award-winning Canadian author who has written some pretty amazing works. As a writer, I admire him and wish I could write like him. He’s written with incredible passion, accuracy and insight about topics such as residential schools. He’s probably partially responsible for the Canadian government and so many non-Native Canadians learning some level of empathy and understanding about the residential schools’ horrible, horrible history. That’s powerful—he’s been an advocate, no doubt. Problem is that he’s always represented himself as a writer of Aboriginal descent although the particular “Aboriginal descent” has been a bit fluid. At times, evidently, he has said it was Metis. Sometimes Cree. Sometimes Micmac.


The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) recently did a pretty exhaustive examination of Boyden’s Indigenous bonafides and they found out that there were none. If what they are saying is true, there is no middle ground for him to be partially right. If what APTN says is true, he is a liar, a jive turkey, a huckster, at least at it concerns his lineage.

I don’t know if what they found is true. It sounds like they covered their bases and I certainly respect their journalism. But I��m not sure.

What I do know is that regardless of whether or not Boyden truly comes from Indigenous blood, he is an incredible writer. Whether or not he’s Indigenous has zero to do with that. He writes largely Native subject matter and maybe that gave him a bit more of a “hook”—an Indigenous descendant writing about Indigenous topics. Maybe that makes him more marketable. I don’t know. I do know that there is a long history of non-Native storytellers telling Native stories (books, movies, television) and those were oftentimes successful without that Indigenous “hook.” So who knows?

I don’t know the answers. As I get older, I realize that I know less and less of the identity answers. I remember last year someone accused me of not being a “real Indian.” My first impulse was to brush it off or to get defensive, but then I thought about it a bit more. I thought, “Hey, maybe that’s correct.” I realized, I don’t even know what a “real Indian” is. Like, if I were writing a mathematical formula to create a 100% “real Indian,” I don’t know what that formula would look like. Certainly biology is a part of the equation. But how much? 50%? 63%? But certainly biology cannot be all of it, I don’t think. How important is membership in a particular Native nation? That one is likewise tricky; there are full-bloods who are not enrolled in any particular Nation for a host of reasons. Conversely, there are Nations that require a member to only be a descendant of an enrolled member to be enrolled themself. Therefore, would an enrolled person who is 1/16th Indigenous blood biologically be more of a “real Indian” than a unenrolled person who is 4/4th Indigenous blood biologically?

I don’t know.

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What about language? For me, I speak my language laughably bad. Yet, language conveys a particular people’s values and worldview. So can I really be a real Blackfeet—no matter what my biological makeup and/or enrollment status—if I don’t speak our language? Geography is likewise important. With so many sites with historical value, import and sacredness, how “real” can we be without consistently being in the land of our people?

So what’s the equation? 25% biology + 25% membership + 25% language + 25% geography = a 100% “real Native?” Hmmmmm...what about wearing your hair down and looking stoic? Extra points? Geez, I used to be so certain.

So back to Joseph Boyden…I simply don’t know. I wish he would answer his critics because I don’t think, in any event, the relationship between Natives and Joseph Boyden should be over. I’m pretty sure of just a few things though. Here they are:

  1. Yet just because a person chooses to identify as a particular thing does not mean that they are that thing. g., If I want to be and choose to identify myself as a three-toed sloth, cool. Still, there’s still a strong chance that I probably am not a three-toed sloth.
  2. People have an absolute right to identify as whatever they want.
  3. Also, whether or not I have a right to identify as whatever I want, it’s just kinda weird to act like a sloth when I’m not. Or a Mongolian. Or a Mexican. Or a Native. We have a right to, but why?
  4. Although we can identify however we want, people have every right in the world to question that identification, and particularly:
  5. If a person identifies as having Indigenous ancestry (or black or Mongolian or Pakistani) and that identification with a particular community becomes a large part of their professional/money-making schtick, it is absolutely fair for members of that community to question them about that ancestry.
  6. At the same time it’s okay to identify with a community that you’re not a member of, it’s also okay not to have a professional/money-making angle to it. I think a reason why these stories come out (Rachel Dolezal, Ward Churchill) because these folks seem to want to push themselves to the forefront of leadership and make money off of their identification.

Ultimately, there are no easy answers. But I personally don’t think these so-called “fraud” moments are the worst things in the world. But to quote Tlingit writer Ishmael Hope, “…it's about accountability. He just hasn't been accountable to Native people in many ways, with having so much trouble answering the simple question of "who's your people" just being one of them.”

I think “who’s your people” is a perfectly fair question and should be answered. What do you all think?

Gyasi Ross, "Thing About Skins," Editor at Large

Gyasi Ross, "Thing About Skins," Editor at Large

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large

Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories

Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi

Instagram: BigIndianGyasi