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What does it mean to be “Indigenous?”

Words like Indigenous/Native American/First Nation/Aboriginal can hold different meanings for different communities, but there are some traits that are nearly universal:

shared history, shared ancestry tracing back to precolonial times, shared community.

Murray Sinclair (Photograph by Skye Spence)

The Honourable Murray Sinclair (Peguis First Nation) weighed in at the National Indigenous Identity Forum.

The report from that 2022 forum states, “Those claiming Indigenous identity have to be able to show that their identity has been part of their life since the beginning of their growth. Identity is based in the questions ‘who are your teachers and where did you learn this.

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“Identity is not about claims to be traditional, nor is it about opportunities for status, financial gain, or power. Indigenous peoples not only say their name and where they came from, but also talk about who their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents were; they talk about their Elders. This is a validation of Indigenous identity…

“Dr. [Chris] Andersen outlined that we should be moving away from talking about identity to talking about citizenship. This is important as we tend to think about identity in terms of self-identification. We are only beginning to grapple with the idea that people would claim to be something that they are not. Dr. [Niigaanwewidam] Sinclair explained that kinship is where we come from, our communities, our ancestors, our songs, and our stories… This is about who claims you, not who you claim. This is one way to think about identity. It is not always fixed with blood as blood gives one an opportunity to earn kinship.”

Blood gives one an opportunity to earn kinship.”

2022 Report on Indigenous Voices on Indigenous Identity,
paraphrasing Murray Sinclair

The United Nations created their own criteria.

Considering the diversity of indigenous peoples, an official definition of “indigenous” has not been adopted by any UN-system body. Instead the system has developed a modern understanding of this term based on the following:

  • Self-identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member.
  • Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies
  • Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources
  • Distinct social, economic or political systems
  • Distinct language, culture and beliefs
  • Form non-dominant groups of society
  • Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.

Justin Brake discovered his Mi’kmaw ancestry as an adult.

In 2011 he was accepted under Canada’s Indian Act, however, he now identifies as “a settler with Mi’kmaw ancestry.”

“I was accepted into Qalipu based on proven ancestry, self-identification—uninformed and reluctant as it was—and acceptance by the group… My privilege as a white cis man and the opportunities I’ve had stand in stark contrast to the lived realities of most Mi’kmaq today. For many like me, the creation of Qalipu led to a quick education in—or reinterpretation of—our family histories in order to meet membership deadlines.”

It is anti-relational when we talk about identity. And this is what settlers want you to do—the settler state wants you to think in terms of individual self-actualization, identity, property and rights. Relationality, on the other hand, is not about any of those things. This is why I encourage people to think more in terms of who are you trying to relate to? You need these sets of relations to constitute a People.

Kim TallBear (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate)

Just because you could claim something doesn’t mean you should claim something. If you’re intelligent enough to understand the context of colonialism and how it benefits non-Natives who claim Native identity—or people who have partial or minuscule Native identity—in relationship to people living in active relation with Native communities, then you wouldn’t claim it. You would know that you’re just a few degrees of separation from an active colonization such as erasure.”

David Shorter (Indigenous ancestry but is not Indigenous)