Opinion

Pedri-Spade: To teach the Indigenous experience, living it should be a key requirement

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Indigenous professors and students across the country share similar experiences. We all have a story of being in meeting where a colleague introduces themselves as ‘Indigenous’ without sharing what actual nation or community claims them. We have all been in a meeting where someone asks this colleague to clarify what people they belong to and are met with some vague response that they are ‘of mixed heritage’ or worse, that asking that kind of question is ‘committing lateral violence’.

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Here is the thing. The struggle to become Indigenous in and through the academy is gaining more traction than the struggles that actually have and continue to prevent Indigenous Peoples from safely working and learning in the academy. This needs to stop.

The issue is not about a person’s right to acknowledge their indigenous ancestor from centuries ago. The issue is that people are exploiting ‘indigeneity’ to occupy Indigenous positions created through equity and/or reconciliation initiatives when they have never faced discrimination based on their cultural/racial/political or socioeconomic status and have never shouldered the intergenerational trauma related to Indian Residential Schools.

When a person has to mine the archive to extract a root indigenous ancestor and feels that this justifies their place to claim and educate about experiences that they, and the generations of non-Indigenous people that came before them, have never experienced, they are not speaking from an Indigenous perspective. They are not speaking from a place of truth, strength or integrity. Rather they are speaking to displace, harm and perpetuate settler colonialism. Even if their intentions are good.

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Indigenous hiring linked to mandated equity and diversity targets is meant to bring in Indigenous people that have and continue to be structurally and systemically discriminated against within predominantly white, settler colonial organizations. These hiring practices are not meant to make it possible for people who likely have a remarkably similar genetic and ancestral story to many of their colleagues who have never thought of claiming to be Indigenous, to simply shift into an ‘Indigenous’ role because they see themselves more enlightened and proud of their indigenous ancestor.

When a person chooses to ‘re-indigenize’ when they haven’t had a living Indigenous person to reconnect to in 200+ years they are deflecting 200+ years of history that has led them to where they are today. Instead of accounting for this, people will draw on many excuses to justify their actions. That they have been doing good work and have grown into or earned the right to self-ID, that it isn’t their fault that colonialism deprived them of the knowledge that they had an ancestor, that they are claimed by an “urban Indigenous community” made up predominantly of individuals who are claiming indigeneity in the same way as they are.

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It isn’t truth or pride informing a person’s decision to claim and occupy an Indigenous position after discovering a few ancestors. Rather, it’s a veil of white settler colonial privilege coupled with a profound sense of entitlement that prevents them from seeing their own history and lived reality in its entirety. Indigenous identity becomes something they are entitled to claim and possess.

When Indigenous folks speak up, asking their colleagues to be more mindful and accountable, they are often attacked for trying to impose and uphold divisive,  blood quantum requirements. Yet their colleagues simultaneously refuse to acknowledge that their entire claim is based on a biological trace of Indigenous blood in their genetic story. When non-Indigenous allies try to educate their own peers about the harmful consequences of their actions, they are attacked for trying to control indigeneity.

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People in leadership positions who are connecting Indigenous hiring to equity and diversity and/or truth and reconciliation mandates aren’t identity policing by ensuring that the people they hire are Indigenous. They are simply ensuring that their actions meet their stated goals and outcomes and are respecting Indigenous sovereignty. This is responsible leadership and good governance. Indigenous identity isn’t that complicated. What is complicated, however, is undoing organizational cultural norms that have permitted people with false claims to indigeneity to hold so much space for so long.

Dr. Celeste Pedri-Spade, Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation
Associate Professor and QNS in Indigenous Studies
Queen’s University

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