Robert Jago: Criminalizing 'Pretendians' is not the answer; we need to give First Nations control over grants

The solution to the problem of Pretendians and their theft of resources isn’t to fine them or to jail them, it’s to make them answerable to actual Indigenous people

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Over the weekend, CBC cancelled one of its few hit shows: the Indigenous-centred drama, “Trickster.” It’s a decision that baffles the mind, but at the root of it is a problem that plagues “Indian Country” today: “Pretendians,” non-Natives who pretend to be Indigenous for material gain.

The Indigenous arts community in Canada recently proposed making pretending to be an Indigenous person a crime. However, by doing so, Indigenous activists would hand even more power to non-Native bureaucrats to regulate identity — it would mean, in essence, asking non-Natives to choose which is the real Tonto.

I mention Tonto for a reason. In 1973, the Associated Press wrote one of the first stories about the problem of racial stereotyping in film and television. Zeroing in on Indigenous people, the AP declared that, “Indians have been getting the worst of it from the earliest years of Hollywood,” having been portrayed unsympathetically as “blood-thirsty redskin(s).”

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Jay Silverheels, the actor who played Tonto in “The Lone Ranger” was interviewed for the article. He concluded that, “The Indian will never get a break until there are films that are written, directed and played by Indians.”

By the 21st century, Silverheels’ solution had become policy in Canada, and numerous TV shows and movies had been created with Indigenous representation at every level. Or so we thought. As it turns out, the “break” that Indigenous people have been trying to get for decades has too frequently been stolen by Pretendians. In the 2013 film adaptation of “The Lone Ranger,” for instance, Tonto was played by Johnny Depp, a white actor who has made unverified claims of having Cherokee and Creek ancestry.

“Trickster” showrunner Michelle Latimer had, until recently, been celebrated as one of Canada’s most successful Indigenous producers. But in December, reporting revealed that Latimer’s ties to the Indigenous community were flimsy at best. According to reports, her most recent unambiguously First Nations relative dates back to when the Holy Roman Empire was still a going concern. Latimer disputes this, and has issued the CBC a notice of libel.

Yet Latimer isn’t the first person accused of being a Pretendian. The list of recent cases is long and includes authors, musicians and even those involved in politics.

The Pretendians issue is pressing for people such as Haida filmmaker Tamara Bell, as these ethnic frauds are eating her lunch. Earlier this month, Bell proposed the creation of an “Indigenous identity act.” Speaking to Windspeaker News, Bell explained: “Our community needs something done in response to all of this stealing. It’s just horrible.”

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One has to wonder why, even today, so many people are willing to impersonate a member of a racial group that has been so harshly discriminated against. The reason is found in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 15(2) of the charter states that the equality rights asserted and protected in Section 15(1) do “not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups.”

Because of the racism experienced by bona fide Indigenous people, non-Native government has, per the charter, created a raft of programs and grants to try and level the playing field and make equality a reality. But where there is a dollar to be had, there will be an unscrupulous person eager to do whatever it takes to get at it.

The closest analogy to this situation would be someone dressing in rags to get a free lunch at a soup kitchen. The rags in this case is the poverty and discrimination faced by many Indigenous people, and the soup kitchen is the resource-starved Canadian cultural sector.

Bell’s proposed law has parallels in the United States, and the case for it is compelling. But such solutions don’t address the core of the problem, which is that it is generally non-Natives who are being tasked with distributing the grants.

In order to do so, non-Natives must first decide who meets the most basic requirement — i.e., who is actually Indigenous? From the existence of these identity controversies, it might seem like the question of who is Indigenous is complex, hazy and impossible to understand.

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However, Indigenous identity is no more confusing than getting a health card or a driver’s license. Each of the more than 600 recognized Indigenous governments in Canada have their own rules to determine who is a member. Most of them are codified, and some are even searchable online. Among real Indigenous people, there isn’t any grey area: it is clear who is Indigenous and who is not.

All the ambiguity on this issue comes from the Pretendians — a group that, being non-Native themselves, have a deep cultural understanding of how their people (the same ones who give out the grants) think. They know to appeal to long lost family histories, to talk of DNA tests and to push for self-identification as the gold standard for distributing resources.

None of the Pretendians would last five minutes before a First Nations band council membership committee — they’d be laughed out of the room. But to the non-Natives who give out grants and awards, they look very convincing (do a Google Images search of the phrase “Indigenous scholarship recipient” and you’ll see what I mean).

Bell’s proposed Indigenous identity act risks creating a worse problem. Her law would legitimize, and even expand, non-Native control over our identities and who gets to represent our cultures. These non-Natives are the same people who created and perpetuated the Pretendian problem over the objections of Indigenous people. How could they be trusted?

While the issue of identity is specific to Indigenous people, the problem of control over our own affairs is one that Canada was made to solve. Canada was created with two cultures in mind, and with institutions set up to serve those two cultures separately. The problem of distributing resources fairly was made the responsibility of the governments of each culture; it was not left to the bureaucrats on just one side.

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The solution to the problem of Pretendians and their theft of resources isn’t to fine them or to jail them, it’s to make them answerable to actual Indigenous people, not their fellow non-Natives. What has worked for Canada’s two founding nations can also work for First Nations. Cultural funding, grants and scholarships ought to be distributed through Indigenous governments, using their established citizenship and membership criteria. And the question of identity should be left where it belongs: with actual Indigenous people.

National Post

Robert Jago is a Montreal-based entrepreneur and writer, he is a citizen of the Kwantlen First Nation.

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