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2.1: The Construction of Indigenous Identity- A Healing Journey

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    Dr. Carrie Bourassa[1]

    As a scholar, I write about the construction of Indigenous[2] identity and the effects on the health and wellness of Indigenous Peoples and, in particular, Indigenous women. I was honoured to present at the Missing Women’s Conference hosted by the University of Regina and First Nations University of Canada in August 2008. I was asked to provide a written submission for the conference report, and I do so not only as a scholar, but as a Métis woman who is on her own healing journey. I will speak first-hand about the effects that the social construction of my identity has had on me with the hope that readers will understand that colonization still lingers in our country and that colonial legislation continues to affect the daily lives of Indigenous Peoples and, in particular, Indigenous women.

    I will begin with a quote from my Kookum (grandmother), Elder Betty McKenna.

    “We are like trees. Our roots are put down very deep. And we take things from the four directions and we take them into our lives. And if you pull us up by the roots, we are lost. We have to go back and find those roots, find those beginnings that are strong so that we can live a good life.”

    I believe identity is something that many people take for granted. If you grew up secure in who you are with a strong value system and a sense of pride, then likely you haven’t ever had to examine the concept of identity. However, for Indigenous Peoples and, indeed, for any people who have experienced colonization, identity becomes a very important issue and one that affects our health and well-being. There are reasons that Indigenous Peoples have the highest rates of chronic and infectious disease, the highest levels of poverty, the lowest levels of education and the highest incarceration rates in Canada (Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples 1996). The experience of colonization has contributed to the various maladies that we face. One central concept of colonization in Canada was the policy of assimilation. Assimilation was official government policy from 1876 to 1973 (Elias 2002) and the goal was to ensure that Indigenous Peoples and, more specifically, First Nations People would cease to exist. In essence, they would be stripped of their identities.

    Canada is the only nation in the world to formally define, in legislation, Aboriginal people (Armitage 1995). The formal definition began originally by defining “Indian” in 1876 via the Indian Act. With its passage in 1876, the Indian Act would become the primary tool of assimilation used by the new Dominion government. The intent was to absorb Indian people into the body politic of Canada so that there would be no “Indian problem” and, in the words of Sir John A. Macdonald, “to wean them by slow degrees from their nomadic habits, which have become almost an instinct, and by slow degrees absorb them on the land” (Wotherspoon and Satzewich 2000).

    The Indian Act’s three central goals were to:

    1. define who Indians were and were not;
    2. manage and protect Indian lands;
    3. concentrate authority over Indian people (Indians were to be civilized and Christianized) (Wotherspoon and Satzewich 2000)

    A central element of the Act was to advance the government’s assimilation policy through the process of enfranchisement or losing one’s Indian status under the Act. For example, under Section 12(1)(b) of the Act, an Indian woman could lose her status if she married a non-Indian man. Women could not own property, and once a woman left the reserve to marry, she could not return because non-Indians could not reside on the reserve. This also applied to her children. However, if an Indian man married a non-Indian woman, he not only retained his Indian status, but the non-Indian woman would gain status under the Act and so would their children. This legislation stood until 1985, when revisions to the Act occurred as a result of the repatriated Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender. There were other ways for Indian people to lose their status—for example, if they received a university or college education, became clergy, or acquired any professional designation, lived outside of the country for five years or more, or if they wanted to vote (Bourassa, Hampton, McKay-McNabb 2005).

    Because of the sexist specification inherent in this legislation, ramifications of the Indian Act were more severe for Indigenous women than men, ramifications that continue to have severe impacts on our life chances today. Bonita Lawrence (2000) notes that the Act ordered how Indigenous Peoples were to think of all things “Indian” and created classifications that have become normalized as “cultural differences.” She argues that the differences between Métis (or other mixed ancestry people), non-status Indians, Inuit, and status Indians were created by the Act, and those differences became accepted in Canada as being cultural in nature when, in fact, they were social constructions imposed by legislation. It should be acknowledged that cultural distinctions did and do exist within and amongst Indigenous Peoples; however, those cultural distinctions were never categorized nor embedded in legislation prior to 1876 and did not have the same impact until commencement of the Act. Indigenous scholars agree that the Indian Act has controlled Indigenous identity by creating legal and non-legal categories that have consequences for rights and privileges both within and beyond Indigenous communities (Lawrence 2000; Mihesuah 1998).

    One important consequence of the Indian Act is that status Indian women (hereafter referred to as Indian women) who married non-Indian men lost their Indian status and their band membership under this Act. Prior to 1869, the definition of Indian was fairly broad and generally referred to “all persons of Indian blood, their spouses and their descendents” (Voyageur 2000, 88) After 1869, Indian women who married non-Indians were banished from their communities, since non-Indians were not allowed on reserves; this was true even if a divorce occurred (McIvor 1995). From the government’s perspective, these women had assimilated and had no use for their Indian status. The goal of assimilation was a central element of the Indian Act 1876 because it would advance the government’s policy of genocide through the process of enfranchisement: the removal of Indian status from an individual. Further, Indian women could not own property, and once a woman left the reserve to marry, she could not return to her reserve, so she lost all property rights. This legacy of disenfranchisement was passed on to her children (Wotherspoon and Satzewich 2000). In contrast, an Indian man who married a non-Indian woman not only retained his Indian status, but the non-Indian woman would gain status under the Act, as would their children. Even upon divorce or the death of her husband, a non-Indian woman who gained status under the Act through marriage retained her status and band membership as did her children (Voyageur 2000). In contrast, an Indian woman’s identity was defined by her husband and could be taken away. The imposition of this Eurocentric, sexist ideology on Indigenous families was a direct disruption of traditional Indigenous definitions of family. Under Indian Act legislation, enfranchised Indians were to become Canadian citizens and, as a result, they relinquished their collective ties to their Indian communities (Lawrence 1999). However, Indian women were not granted the benefit of full Canadian citizenship. Lawrence notes that, until 1884, Indian women who had lost their status could not inherit any portion of their husband’s land or assets after his death. After 1884, a widow was allowed to inherit one-third of her husband’s land(s) and assets if she “was living with her husband at his time of death and was determined by the Indian Agent to be ‘of good moral character’” (Lawrence 1999, 56). Furthermore, if a woman married an Indian from another reserve, the Act stated that she must follow her husband and relinquish her band membership to become a member of his band. If her husband died or if she divorced him, she could not return to her reserve, as she was no longer a member. These policies governing marriage and divorce were just a few of several ways that Indigenous women were stripped of their rights and privileges. For example, from 1876 to 1951, women who married Indian men and remained on the reserve were denied the right to vote in band elections, to hold elected office, or to participate in public meetings. However, Indian men were eligible to take part in all these activities (Voyageur 2000). Therefore, colonization was an instrument by which sexism and racism were created and reinforced on and off reserve lands, converging in diminishing power and resources available to Indigenous women in Canada.

    The passage of The Charter of Rights and Freedoms made gender discrimination illegal and opened the door for Indigenous women to challenge the Indian Act. In 1967, Indigenous women lobbied both the federal government and Indian bands for an amendment to the Act. Sharon McIvor (1995) notes that in Lavell v. Her Majesty (1974) Indigenous women challenged the government based on the argument that the government had been discriminating against Indian women for over 100 years via the Indian Act. The Supreme Court of Canada, however, ruled that since Canada had jurisdiction over Indians it could decide who was an Indian and that the Act was not discriminatory. Continual lobbying by Indigenous women finally resulted in action and the Act was amended in 1985 through passage of Bill C-31.

    However, despite the amendment, long-standing implications of the Indian Act for Indigenous women in Canada are still evident. As Lawrence notes, the government’s “social engineering process” (1999, 58) via the Act ensured that between 1876 and 1985 over 25,000 women lost their status and were forced to leave their communities. Lawrence states: “Taking into account that for every woman who lost status and had to leave her community, all of her descendants also lost status and for the most part were permanently alienated from Native culture, the scale of cultural genocide caused by gender discrimination becomes massive” (Lawrence 1999, 59). She notes that when Bill C-31 was passed in 1985, there were only 350,000 female and male status Indians left in Canada. Bill C-31 allowed individuals who had lost status and their children to apply for reinstatement. Approximately 100,000 individuals had regained status by 1995, but many individuals were unable to regain status. Under Bill C-31, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were not recognized as having Indian status and, in many cases, no longer identified as Indian (Lawrence 1999; Voyageur 2000). In addition, legislative decisions still blocked Indigenous women from full participation in their communities. For example, the Corbiere decision in 1999 (John Corbiere et al. v. the Batchewana Indian Band and Her Majesty the Queen) specified that Indian women living off-reserve could not vote in band elections because the Indian Act stated that Indian members must “ordinarily live on reserve” in order to vote. Thus, reinstated Indian women and their children were still at a disadvantage despite having legal recognition under the Act. In the end, the amendments did not repair the damage of previous legislation. Kinship ties, cultural ties and participation in governance were significantly disrupted. Long-term consequences for these women and their children would include the erosion of connections and rights that may have enabled them to work collectively to address social disparities.

    Lawrence’s reference to social engineering is an important one. The construction of Indigenous identity continues based on Bill C-31 and the revisions to the Indian Act. While blatant discrimination based on gender has been removed, identities are still shaped based on who one decides to have children with. Today, there are 6(1) and 6(2) status Indians; 6(1) Indians are those who had status before 1985 and 6(2) Indians are, for the most part, reinstated Indians. Consider the following.

    6(1) + Non-status = 6(2) child

    6(2) + Non-status = non-status child

    6(1) + 6(2) = 6(1)

    6(2) + 6(2) = 6(1)

    Thus, once again, depending on who you have a child or children with you may or may not retain status within the family. This “contemporary” legislation is clearly still racist and colonial in nature and continues to affect Indigenous people’s everyday lived experiences.

    It is ironic that the only recourse Indigenous women have is to appeal to the federal government and judicial system—the same government and system that instituted and upheld the sexist, discriminatory and oppressive legislation for over 100 years. This government holds different principles of justice than traditional Indigenous government, leaving women once again vulnerable to multiple oppressions. As Jan Langford writes, “If First Nations governments are built on the traditional Indigenous way of governing where equity is built into the system, there wouldn’t be a need for the ‘white’ ways of protecting rights” (1995, 35). However, band governing bodies are not working according to the traditional Indigenous way, instead using legislation to exclude women and protect male privilege.

    After fighting for the recognition of “Aboriginal rights” as per S. 35 of the Canadian Constitution, 1982, Indigenous women have found themselves at odds with some of their own community leaders. First Nations women and their children have not been welcomed back to their communities. Since the 1980s, when the federal government began the process of devolution of control to Indian bands, band governments have been able to refuse band membership. It should be noted that there has been an influx of status First Nations men and women going to their bands to seek membership. However, the government has consistently refused to increase funding to those bands. Cora Voyageur notes that some bands have not given band membership to people given status by the federal government because they do not have the resources or the land base to do so. Most reserves are already overcrowded, and many indicate that conditions will worsen if a rush of reinstated status First Nations people want to return to the reserve. Some reinstated status First Nations people are referred to as “C-31s,” “paper Indians” or “new Indians” (Voyageur 2000). In addition, many of these individuals may have previously been identifying with Métis or non-status Indian communities and were rejected not only by their First Nations communities but also by the communities with which they had identified. As Lawrence (1999) reports, that resistance to acknowledging the renewed status of those reinstated under Bill C-31 has been expressed throughout the Indigenous press.

    Furthermore, women have been formally excluded from constitutional negotiations as a result of patriarchal legislation that was applied in the federal government’s decision to exclude them. The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) has argued that the interests of individual Indigenous women should not be overshadowed by collective social values and operational mandates that may be enshrined in customary law (Jackson 2000). However, Indigenous women find themselves caught between bands who appeal to traditional practices to avoid action and a federal government that avoids involvement in deference to self-governance (Green 2001). In this way, government intrusion has succeeded in ensuring that divisions among Indigenous people are maintained, if not more firmly entrenched.

    Finally, as Lawrence (1999) argues, “Who am I?” and “Where do I belong?” are common questions among what she calls “people of mixed-race Native heritage.” She examines the impact of the Indian Act and Bill C-31 on Métis people in addition to status First Nations people and argues that the Act has externalised mixed-race Indigenous Peoples from “Indian-ness” and that this has implications for Indigenous empowerment. What this discussion reveals is that other Indigenous peoples have also been affected by these policies and this has likely had consequences for identity, empowerment, and quality of life of all Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Indeed, S. 35.1 of the Canadian Constitution (1982) states that “Aboriginal” is defined as “Indian, Inuit and Métis people of Canada.” The term “Aboriginal” or Indigenous that is now being used by some as it includes First Nations, Inuit, Metis and non-status First Nations Peoples in Canada might lead one to think that we are a homogenous group; however, we are very diverse and, as demonstrated above, the construction of our identities through colonial policy and legislation has led many to question their identity.

    A review of the post-contact history of Indigenous people in Canada clearly demonstrates that direct practices of genocide have transformed into legislated control of Indigenous identity and colonization-based economic, social, and political disadvantage that disproportionately affects Indigenous women. The government’s definition of who can be called First Nations, who cannot, and who must exist in liminal spaces where they are outsiders both on and off reserve lands clearly has implications for citizenship, but it also has implications for access to health services and for the ability to maintain health and well-being. With this knowledge, we must re-examine data that suggests Indigenous women are excessively vulnerable to cerebrovascular disease, coronary heart disease, diabetes, suicide, cancer, depression, substance use, HIV/AIDS and violence/abuse in light of how colonization and post-colonial processes have conferred risks to the health of Indigenous women, and barriers to accessing quality health care. These risks and barriers contribute to rates of morbidity and mortality that are well above those of the average Canadian woman.

    At a fundamental level, we understand that the colonization processes that began many years ago and continue today have material and social consequences that diminish access to social determinants of health for both Indigenous women and men. Yet, as we have discussed, women have been especially marginalized through these processes and their lower social status is reflected in diminished resources and poor health. Health consequences for women have been identified, but largely within a western model of equating health with the absence of disease or illness (Newbold 1998). The wounds that result from the cultural ambiguity imposed on Indigenous women are harder to catalogue. They are perhaps demonstrated to us in the plight of the Indigenous women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. This neighbourhood is home to thousands of Indigenous women who have been displaced from their reserve communities and extended families (Benoit, Carroll and Chaudhry 2003). They are socially and culturally isolated; live in poverty; and are often driven to substance use, violent relationships, and the street sex trade to survive and provide for their children (Benoit et al. 2003). Their material circumstances force acts of desperation, but the damage that has been done to their cultural identities can leave them without the foundation to cultivate health and well-being in their lives. Recent initiatives that have arisen out of results from the First Nations and Inuit Regional Health Survey (National Steering Committee) may offer some hope for these women, but they are still disadvantaged in benefiting from them. First, the development of culturally appropriate services will not be useful for women who have been excluded from the definition of that culture and excluded from the decision-making structures that will determine how Indigenous health resources are to be designed and distributed (Benoit et al. 2003; Grace 2003). Second, the research that serves as the foundation of these initiatives has not included many Indigenous women, both because women and children have been overlooked in the work (Young 2003), and because women who do not fit into research-defined categories of “Indian” or First Nations (derived from Federal categories) have not been included in the data collections.

    My Personal Healing Journey—Finding My Roots

    I began this paper with a quote from my Kookum who tells us to find our roots, our beginnings, so we can live a good life . . . so that we can be well. I have been on that journey since I was a child. The colonial policies and legislation stripped my family of our identity. It has taken me many years to find my roots and, I must admit, I am still on my healing journey. I would like to share what has assisted me to reclaim my identity . . . an identity that was taken, not given willingly. It began in earnest with the beat of a drum . . . ba boom, ba boom, ba boom . . .

    Some time ago, my Kookum began talking about different traditional methods of facilitating healing. So many Indigenous people experience ongoing loss and trauma and do not know how to grieve. They don’t know how to heal. I can relate to that. Loss of identity through assimilation policy (a polite term for genocide) remains one of the most difficult issues facing Indigenous Peoples. Like many other families, my family suffered identity loss and dealt with inter-generational pain, trauma and grief through addictions which often led to violence . . . which caused more pain, trauma and grief . . . and so the cycle goes. I have been trying to find a way to deal with trauma I experienced as a child for many years. Although I am proud to say I have reclaimed my identity and my culture, I have not been able to let go of the trauma. I decided that Kookum was right . . . if I didn’t know how to heal, then I had to at least try to learn how, and since what I had been doing wasn’t working, I began to embark on a healing journey with her help. I started to attend sweats and received my traditional name, Morningstar Bear. I earned my first feather and would go out on Mother Earth and pick medicines. One day I was out with Kookum, my eldest daughter, and my friend on the medicine wheel. We were having a great day just observing nature and picking medicine. We were walking up a hill when I heard singing and the beat of a drum. I was excited! I turned to the others and said, “Do you hear that? Where is it coming from?” I was sure that Kookum would lead us over the hill to see people singing at a drum. However, no one else heard it. I stopped and could hear the song— “way hi oh way oh way way oh”—and the drumbeat was strong . . . ba boom ba boom ba boom ba boom—I looked at Kookum in bewilderment. “My girl,” she said, “those are your ancestors calling to you.” It was one of the most profound moments of my life, yet I still didn’t fully understand her meaning . . . though it would become clear in time.

    Ba boom ba boom ba boom ba boom . . . you will be a strong child! Kicking your mama so hard . . . I was musing to myself as I let myself feel the vibrations of the drum. I closed my eyes to feel my baby kicking . . . not just kicking randomly but methodically to the beat of the drum. The first song ended . . . my baby stopped kicking. I laughed to myself . . . must be a coincidence . . . the second honour song starts . . . ba boom ba boom ba boom ba boom . . . My unborn child kicking to the beat of the drum.

    It was a good day . . . a day of celebration. We had just finished a sweat with Kookum and many of my students were there. Some were graduating and others were just starting out, but it was a good sweat and a beautiful night. My eldest daughter, who had received her name a year before, sweated with us and she sat on my knee as we feasted and visited with our friends and extended family. Then four of the women got out their hand drums and stood in front of the fire. One of them, a wonderful, strong Métis woman, said that they were singing a song in honour of my recent accomplishment . . . obtaining my Ph.D. They sang “Strong Woman” and, although I hadn’t heard it before, when they started singing to their drums it was like I had known it my whole life. I sang it with them, as did my daughter. I felt energy as I had never felt course through my body. My daughter held Kookum’s drum and beat in rhythm with the women as if it were the most natural thing in the world . . . and perhaps it was. She asked if I wanted to drum: “no, my girl, you drum.”

    I was blessed with a second daughter, my Lillie, the second miracle. I have lupus and having two children was something that was almost unimaginable. I had two very premature babies on the very same day—January 2nd—eleven years apart. I was in the midst of dealing with some terrible trauma from childhood. Abuse that no child should ever endure, but it was a beautiful distraction to feel my child moving within me. I was so happy but also never so worried as my disease had progressed since I had my eldest Victoria. I was warned that so much could go wrong. But I sought out prayers and my Kookum told me this child, whom we had already named Lillie, would be everything I could not be. Say the things I could not say, do the things I could not do. I reflected on that throughout my pregnancy. You see, I don’t share the details of my trauma often, but having Lillie, who is now nine years old, has helped me speak up. To have a voice and not be ashamed. I was sexually abused and, to be clear, I have not told her. But she has given me the courage to speak my truth and one day I know she will hear the truth, when the time is right. She will also know that it was she who helped me. Kookum was right. Lillie is a strong, feisty, truthful gift from Creator. When I was a child, I was scared all the time. I know I would not be here without my gramps who was my rock and, thankfully my protector until he passed when I was nineteen. I did not disclose that a female relative violated me in the most heinous way until I was thirty-five years old. I did not have a voice as a child. I was not courageous. I was lonely, confused, shy, trusted very few people, and I felt unloved. I yearned for love and affection. I prayed so hard for it. I felt lost and had no sense of identity. I often asked my gramps if I was adopted. I knew I wasn’t, but I asked it because that is how I felt. I didn’t feel part of my family with the one exception—my gramps.

    I honestly never thought I would have children. I couldn’t imagine that I had the skills to be a mother. The Elders that have come into my life have taught me that children are gifts and that they teach us. How true this is. Both of my girls have taught me so much. While it is certainly not their job to do so, both of my girls have helped me to heal and continue to do so in many ways because healing is not something that just ends. It will be a lifelong process. It really is a journey. Lillie has been drawn to ceremony from the time she could speak. I can remember her reminding me to put out “bacco” as we were rushing out the door and believe me, even if we were halfway to the babysitter, we were going back to put out prayers. She received her spirit name when she was five years old and fasted the entire day. She has many gifts and I know that she will never have to wonder who she is, and even if she is struggling in the rapids, which is bound to happen, she is being raised in ceremony and has a community of support surrounding her.

    Thinking back, I have been called to the drum many times yet was unaware of it . . . or maybe I was. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to let go of the pain. Maybe I was too comfortable with it. When you carry pain around with you your entire life it sometimes becomes so familiar that you wonder how you will feel if it’s gone. So, either consciously or unconsciously, I avoided the repeated calls to the drum until one day not long ago when my Kookum introduced the drum to a group of grieving women. We gather in friendship and we lay our burdens down. I’ve never felt such energy as I do when I am at the drum. This group of women, wounded warriors, gather often, and although we’ve never shared our hurts and loss in words, we share it at the drum as we lay down our burdens. I know that I cannot change history and I also know that I cannot stay in a place of anger and resentment. No one can heal for me . . . it is my responsibility. So, I am thankful for my women warriors, my sisters, my children, and for Kookum and for the strength I get from that drum. The drum is a gift from Creator, and it has allowed me to move forward. I am learning to grieve and that is the first step to being whole.

    Miigwetch, Kookum and all my warrior sisters.


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    1. This essay was originally published in Forever Loved: Exposing the Hidden Crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada and is published here with the permission of Demeter Press.
    2. While there is no generally accepted definition of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, we assert that the term Indigenous Peoples refers to First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples including non-status First Nations Peoples. These are the original inhabitants of Turtle Island, or what is now Canada.

    This page titled 2.1: The Construction of Indigenous Identity- A Healing Journey is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Brenda Anderson, Shauneen Pete, Wendee Kubik, and Mary Rucklos-Hampton via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.