By Deb Steel
Indigeneity is not a spectrum. It’s a sphere, said Rebecca Thomas, the afternoon keynote at the Indigenous Women’s Symposium at Trent University on Feb. 10.
She said she started to be able to understand her own Indigeneity after realizing that being Indigenous is non-linear.
Thomas, Slam poet, activist and Halifax’s first Indigenous poet laureate, shared her experiences and perspectives on the “iterations” of Indigenous identity, from the newly-realized ancestry.com-23-and-me-styled genetic identity to the status card “gold standard” of Indigeneity.
Thomas grew up from outside of her Mi’kmaq culture, coming into it later in life, because “I come from one of those families,” she says, which launched her into the first of a number of powerful rat-a-tat-tat poems laced throughout her talk.
“I come from one of those families where the mothers burn out and the fathers check out,” she read, head bowed over a sheet of paper, elbows tucked close to her sides, spine tense, fingers flashing, hand gesturing in time and for emphasis.
Her poem spoke to the conditions placed on everything she loved, where there was never enough money, and where “my mom was so white, but I was so tanned.”
Thomas’ father sat in the front row. He had grown up in the Shubenacadie Residential School.
The poem describes how his children would cry for him to stay, but didn’t understand he was “keeping history at bay.” But he did eventually come back and stay in Thomas’ life starting when she was a teen.
Thomas said she is more nervous speaking to a gathering of Indigenous peoples rather than non-Indigenous audiences.
She worries that “my identity won’t match” or be “validated by other iterations of Indigenous identity.”
“I’m worried that someone’s going to say ‘that’s really wrong’ or ‘you’re not enough’ here, or ‘you made a mistake’ or ‘you are not as authentic as you think you are’.”
It’s happened before when she was speaking in the Mi’kmaw language and mispronounced a word. The aggression that one man displayed at her mistake, publicly telling her to go away and learn the language properly, had her crying in her car in the parking lot.
‘Teach me’, she had asked him, but he said ‘no, that’s your job’.
That language shaming, however, birthed another poem, dedicated to that man, which she shared with the audience.
One of the biggest influences that altered Indigenous identity was residential schools, Thomas said. “It fundamentally fractured Indigenous kids.”
But even though residential school was very effective in what it did…. “we are still here,” but not without its ramifications. Thomas’ father’s understanding of his identity has shaped Thomas’ identity, and if she has children, they will be shaped by her understanding of identity, and then there is on-reserve and off-reserve identities and so on and so forth, she said.
The theme of the symposium was Articulating Indigenous Identities across the Seven Generations.
Is there a spectrum of Native-ness, she asked. If you live on reserve, and you drum and dance, have straight black hair and brown skin and brown eyes and have “the accent”, are you then the most Native? And if you live off reserve and you have curly hair and freckles and pale skin, are you the least Native?
When Thomas first thought about Indigeneity as a spectrum, she desperately sought to see more people like her along it, and figure out where she fit among them.
She talked about the gold standard of legitimacy—the status card. There is this notion, she said, that a government issued piece of identification makes people the most Indigenous. It’s colonization that makes Indigenous people view their identity through those cards. Indigenous people didn’t need those cards before contact to validate Indigeneity, she said.
Thomas noted that status cards carry an expiration date. “So, my Indigeneity, according to the Government of Canada… my status expires every 10 years. So how is (the card) one of the iterations of identity,” she asked. “And yet you see it. You see it all the time.”
Thomas has her status card number tattooed on the back of her arm, “so I will never expire.”
She says it’s her tongue in cheek protest tattoo.
“I will remove it when they abolish the Indian Act. It will probably be on there for a very long time,” she said.
Thomas said it’s not speaking the language, or hanging out with her community, or attending ceremony that denotes her Indigeneity to the Government of Canada. It’s the digits of her status card that does that.
But the Indigenous population also does its own policing of Indigenous identity in their communities. “He’s hard-core rez. He’s right traditional.”
“I have been called a band-card Indian,” Thomas said. “I’ve been called a wannabe, because I didn’t know who my community was, I didn’t know my connections. It took a long time. It took thick skin and showing up all the time for people to start validating who I was.”
Culture, connection, language and the experience of her community is where the validation starts.
She spoke of the misfortune of those who were removed from their communities through the Sixties Scoop or the child welfare system. She was fortunate to know where to show up to find her connections.
So who is entitled to an Indigenous identity, and at what point does the balance tip?
“I don’t know the answer,” she said. “My job is not to be the identity police,” she said, “except for him.” And a photo of author Joseph Boyden popped up on a screen behind her.
“Now, this gentleman here, ‘old Joe boy’, he claimed how many identities in all of his interviews?... At least a dozen. That’s pretty complicated.”
Throwing up her hands, she asks, “but who claimed him back?”
For Thomas, beyond knowing where you came from, a key to Indigenous identity is that the community claims you back?
“There’s a difference (between) having a genetic component, and having a lived experience, and an understanding of what that is.”