That is both an easy question and a tough one all at the same time. It is an easy question because identity is generally about self-identification – i.e., you are who you say you are. It is also a tough question because one’s identity can also be reinforced or damaged by whether one’s identity is also legally and/or politically recognized. That is to say, if one identifies as Mi’kmaq, but the Mi’kmaq Nation does not recognize that person, this makes the continued assertion of one’s identity more difficult. Similarly, the Indian Act’s status provisions have been imposed on Aboriginal peoples for so long that even some Aboriginal people question an individual’s Aboriginal identity “credentials”, if they don’t hold a status card.
Yet, it is important to remember that legal recognition as a status Indian has absolutely nothing to do with Aboriginal culture, heritage, traditions, customs, or practices. It is an administrative tool used by Canada to determine who can have access to their programs and services. It was originally designed to eliminate the “Indian problem” and ensure the eventual assimilation of all Indians. But, if status was only about programs and services, it would not be as significant as it actually is. Because status as an Indian also determines, for the majority of bands in Canada, who can be a member of a band and therefore who can live on reserves; access band programs and services and sometimes cultural activities, then status carries more weight than the government is willing to acknowledge. It is for this reason, that status has such significance in determining Aboriginal identity.
In my opinion, Aboriginal identity should be first and foremost about self-identification. There can be no greater sign of loyalty and pride in one’s Aboriginal Nation than to publicly proclaim to the world one’s identity as Mohawk, Cayuga, Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and so on. There are a great many people who never give a thought to their identity or who take their identity for granted because it is not threatened in any way. Part of rebuilding our Aboriginal Nations is to rebuild pride in who we are and that includes celebrating those who embrace their Aboriginal identities.
We should also be mindful of the fact that not everyone has the same basis for asserting their Aboriginal identity.
For example, some Aboriginal people who live on reserve are secure in their identity as Aboriginal peoples because they live on the same land as their large extended families and friends who share a common history and culture. These on-reserve Aboriginal may not know how to speak their traditional language, participate in their traditional practices and customs or even know much about their common history. Their connection to their reserve land can be enough for some to be secure in their identity.
There are other Aboriginal people who do not live on a reserve, but who live on their traditional territories. They may also hunt and fish and know a great deal about the history of their vast territories. Their connection to their traditional territory is not limited by reserve boundaries and can be passed on to their families and others who also live on their traditional territories. That connection to their traditional lands that were shared with their ancestors can be all it takes to secure their Aboriginal identities.
There are still other Aboriginal people who, for school, work or otherwise no longer live on a reserve or on their traditional territories. But they may know their culture, can speak their traditional language, partake in traditional practices and ceremonies and honour traditional values. That cultural connection gives supports their identity security despite being off a land-base. They may also contribute to their community through employment or advocacy activities for example. This sense of loyalty and pride in who they are and their community may also add to their identity.
Aboriginal children who were taken away from their parents at a young age and adopted out of the family and even out of their communities may have no ties to their community. They may not know their birth parents, their culture, treaties, land, language or traditions. But they know where they came from and may be determined to learn more and re-establish a connection with their community. They may only have a familial connection to their identity, but for them that might be enough to sustain their identity as an Aboriginal person until they can learn more.
Who is to say that any one of these individuals is “more” Aboriginal than the next? Why can’t identification as a Mohawk, Cayuga, Mi’kmaq or Maliseet include any combination of the factors noted above? I would think that given our Nations’ need to rebuild, that welcoming all those who are proud to publicly assert their identity and proclaim some degree of loyalty for their Nation is a great deal more valuable than what is offered by those who take their identity and their community for granted. Instead of reducing Aboriginal communities to clubs based on blood quantum or status; we should allow the possibility that our communities are something more than races waiting for inevitable extinction.
If that is the case, and we, as communities of Aboriginal peoples assert our Nationhood and even our right to be self-determining or sovereign nations, don’t we also require legal and political recognition as such? If we deny legal and political recognition to our own citizens because they do not fulfill blood quantum levels or they don’t have status cards, how can we expect Canada or any other country to see our people as the Nations? Not only does exclusion of our rightful citizens speed up our own legal extinction, we will be excluding the very citizenship base which has shown pride and loyalty in our Nations.
We need proud, loyal, passionate citizens to dedicate their time and energy toward rebuilding our Nations and maintaining our collective identities for our future generations. If we rely on those who take their identity for granted, we create an uncertain future for our children. Perhaps we need to think more objectively about what it means to identify as an Aboriginal person and not be so quick to exclude our own. We may be excluding our future leaders.