Indigenism and Identity Politics

Indigenous peoples, like some ethnic groups, derive much of their identity from histories of state-sponsored genocide, forced settlement, relocation, political marginalization, and various formal attempts at cultural destruction.

Quote from “The Origins of Indigenism: Human Rights and the Politics of Identity” by Ronald Niezen (2003)

Deriving our identity from our colonial oppression is a dangerous but all too common practice. While it can make “indigenous” people feel united by some common experience, it can also serve to divide our people as we increasingly depend on colonial notions to forge new identities at the expense of our traditional identities. Our nation-building options are severely limited by our endorsement of colonial labels such as “Quebec Cree,” “Ontario Cree,” “Treaty 9 Cree,” etc. It might seem simplistic, but rejecting these notions is such a fundamental issue that our future as a nation depends on it.

Legal Control and the JBNQA

In 1870, the Hudson’s Bay Company surrendered its charter to the British Crown, receiving £300,000 in compensation. By doing so, the territory they called Rupert’s Land was transferred to the British Crown, who then granted the Dominion of Canada legal control, but only on the condition that treaties be negotiated with the indigenous nations. In other words, Rupert’s Land was never “owned” by the Company or by the British Crown and the treaties were meant to solve this sticky situation.


Rupert’s Land

This led to the numbered treaties in the west, but the situation in the east took a slightly different turn. In 1895, Canada created the District of Ungava out of the eastern portion of Rupert’s Land.


District of Ungava (1895)

In 1898, the adoption of the Quebec Boundary Extension Act transferred the southernmost portion of the District of Ungava (excluding offshore islands) to Quebec, extending the latter’s border north to the Eastmain River.


District of Ungava (1898) after its southern region was transferred to Quebec

In 1912, another Quebec Boundary Extension Act was passed, transferring the rest of Ungava’s continental land to Quebec. As for the offshore islands, they were transferred to the Northwest Territories.

For the next 60 years or so, the Governments of Quebec and Canada basically acted like they had actual legal control over our homeland, but it was all fiction. No treaty was ever signed and there definitely never was a military conquest, nor a large movement of people who colonized and by de facto took over. In the 1960s, indigenous peoples were still the majority and legal control had yet to be secured by Canada as requested by the British Crown in 1870. In other words, ᐃᔨᓂᐤ ᐊᔅᒋᔾ (often stylized Eeyou Istchee) was not legally part of Canada when Quebec embarked on its James Bay Project in the late 1960s. That was a major factor in the court’s decision that led to the negotiation of the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA). That is also why the boundaries of the agreement extend beyond traditional Cree territory to include that part of Anishinabe country located in what is now know as Abitibi. In other words, the Quebec government intended on legally securing the land transferred to it illegally in the Quebec Boundary Extension Acts of 1898 and 1912. In the process, it trampled over Anishinabe rights.


Territory covered by the JBNQA – note how it matches the territory of the District of Ungava

This last point is today an issue of contention as the Anishinabek often incorrectly blame Cree people themselves for overstepping their own territorial limits in the southern part of the territory. This legal delineation of the territory by Quebec would also lead to problems in the region where the lands of the Ouje-Bougoumou, Mistissini, and Piyekwakami people meet in the southeast and where the lands of the Waswanipi and the Opitciwan meet in the south. These five closely related Cree-speaking peoples would continue to find themselves dealing with the consequences of the JBNQA’s boundaries throughout the following decades. The boundaries between the Ouje-Bougoumou and Mistissini lands would eventually be settled officially in 2014. But the problematic boundary between their lands and that of the Piyekwakami, a people excluded from the JBNQA and instead covered by the Indian Act, would unfortunately inspire a deepening political divide that continues to cast the beneficiaries of the treaty as guilty of territorial aggrandizement. A similar situation would transpire between the Waswanipi and the Opitciwan, only the former being beneficiaries of the treaty. But nothing can be further from the truth. In fact, the problem itself has always lied in the foreign concept of boundaries that were imposed where peoples’ lands traditionally overlapped. Instead of addressing these traditional overlaps by creating shared buffer zones, boundaries were delineated where the distinction between treaty beneficiaries and non-beneficiares have become starkly apparent in regards to their respective rights to harvest.

The key, therefore, to understanding and solving these issues lies on the one hand in the recognition of these shared overlaps and on the other hand with an understanding of the colonial governments’ need to acquire legal control over our lands. Casting this as a problem between various indigenous peoples instead of an issue between indigenous peoples and foreign colonial governments continues to divide and weaken the position of the various indigenous peoples involved.

It is also this need for legal control that would eventually have the governments dealing with the offshore islands mentioned earlier. These would be subject to a Offshore Islands Agreement in 2009, thus paradoxically recognizing our right to these islands while simultaneously legalizing Canada’s control over them.


Offshore islands covered by the Agreement Between the Crees of Eeyou Istchee and Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada Concerning the Eeyou Marine Region (2009)

Without these treaties, Canada’s control over our lands would never have been legal. The Cree in northern Quebec would basically become, legally, Canadian citizens in 1975 with the signing of the JBNQA. We may now be Canadian citizens, but we are also Status Indians. If it weren’t for the signing of the JBNQA, this second-class type of citizenship would ensure that our communities remained as poor, underdeveloped, and controlled by Canada the way the rest of Cree country is. In fact, it is this distinction that underpins the widening divide between communities covered by the treaty and neighbouring communities who, aside from feeling robbed of a portion of their traditional territories, have to deal with the indignity of answering to the Indian Act. It may be Canada Day today, but to somehow express pride in being “Canadian” is a sad reflection of how little we actually know and understand about how this colonial state has and continues to divide our people and oppress those outside the territory covered by the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement.

Comforting Thoughts

Hubris and ignorance often beget cynicism and cultural nationalism, two impediments to the acquisition of real political power. Cynics doubt that anything done has been done right, while cultural nationalists maintain that nothing should be done, save for sweating, smudging, dancing, and singing. Oh, how comforting a thought that must be to the overseer that such attitudes and beliefs prevail in Cree country!

The Indian in the Child



The White Man never could have killed the Indian in the Child

Despite a plan to sanitize and civilize the wild

He couldn’t have succeeded and the reason is because

He couldn’t find the Indian – the heathen never was

But on the other hand the child was definitely real

In order to withstand the torture he’d learn not to feel

As he was educated by a dedicated host

To survive he simulated what was hated most

The Indian was born when the child forgot his name

Whatever he was told he was he certainly became

So while he couldn’t be himself he knew he wasn’t White

So he had to be an Indian – he couldn’t win the fight


What a Word Really Means

We can tell you don’t like us, we really do get it
We’re just inconvenient – Thomas King said it
“The Indian’s dead” is a myth that’s embedded
But our numbers keep growing – death is not where we’re headed

We just want some respect and little autonomy
But you falsely claim it would ruin your economy
What can we say to these Matthew McConaughey‘s
Speaking out in favour of racial taxonomies?

Have I stepped out of line? Am I hitting him low?
I mean, surely a team name is hardly Jim Crow!
Should I tell my boy as I’m watching him grow
That those words of abuse really honour him though?

I think we all know what a word really means
That the world hasn’t changed as much as it seems
That in spite of her hopes or a beautiful dream
An Indian girl might end up in a stream

She’ll be found in the water, her body immersed
And I’ll pray that my daughter will not be as cursed
As the costume selection on the 31st
Or the Dsquaw collection by Canada’s worst

These Indian women they fill me with awe
My mother, my sister; if only you saw
But he, Jesse Eisenberg, sees only flaws
to him all these women are nothing but squaws

He’ll get all defensive and bring up the fact
It really means ‘woman‘ we shouldn’t react
Would he say it’s like nigger – Spanish for ‘black’?
Let him call someone that and he’ll likely get smacked

You should know we speak English, we’ve gone to your schools
So we’ll walk off the set if you take us for fools
We’re done being props, extras, or tools
Your game is played out, we’ll be making the rules

Pam Palmater on Proposed Bill c51

Pam Palmater spoke to the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security this week about the proposed Bill c51. Her speech, presented on the morning of March 24, made clear her opposition to the proposed bill. Palmater, who is an award-winning social activist, lawyer, and professor, reveals that she is monitored by CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service), Indian Affairs, and the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) due to her involvement in social activism. If the civil rights of law-abiding citizens such as herself are already undermined by various governmental agencies, she frankly opines that legislating Bill c51 would increasingly threaten our collective civil rights. Her presentation to the committee can be watched below.

Romeo Saganash, Member of Parliament for the Québec riding of Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou, concurs by stating that the provisions of this proposed bill appear to be a threat to the rights guaranteed under Section 35 of the Constitution Act. Adding that the governments of this country, for the past 150 years, have always been adversaries of aboriginal peoples, Romeo points out that issues regarding aboriginal rights have always been viewed as “police issues.” He therefore asks Palmater if she thinks this proposed legislation would “make matters worst for indigenous peoples in this country,” offering her an opportunity to expound on her position. Her response can be viewed below.

Steamed Pudding and Drum Songs

Bon_anniversaire_346It may seem reasonable to assume that the idea of celebrating birthdays was introduced to our people by Europeans. We certainly weren’t baking cakes, lighting candles, singing Happy Birthday to You, and handing out gifts to birthday boys and girls back when we lived in bark tepees and moss-covered lodges. Still, the fact remains that our language has a word to denote these anniversaries and this word, tipiškamowin, is identical across many Cree and Anishinabe dialects. This certainly suggests that the concept is older than European immigration into our country. But if cakes, candles, songs, and gifts were introduced only recently, I’m left wondering how our ancestors celebrated and kept track of birthdays.

Traditionally, our people reckoned the passing of a year by observing lunar cycles and the passing of seasons, but the fur trade quickly convinced our ancestors of the need to adopt a more consistent method. As a result, the modern Gregorian calendar has been in use throughout Cree country for centuries now and it would have been relatively easily to keep track of birthdays since its introduction. Prior to that, however, our fairly consistent lunar reckoning was probably enough to approximate birthdays to the correct month. In a language where months are moons and years are winters, I suppose our people were probably not so concerned with the right date as they were with the right time.

Our elders recount how, in their youth, birthdays were celebrated for children, but not adults. The celebrations called for a traditional feast where every family in the camp was invited. Steamed pudding was the desert of choice and the men would play the drum as they honoured the child with their songs. The people, of course, would dance as well. The steamed pudding would be distributed to all present and if the birthday happened to take place at a settlement, the child was expected to go from house to house to offer slices of pudding or other baked goods that would have been purchased from the local trading post. One particular elder confessed how highly she esteemed her father’s songs on her birthday. No gifts were given, no candles were blown – the songs are what touched her heart.

How much of this could be considered traditional as opposed to foreign is uncertain, but a change has certainly occurred in the last few generations such that our birthday celebrations now closely resemble the American format. Instead of a traditional feast, the menu usually includes hot dogs and soda pops. Instead of honouring the child with a drum song, we now sign the generic Happy Birthday to You. Instead of a plain steamed pudding, our children demand ever more elaborately decorated birthday cakes filled with sugar. Instead of imparting the value of generosity by having the child walk from house to house to distribute the desert, we now foster the child’s selfishness by showering him with gifts. I can’t help but feel that perhaps our birthday celebrations have changed for the worst.

Two weeks ago, we celebrated my baby’s 10th birthday. Wanting to make it special for her, we surprised her with a group of her friends at a local restaurant. Fast food was served, Happy Birthday to You was the song of choice, an elaborately decorated birthday cake was served, candles were blown out, and gifts were received. My daughter, of course, was ecstatic. Personally, however, I had that recurring feeling that my child is being groomed for this consumer society rather than participating in the life of her community. Looking at her half-eaten birthday cake, I made a decision. I walked over to my daughter and told her we wouldn’t be taking the leftovers home, but that she would distribute a slice to every occupied table in the restaurant. She complied, disappointedly, until she brought a slice to a table of Cree people. The elderly woman at the table asked what the cake was for and was elated to find out that my daughter was distributing her birthday cake, just like in the old days. Immediately, she reached into her purse and pulled out a 20$ bill. Needless to say, my daughter distributed the remaining slices with a beaming smile on her face. I wonder if she realizes that she’ll be knocking on doors come next year?