Monday, January 4, 2010

People always say “but you don’t LOOK like an Indian…”


On the weekend I had the pleasure of hanging out with my family for my niece Lilly’s 9th birthday party. I saw several of my cousins on my mom’s side of the family that I haven’t seen in a while, got to exclaim over several of the new generation and how big they are getting, and to dandle one of our newest family members in my lap for awhile (who coincidentally turns one on the same day as my sister – look out!). I also got to see one of my aunts, my mom’s middle sister, and of course shoot the shit with my brother, my sister-in-law, my sister and her husband and assorted other family members. Looking around the room the family resemblance is obvious – my mother’s family are very stockily built with wide, round faces, skin with an obvious yellow tint, wide, mobile mouths and loud, happy laughs. My father’s family are very tall – none of the men are under 6 feet – which is where my height is factored in but I look mostly like my mother’s side of the family.

I have lived off the reserve since I was 17, and have forever gotten the reflex remark on the part of new acquaintances, colleagues, and just-barely-met people who say, “You’re Indian? But you don’t LOOK like an Indian…”

First of all, what the hell does that mean? I don’t look like Disney’s Pocahontas? That’s not what most Indians look like anyway. And I don’t look like any of the stereotypical ideals of what an Indian woman is supposed to look like anyway. I’m 5’11”, I wear black almost exclusively and my hair is –well, it’s whatever colour I want it to be. And no, I don’t look like you think I’m supposed to because I’m a Kanienkehah’keh and we don’t look like Lakota, or Ojibway, or Cree or Nisga’a or the Mikmaaq. We’re a DIFFERENT people. Our language is different, we are related to the Cherokee more than the Ojibway or Algonkin, and besides, we’re the Children of Sky Woman and the proud followers of the Gayanashagowa. We call ourselves onkwehonwe, the real people. So that tells you something of my culture right there.

On my mother’s side I am privileged to trace my lineage in an unbroken line of Kanienkehah’keh women straight back to the Mohawk Valley and from there – who knows? On my father’s side I know there is a French woman – my paternal grandfather’s mother was originally from Montreal – a scandal at the time but probably more common than not – and my paternal grandmother’s grandfather was, according to family legend, an English nobleman who abandoned his New World family in the Mohawk Valley when he learned that his older brother had died and suddenly he inherited the family fortune. So see you around, nice Mohawk girl, it’s been nice knowing you, but cheerio and all that… My mother’s great-grandfather was a red-haired, blue-eyed white child who had been adopted by a Mohawk family and raised so thoroughly in our culture that he never spoke a word of English. I’m sure there are more settlers scattered throughout my family.

When you think about it, the reason that I am an “Indian within the meaning of the Indian Act, chapter 27, Statues of Canada (1985)” has nothing to do with that proud, fierce lineage of Mohawk Wolf Clan women on my mother’s side but everything to do with the fact that my father’s family stayed firmly on the side of the Indian Act that enabled them to keep registering its members to the Upper Mohawk band at Six Nations.

The reason I mention this, though, is that I have been thinking a lot about blood quantum. I’m not comfortable with the concept. I truly believe that it is the colonizer’s tool to actually destroy us. By determining Indian status through blood quantum the colonizer gets to define what a “status Indian” really is. And for a good portion of the colonial history we got registered that way because of who our father was, totally separating the Haudenosaunee from our reliance on tracing lineage matrilineally. That was obviously designed to weaken the proud Iroquois -- you can thank that bastard Duncan Campbell Scott, architect of the Indian Act and the residential school system for that (one day I’m going to look up his grave just so I can spit on it, but maybe that’s just being too hostile). He knew what making us realign our tribal membership by the father’s side would do to us as a people. I don't think he realized about the power of the aunties and the grandmothers on the fathers’ sides, though, because most of our people held on quite firmly to their beliefs as Iroquoian people quite happily, no thanks to Duncan Campbell Scott (*ptooey*).

But I’m alarmed at how many of our people are hung up on blood quantum and the unnecessary qualification of how much “blood” you have, as if that’s somehow going to make you a better person. O-kay. It has nothing to do with your blood but everything with how you live in your culture and the values that have instructed you, informed you as a functional, onkwehonwe person with all of your duties and responsibilities, and how you live in the world.

And yet in the wider culture there’s an interesting phenomenon at work, where I constantly get people telling me, “I just found out I had a great-great-grandmother/grandfather who was __________(insert tribe here), what should I do to claim my status?” For chrissakes, do I look like your community’s membership clerk? But in all seriousness, I’m glad for you that you take pride in this fact of blood, in this reclaiming of heritage, but I hate to disappoint you – unless your family back on your territory claims you as one of their own, and you work diligently to learn the languages, to learn our ways, to live on a reserve or community, you will never seriously be able to be a true part of indigenous culture. The colonial construct will not allow it. They want you to be a citizen of the colonial corporate franchise, not a proud member of an Indigenous nation. How else are they going to get the tax dollars out of you and your property?

This is why I think we need to re-vision the way we determine membership to our Bands, to our nations. We could base them on the Gayanashagowa, which basically states that “ If any man or any nation outside the Five Nations shall obey the laws of the Great Peace and make known their disposition to the Lords of the Confederacy, they may trace the Roots to the Tree, and if their minds are clean and they are obedient and promise to obey the wishes of the Confederate Council, they shall be welcomed to take shelter beneath the Tree of the Long Leaves.”

This picture is me with my mom and dad. Guess we don't look Indian to most people...I