Pretendians: Those who wrongly claim Indigenous identity
By Mikelle Sasakamoose a UCTE member – Local 20219
Grey Owl was the original pretendian.
Born Archibald Stansfield Belaney in Hastings, England in 1888, the British conservationist was not Indigenous. However, after moving to Canada in the early 1900s, becoming a trapper, and having relationships with a couple of First Nations women, one of whom was just a teenager, he started calling himself ‘Grey Owl’ and portrayed himself as the son of a Scottish man and Apache woman for the rest of his life.
For almost a decade, he acquired traditional knowledge from the young Mohawk Iroquois woman who he had an affair with and who he also duped into thinking he was Indigenous, and he used this information to inform his writing. Work he published under a false identity and lectured on in tours.
Taking up the first space offered to Indigenous people who were the original conservationists of this Native land.
Since, there have been others. Some, like Belaney, know the lie outright or there are those who choose to believe myths about who they wish they were, content to never seek out any evidence, although even if there were evidence ancestry does not equate identity.
APTN reports the definition of a pretendian is: A person who falsely claims to have Indigenous ancestry – meaning people who fake an Indigenous identity or dig up an old ancestor from hundreds of years ago to proclaim themselves as Indigenous today.
So what harm does that do?
In the public service, all one has to do is click a button to identify as Indigenous. Anyone can click it. Anyone with an old family story of an Indian princess or someone who just really feels like it. Anyone. And, no one will say anything. Clicking that button will give someone priority for positions and opportunities set aside for Indigenous people. This could mean jobs or this could mean valuable input into the development of policies or programs that directly impact Indigenous communities.
Last year, Breanna Lavallee-Heckert, a member of the Manitoba Metis Federation, resigned from her job in a Manitoba senator’s office, because she made a claim that a co-worker was falsely claiming an Indigenous identity. In fact, her co-worker, other colleagues, and the senator made her feel like she was “mentally unwell” for questioning the co-worker, who claimed to be a member of a controversial group that has failed to demonstrate the existence of a historic Metis community in the territory where it bases its claims.
Lavallee-Heckert struggled with having to share space with the co-worker, who was also celebrated for her work on amendments to the Indian Act. “There is just something grossly colonial about the thought of somebody falsely claiming a Metis identity working on amendments to the Indian Act,” said Lavallee- Heckert, in an interview with the CBC. In her resignation letter, Lavallee-Heckert wrote:
“Being exposed to someone actively stealing my identity and culture is one of the most humiliating and belittling things I have put myself through.”
In a time when it is advantageous to be Indigenous, it is not surprising that there would be pretendians in many industries. In the arts community, Joseph Boyden was called out by everyone, including his ex- wife, for falsely identifying as Indigenous, taking hundreds of thousands of dollars and as many hours of space set aside to support actual Indigenous artists. Although his ex-wife doesn’t entirely blame him.
“I actually don’t believe that he was solely responsible for the mythology of the Great Joseph Boyden,” said Amanda Boyden. “Years and years ago, when the machine began spinning his myth-story for his dust jacket it included the word Metis, I asked him why he’d let them say that and he categorically didn’t know that could be the case about his heritage, but explained that the word Metis meant ‘mixed’. And that he didn’t fully know his genetic history. I called him out on false advertising.”
More recently, film director Michelle Latimer, who claimed she was “Algonquin, Metis and French heritage from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg (Maniwaki), Que.,” admitted in emails to the CBC that she was “mistaken, and prematurely claimed a link without doing proper research to back up her belief.” This not only negatively impacted her career, but the careers of many Indigenous artists who were working or had recently worked on projects with her. She also took hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants set aside to support Indigenous artists.
Latimer later had two controversial genealogists affirm that she has Indigenous ancestry dating back hundreds of years. Based on a potentially centuries old connection, she is suing two First Nations journalists for defamation and continues to claim an Indigenous identity. Darryl Leroux, non-indigenous scholar and author of Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity, said: “Latimer has two Algonquin women ancestors who were born before 1650, which is about average for white French
descendants. As a comparison I’m related to these two women, and a third Algonquin woman born in 1632, and Prime Minister Trudeau is related to one of them. That doesn’t make you Metis, nor does that make you Algonquin. Full stop. Period.”
Closer to home, Simon Fraser University galleries curator, Cheyanne Turions, was also called out for accepting more than $100,000 worth of grants for Indigenous curators, when she could not prove any of her family history claims to being “mixed Indigenous-settler.” Earlier this year, University of B.C. professor Amie Wolf sent death threats to her detractors when she was outed for falsely claiming an Indigenous identity by the Twitter account @nomoreredface. She was fired from her job as an Indigenous education lecturer at the university.
So why are we incensed? Shouldn’t we be flattered?
I could not possibly put it better than Nisga’a and Kwakwak’awakw activist and scholar Ginger Gosnell- Myers, in a column she wrote for The Tyee:
“Such tenuous, unsupported and sometimes fake claims set a standard of success that is hard to catch up to. The people making them have white privilege fueling their professional craft – all the time in the world to hone their talents, no family emergencies, no PTSD from residential school residuals holding them back. No endless parade of funerals, health issues, lateral violence showdowns, internalized shame, a life of racism both big and small in their lives to contend with every day. Able to show the world just how high an Indigenous person can rise if they just demonstrate a strong work ethic – one of the ‘good ones.’
No wonder decision-makers love pretendians. Pretendians provide them with all the dreamy Indigi-benefits without the dismal realities of Indigenous lived experience . . . This is not a victimless offence. It is a continuation of white privilege and cultural genocide – quite simply, it’s wrong.”