Who belongs on a reserve? First Nations will decide (Co-authored with Jessica Deer)

n recent months, the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community of Kahnawake has re-opened discussion on its controversial 1984 membership law. The renewed debate has been accompanied by provocative developments: Protests outside homes, eviction notices sent to “foreign” residents, accusations of racism from the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, and a lawsuit challenging the membership law in court.

This fraught terrain has confused and outraged Canadians, partly because the story has lacked context and nuance in the media.

While unique in many ways, Kahnawake is one First Nation among many grappling with these issues. After the failure of the 1969 White Paper on Indian Policy and its assimilative prescription to eliminate Indian status and bands, the federal government has been pursuing a slightly amended policy of devolution: First Nations are asked to assume more administrative control of programs and services, from education and health care to housing and infrastructure, but with inadequate resources.

Corresponding to the devolution process have been revisions to the Indian Act as it relates to Indian status. From the “honorary white man” policy of the 1850s, Canadian legislation has intended to unmake Indians in the legal sense. Much of this strategy has focused on attacking women, removing their status if they marry a non-status Indian, which resulted in the disenrollment of tens of thousands of individuals who rightfully belonged within their nations. In post-Charter Canada, the Indian Act was successfully challenged and amendments in 1985 and 2011 partly ended the discrimination, precipitating a surge in the “official” First Nation population.

While much has been made of the “marry out, get out” provision at Kahnawake, the membership law, as well as many other First Nation membership laws, is more complex. The objective is to separate Indian status from band membership and take control of the latter from the federal government. “Membership” in this sense includes residency qualifications, electoral rules and treaty rights, eligibility guidelines on business operations, and even burial plot designation. In reserve politics, or “reserve nationalism” as Audra Simpson calls it, this might be described as citizenship and even immigration policy. In a general sense, it is about who belongs.

There are two extremes in this conversation. The “exclusive” membership perspective views lineage as the crucial qualification to belonging. Citizens must be descended from indigenous peoples, inculcated in indigenous culture. They exclude those with weak lineage or none at all, especially if taking up land or resources. Of course, communities today have increasing numbers of both groups. About three-dozen of those who share this conservative approach to membership at Kahnawake are responsible for taking the initiative to evict non-indigenous people from the community.

The “inclusive” perspective advocates for a more open community not necessarily delimited by strict ancestral connection but inter-community relationships. It is the far more common practice among indigenous peoples (extending the rafters of the longhouse, the ever-expanding circle, etc.). Non-indigenous people who can make a contribution to the community while reflecting indigenous values should be welcome. In the case of Kahnawake, a handful of these inclusive proponents are appealing to the Quebec Superior Court to protect this view.

In many ways, the debate revolves around claims of authenticity: A contentious notion after 150 years of Indian policies that have cultivated artificial governments and islands of reserved lands, imposed patriarchy and domesticated sovereignty. Indeed, indigenous peoples would be justified in evicting white people from the little land we have left if that were the case. But this is a crude simplification. Despite the opinions of pundits or politicians on the allegedly racist law at Kahnawake (or elsewhere), this is fundamentally about people passionately and earnestly working towards visions of community well-being amid very real, long-standing and external constraints. This is about striving to be Kanien’kehá:ka or Anishinaabe in a place traditionally hostile to that very proposition.