Indian Status: Why are we Still Hanging On?

After my daughter was born, her first official document, before a health card or long-form birth certificate, was an Indian status card. There were few reasons to rush, but I somehow needed her identity confirmed in lamination. This, despite the knowledge that status is an artificial designation created by a colonial government to eradicate Indians, in a legal sense at least.

So, as I think about whether status is still important in 2016, I struggle to untangle the contradictions between the assimilatory aims of status and my eagerness to sign another generation up. Settler pre-occupation with defining “the other” in the Americas reaches back to Columbus and the question of how to legally steal land and enslave New World black and brown people. Theologians decided that faith in God was the mark of the civilized, which conferred rights to land and life. Coincidentally, no faith could be found in the Americas. Indian meant heretic.

Further along in the story of status are the proto-Canadian Gradual Civilization Acts of the 1850s. They reflected similar ideas of a savage-civilized binary and encouraged First Nation people to accept citizenship by enfranchising (abandon status to become god-fearing farmers and honorary white men). To do otherwise meant a non-human designation, as the Indian Act proclaimed to decades later: “The term ‘person’ means an individual other than an Indian.”

From conception, status was meant as a temporary designation on the path to post-Indian. It sought to override authentic First Nation notions of belonging and identity and thereby erase the foundations of original governance and social structures. To a great extent, it has been successful, seen in the divisions between status and non-status Indians as well as the mass exclusion of First Nation women. The deployment and maintenance of status has been a tremendously effective tool for Canada in the efforts to unmake First Nations.

So why do many First Nation people still hold on?

I learned recently that a friend, after 25 years of bureaucratic wrangling, finally obtained her Indian status. She told me that she wept with joy. And even though she has close connections to her First Nation, it was status that allowed for a true sense of belonging. It meant she could live in the village, be buried there, have access to (limited) programs and services, and have benefit from aboriginal and treaty rights. (Or at least join the rest of the status Indians waiting for Canada to honour aboriginal and treaty rights).

Later, I was discussing all of the above with a small group of friends. Red and white certificates of authenticity in hand, it turned out we were all expired. One among us told a story about her recent trip to IKEA, where she tried to convince the cashier of her official Indian-ness in light of her card’s expiry date. She held the line up and argued and finally got that 8 per cent discount. The savings mattered. But I think there was something else too.

Gaining status or using status holds the federal government accountable for a history of neglect. It is a public shaming of the absurd nature of the Canada-First Nation relationship: “I survived genocide and all I got was this particleboard dresser!” It is a refusal to abdicate to the overbearing insistence among Canadians that our so-called special rights disappear. It is a small act of resistance, even if a potentially Pyrrhic one.

Of course, there are alternative forms of defining identity, membership and citizenship in communities. We have clan-based and other kinship systems, adoption processes and welcoming ceremonies – many of which are being revitalized at First Nations and in cities. When my community began thinking anew about the issue, we employed the concept edbendaagzijig. The translation is “those who belong” and comes from an old word for “the Creator.” So we belong to the creator or, in another translation, the land. We do not belong to the federal government.

Yet Indian administrators refuse to acknowledge that, deviate from the concept of status, or transfer control. First Nations likewise steadfastly refuse to disappear.

All of this means that Indian status remains important in 2016 and will endure for at least another generation yet.