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If We Natural People of the Earth
Could just wear the face of brotherhood
Boozhoo, indinawemaaganidog! Aaniin! That is to say hello, all of my relatives! Welcome to another edition of An Irritable Métis. I’m sitting here reflecting and writing and listening to the soundtrack to “Living with the Unknown” from Emergence Magazine. It’s cool enough, if disappointingly short. I’m mostly thinking about the audio quality, as I’m listening via a cheap little Victrola one-piece portable turntable that I have here in my room. When I fantasize about ever having any real disposable income, I daydream about setting up the kind of soundsystem that would make most audiophiles’ mouths water. Some gorgeous old tube power amp that weighs a ton, a turntable, a CD player, a cassette deck, and maybe, maybe, the means to stream garbage from outer space.
There is something to be said though about the AM radio-style sound, particularly when it is analog, like from a vinyl record, as I’m experiencing here. It takes me back to my formative music-listening days of junior high, playing the radio in my bedroom, or on the old Radio Shack all-in-one stereo I bought with my first ever 4-H check. At any rate, it’s better than shitty, phasey-sounding digitally-streamed music ala Spotify like I tend to get out here in the backwaters of the rural internet hinterlands, if you ask me.
Anyway, I know I promised my next newsletter would be a photo essay thing from the CSKT Reservation for paid subscribers only but I haven’t gotten to that; the subject of this newsletter captured my attention and here we are. Still, if you don’t want to miss out on the photo essay, or want to tantalize a hardscrabble writer with fantasies of a potential liquidity that manifests as audio bliss, well….
The Eighth Fire
The other day I saw a vision of the world I wish I lived in. It was a youngish woman – she could have been in her thirties, maybe even her forties. She was waiting mid-block to cross the street as I passed. When our eyes met she smiled. She had light brown skin, dark hair, and facial features that could have emerged from any number of combinations of ethnicities ... or even a single one. She was of average build and dressed stylishly in the vein of one who is a crafty thrifter and not a big box or department store shopper. She could have been from anywhere or everywhere, and if I heard her speak any language might have emerged from her tongue and I would not have been surprised.
Saying she was a vision from a world I “wish” I live in is only partly true. I do live in this world – one where mixed-race people are celebrated, where we don’t care about skin color and nationality and all these boundaries that separate us – but only some of the time, and in only some of the places I frequent. It is a world under assault it seems, given the rhetoric of hate from the right, and even from the left in some places. People doubling down on differences rather than our similarities.
When I say, “Hello, all my relatives,” it is because I truly believe we are all relatives. Particularly all of us human people, but the nonhuman people as well. We are only different because of where we live, and the languages we speak, and the cultures that spring from these differences. Beautiful differences! Ultimately we are more alike than different, and the differences and how we share them make our world beautiful, not ugly. This is Anishinaabe belief; this is Ojibwe belief. As a Métis person whose world view leans to the end of the spectrum that embraces Indigenous spirituality, this is my belief.
We have drifted so far from this understanding, in a way that was prophesied to the Anishinaabe people. This is what we call the Seven Fires prophesy. The first six fires speak of our migration from east to west, and finding sustenance in the form of wild rice in the place where we ultimately arrive. The fires speak of challenges we will face, and of the coming of the “Light-skinned race.” Depending on how you read the prophecies, one may see the coming of Christianity, and the hardships that follow as we face the threat of losing our language and culture. But ultimately we arrive at a grave opportunity. “In the time of the Seventh Fire,” the late Edward Benton-Banai writes, “a Osh-ki-bi-ma-di-zeeg’ (New People) will emerge. They will retrace their steps to find what was left by the trail.”
This woman I saw is to me a vision of the New People. People who have left all these divisions behind. We have been mixing ethnicities as long as people have been encountering each other across great distances. It is only when we introduce the foolishness of race into the discussion, and clash over it, that things go awfully, terribly awry. Race is a construct and a recent one, used as a means to fuel hatred and carnage in service to a dark-souled few. There is all manner of discussion and scholarship about it, especially from the Black community – Black women particularly – and amplified in the wake of the George Floyd murder. I’m not going to dig up the links but it’s true and you may research to your heart’s content. It is White Supremacy, and patriarchy, and capitalism … and it is real.
“I am just as Scottish as I am Nehiyaw, and being of mixed ancestry gives me precious insider insight into more than one world—but I choose to reanimate the Indigenous narrative so that I can find the missing parts of myself.”
— Suzanne Methot, Asiniwachi Nehiyaw (Rocky Mountain Cree), from Legacy: Trauma, Story, and Indigenous Healing
Of course I am going to cheer for mixed-race. The Métis people are a combination of the best of multiple worlds. I am that, as well as a mix of the deep experiences of all the ancestors on my mother’s side. They don’t subtract from me, they enrich me. We all are to various degrees. We see it across cultures, languages, experiences. Imagine a world where we lived like this all the time. Where I didn’t have to dig and dig and sometimes despair over finding the threads leading me back to the culture and language I emerge from on this continent. How many are in the same situation as me?
It seems we are in the Seventh Fire. We face a world on the brink, not just in the race wars and culture wars and class wars, under the boot of a rising fascism and nationalism and rampant, destructive capitalism, but also the experienced threat of climate change. It isn’t something that is going to happen, it is happening.
"It is at this time that the Light-skinned Race will be given a choice between two roads. If they choose the right road, then the Seventh Fire will light the Eighth and Final Fire – an eternal Fire of peace, love, brotherhood and sisterhood. If the Light-skinned Race makes the wrong choice of roads, then the destruction which they brought with them in coming to this country will come back to them and cause much suffering and death to all the Earth's people."
– from The Mishomis Book by Edward Benton-Banai
Will we make the choices we need to make to preserve our world, and to return to something more beautiful?
Are we the New People? Are we ready to live in this New World?
The World We’re In
Sadly, we aren’t living in that world. We are in the world that is. I was interviewed by a CNN correspondent last week for a piece about the latest pretendian dust-up and I’ve been thinking about it ever since, especially the questions I would like another shot at answering because I think I did a shitty job the first time around.
The dust-up I mention followed yet another aggregious attack on Indian people by the infamous Jacqueline Keeler, who I’ve written about before, this time accusing the late Sacheen Littlefeather of being a pretendian. I want to say this first: when I first encountered Keeler I had respect for her as a writer and journalist, all before she released her hateful pretendians list and then set out to double-down on every horrible accusation she’s made since, especially the false ones. I even blurbed her most recent book. I regret that immensely now, even as I stand behind what I said at the time, because I prefer no association with her that might make me appear as a supporter of what she’s up to now. In fact, the first time I ever interacted with her was a phone conversation we had because she didn’t know who the Métis were and I offered to answer any questions she had.
To be clear: Jacqueline Keeler has become the Indigenous version of Anne Coulter. I don’t need to read her stuff or listen to her speak to know that whatever she is spewing is hateful, divisive, and full of shit. So I didn’t read her Littlefeather op-ed, I just saw some of the sewage that rolled across social media. What a nightmare, and it, more than Elon Musk taking over, is why I disabled my Twitter account, whether permanently or not.
Jacqueline Keeler has become the Indigenous version of Anne Coulter. I don’t need to read her stuff or listen to her speak to know that whatever she is spewing is hateful, divisive, and full of shit.
The other day my pal Anne Helen Petersen interviewed Indigenous freelance journalist Michelle Cyca about a piece she published in Canada’s Maclean’s magazine. The interview is called, “The Pattern of Pretendianism.” It is excellent and I urge you to read it HERE (they reference the Sacheen Littlefeather thing a little bit too). Cyca’s Maclean’s piece that inspired AHP’s interview, “The Curious Case of Gina Adams,” is HERE. It might be the best piece I’ve read on the phenomena of pretendianism anywhere; if focuses mostly on academia, and Canada, where things are marginally different, especially in how they determine tribal enrollment, but close enough to how things play out in the U.S. too to be relevant on both sides of the Medicine Line.
Essentially what we are talking about is this: who gets to claim Indigeneity, and how? If we allow people to self-identify, we run into issues of appropriation by pretendians and the ilk, as Cyca describes in her piece. So I want to focus on this quote from the Maclean’s piece:
Perhaps the solution should come from somewhere else. [Métis lawyer, Jean] Teilletsaid one idea that came out of the National Indigenous Identity Forum was the establishment of a national body. Such an organization might be useful because there are hundreds of Indigenous communities in Canada, and the faculty at a particular university may not be familiar with the nation that an applicant is claiming. “So you could contact the national body and they could say, ‘Oh, this individual says they’re Mi’kmaw? Okay, you can talk to this person who is Mi’kmaw.’ ” This body would ensure that Indigenous people, not universities, retain authority over who is affirmed as a member of their communities. “The university’s role is not to determine if someone is Indigenous,” Teillet said. “It’s to determine if they are being honest in whatever they are claiming.”
I think this is a great start, but this next little bit from the piece is also key. Here is Michelle Cyca:
However, asking for proof of those nationalities is also complex. Status cards are regulated by the federal Indian Act and not Indigenous communities themselves. And relying on a piece of government ID rather than a self-declaration merely substitutes one oversimplified process for another. While status cards will filter out people who are claiming an Indigenous identity based on distant or speculative ancestors, they also exclude Indigenous people with active, living connections to their communities who are not registered under the Act.
I’ve been checking the “Native American” box at every opportunity as long as I’ve been alive. As recently as less than a decade ago I would have had no means to “prove” I am Chippewa because I knew very little of my cultural history. All I had, like so many other people, was the family story from one parent’s side that identified me as Indigenous. And my dad’s family, where this story came from, denied it. My grandfather denied it. If you went back through records you would see both of them identifying as “white” or “Caucasian” at every opportunity. It’s how my dad identified himself on my birth certificate. Every official (i.e. colonial) record of note would be telling the world I am a descendent of white men. Culturally, as we understand it, that would also be true. I didn’t grow up in any kind of a traditional Native community and that is the only place you find Indians, right? Wrong! Given how many Indians grew up outside of their traditional communities – a vast majority – that is as much a part of the Indigenous North American experience as any other one. Absolutely as much, as is the path to reclaiming that heritage.
My grandmother is the one who spoke most openly of my family’s Indigeneity. But even her records indicate she was a white woman … unless you go back before she married my grandfather. Those earlier records show her as anything from “HB” for half-breed or “R” for red. It wasn’t until she marries that all of a sudden she’s a white woman; clearly that is the influence of my grandfather.
Over the last decade I have dug into my history. I’ve learned where my family came from and have records tracing my lineage back into the early 1700s. They aren’t entirely accurate because there are a few instances of the female side of a relationship being defined as “Native Woman” with birthplace as “On the Plains.” But I can go back several generations and prove without a doubt that my people came out of the Red River valley. I’m not alone in this, but I am also lucky. My good fortune is that even with the arbitrary nature of blood quantum requirements, I can still prove I am “Indian enough” to be enrolled as a Little Shell member. There are plenty of people with a background exactly the same as mine who, through the lottery of birth and marriages and shoddy 19th century record keeping cannot. And that sucks.
Even if we make tribes responsible for proving the Indigeneity of people vying for such recognition, as long as blood quantum is a requirement this determination is ultimately bogus and colonial and doesn’t fix the problem. Simply put, if you are an Indian person, whether in tribal government or just a citizen, to support blood quantum means you are fully in favor of the long term genocide of your own people. Because it’s not about the bogus idea of race, or blood, it is about culture. And that is where the energy towards preservation should be – language, ceremony, community – not these bullshit ideas of blood purity that we constantly fight over. Such was never the way we did things until the settlers and their colonial government came and said we should do it that way. To continue only hastens our own demise, and true sovereignty demands we shed ourselves of these shackles.
It is all so complex. Even Indigenous people often want to claim something they are not, whether out of a desire for an idea of superior identity or simple ignorance. For example, on more than one occasion I’ve heard people claim a parent or grandparent as “full-blood Little Shell.” This is ludicrous if you know anything about the history of the Little Shell people. Not only are our origins as a tribe – going back as far as the late-1700s when we were still the Pembina Chippewa – completely about the mixing of “blood,” our subsequent diaspora over the last 150 years ensures that everyone was marrying and having children with everyone else and we are not “full” anything in the context of how the common conversation engages with such things.
Even tribal records are questionable. My ID says I am Chippewa-Cree, though I identify as Métis, or Anishinaabe. The United States doesn’t recognize the Métis as a distinct cultural group the way Canada does. The Cree part of my alleged “blood” is debatable. My great great grandmother Susie was allegedly full-blood Assiniboine. Where is that in my “official” blood? To compound this confusion is that in the late 1800s when the U.S. government was trying to solve the “Indian problem” and eliminate us once and for all from the land they stole, they essentially declared any non-reservation Indians scattered across the high plains as “Cree,” or “Canadian,” Indians. That gave the feds the authority, in their mind, to round us up and deport us north of the Medicine Line. While the vast majority of these people were displaced Chippewa and actual Cree people, among them were certainly Blackfeet, Assiniboine, Dakota, Crow … basically anyone from the region who found themselves pushed aside or was not willing to live on a reservation. They were all lumped together as “Cree” and rounded up. In the same manner, there are many folks on the Blackfeet Reservation, or the Flathead Reservation – every reservation in Montana – who married into those tribes as Chippewa folks and just “became” Salish, or Blackfeet, or whoever. I am a Doney on my grandmother’s side straight out of the Red River valley a couple hundred years ago, and there are lots of Doneys on the CSKT reservation who are Salish, for example. Relatives, in the truest sense.
Never mind all the folks who could pass as white and did so out of self preservation, and to prevent subsequent generations from suffering as they had. That is a terrible legacy to come to terms with, and to overcome. At every turn is trauma, heartbreak and hardship. As an elder at a recent conference said of Indigenous North Americans, and I paraphrase: “We have not yet begun to heal. We are only to the point of drying our tears.”
“If we natural people of the Earth could just wear the face of brotherhood, we might be able to deliver our society from the road to destruction. Could we make the two roads that today represent two clashing world views come together to form that mighty nation? Could a nation be formed that is guided by respect for all living things?”
– from The Mishomis Book by Edward Benton-Banai
My point in all of this is there is no easy solution and whatever ultimately works is not going to come from existing colonial institutions trying to polish their image or from tribal governments trying to remake their communities in the image of their occupier. Everybody wants to be an ally until the hard work of actually being one begins. The tearing down and restructuring of these institutions that are steeped in blood and power-over will be incredibly challenging but is entirely necessary. Yes, Indigenous people need more opportunity. Yes, existing institutions need more Indigenous representation. Yes, tribal communities should be the ones to determine who gets to claim relationship to them. But at every juncture forward movement requires a lot of dismantling, revisioning and rebuilding. It is a huge task. Are we up for it? I hope so. It demands sacrifice from everyone involved and we must be selfless in the approach if we have any hope of overcoming the tremendous obstacles we’ve allowed to be created in all of our names.
Miigwech for hanging in there this far. I appreciate all of you. I know this piece is a mess and all over the place and probably confusing and I’m tired of working on it. I hope you get the point. I should have stuck to just posting some bitchin’ photographs. Next time, hopefully….
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😂 😂 😂 😂
Fittingly, autocorrect wanted really, really badly to force me to replace “Indigeneity” with “indignity.” Not today, autocorrect! 🖕🏽
Teillet is also a Louis Riel descendent and author of the excellent The North-West Is Our Mother: The Story of Louis Riel's People, the Métis Nation