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Afterword (Essay by Alan Fry): Who Are These People We Call Indians?

Who are these people we call Indians? If we are to support separate programs, different solutions, special rights and other distinctions, should we not try to grasp the difference between Indians and others which account for these? Although a very real difference, it is neither uniform nor static. It varies enormously from person to person and from place to place, and just when you think you understand it, it changes in front of your eyes. Before Columbus, a dark-skinned people with straight, black hair occupied the Americas. They lived mainly in tribal groups and clans, practicing a stone-age economy based for the most part on hunting, fishing and gathering. They were more often nomadic than sedentary, living for much of the year in extended family groups and small bands. Many language groups and a proliferation of dialects prevailed. The nation state as it existed in Europe at the time of Columbus did not exist, even in a rudimentary form, in the territory that is now Canada. The greater part of these people, called Indians by the Europeans on discovery, had been in the Americas for many thousands of years. In the Arctic fringe, a smaller scattering of different people, labelled Eskimos on discovery by Europeans, had arrived somewhat more recently through Arctic Siberia. Five hundred years after Columbus, the descendants of these "Indians" are an extremely various people, now virtually entirely of mixed ancestry and owing their genetic inheritance as much to the European occupiers (and occasional modern Asian) as to the Aboriginal ancestors with whom many of them prefer to identify.

Understanding is not made easier by the profusion of terms, each with potentially different meanings, depending on who speaks and who listens, by which we refer to these people. We hear variously of Indians, of natives, of First Nations people, of status Indians and non-status Indians, of urban Indians, of treaty Indians and non-treaty Indians, of off-reserve and on--reserve Indians, of Metis and, not so frequently now but once commonly and seldom with much respect, of half-breeds. We now increasingly hear of Aboriginal people, a term used historically by anthropologists. In fact, the term Aboriginal, in application to all people who descend wholly or in part from the original inhabitants, whether Indian or Inuit, in Canada or Asia or Europe, appears to have become preferred in most usage. When the European occupier first arrived, distinction between the races was easy. Those already here were strikingly different in appearance, dress, language and lifestyle from the people who came on the ships. Genetic and cultural mixing got underway rapidly, however, and in time government found it necessary to define in law who was an Indian. Without definition, it would be impossible to know with certainty who, among an increasingly mixed people, were to be subject to legislated benefits or disabilities, to reside on reserves set aside for Indians, for example, or to be forbidden alcohol.

Membership in a recognized Indian band was a closely related issue. If a reserve of land were to be set aside for the Squamish Band, there had to be a definition in law of who was an Indian and who, among Indians, was entitled to membership in the Squamish Band and hence to share in the reserve. When we speak, then, of a status Indian, we mean someone who has Indian status according to the Indian Act of Canada. A non-status Indian is almost always someone of mixed ancestry who is concerned to be identified as an Indian but who, for one of a variety of reasons, does not have status under the Indian Act. A treaty Indian is a status Indian who is a member of a band which was a signatory to one of a series of treaties established between the crown and, mainly, the eastern and great plains tribes during the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A non-treaty Indian is a status Indian who is not a member of a band which entered into one of the historic treaties. The great majority of the status Indians in British Columbia are non-treaty Indians; most of the eastern and great plains status Indians are treaty Indians. The term non-treaty Indian is often confused with the term non-status Indian. An on-reserve Indian is simply a status Indian who lives on an Indian reserve, a tract of land to which title remains vested in the federal crown but which is set aside for the use and benefit of a band (very occasionally in common for more than one band). An off-reserve Indian is generally understood to be a status Indian who has taken up residence somewhere other than a reserve, although the term is sometimes used to refer to a non--status Indian.

Generally the term refers to individuals and families living here and there in non-Indian communities, not whole communities of status Indians living off-reserve. There are a number of status Indian communities situated on crown lands, both federal and provincial, which are not reserves but these resemble reserve communities in most other respects. The term off-reserve Indian is not usefully descriptive of a member of this sort of community. (I see I have now used the term non-Indian. When you have dealt a long time with the subject of Indians of every sort, you may have many terms for the numerous categories of Indians but all other people tend to be simply non-Indians or, in the vernacular, white guys.) You can see already that the term Indian needs qualification if meaning is to be reasonably specific: the term native suffers difficulty, too. The term, "he's native" probably means "he's Indian" which most likely means "he's of mixed ancestry and the Indian in him is evident and he might or might not be status". Of course we also use the term in reference to white guys, for example when we say someone is a native of Toronto (poor bloke), but there is generally little confusion here with the use of the term in relation to people of Indian ancestry. Very few terms are used to refer to someone in whom we wish specifically to identify the condition of mixed ancestry. It is not uncommon and in the main respectful to say of such a person that she is part native; it is not generally respectful to say of her that she is a half-breed or a breed, although the latter terms have been, at some times and in some regions, used without disrespect. Former versions of the Indian Act have used the term half-breed to describe persons of mixed ancestry. The Metis are a people of a specific mixed ancestry brought about by the union of the French voyageur with Indian women, and who settled in the Red River district, mainly following 1820. It is confusing to refer to other people of mixed Indian and European ancestry as Metis. Most Metis today are found still in the prairie provinces although certain people of mixed ancestry in the Mackenzie Valley of the Northwest Territories are also recognized as Metis. In 1982, the Canadian Parliament recognized the Metis as one of the Aboriginal people of Canada. This illustrates the confusing but persistent practice of recognizing people of mixed ancestry as Aboriginal, equally with those persons, rare now if existing at all, who are fully Aboriginal.

Urban Indians are status or non-status Indians who live in one of the larger cities. Particularly with respect to status Indians, debate has developed about who should be responsible for programs to assist these people. The federal government accepts responsibility for Indians on reserves and on crown lands but contends that the province or municipality should extend services on the same basis as to other citizens when status Indians live in municipalities or other non-native communities. Some provinces and municipalities dispute this, saying they do not have sufficient revenues and that Indians in any case are a federal responsibility irrespective of where they live. Significantly large numbers of Indian people now do live in cities. Winnipeg is said to contain more Indian people than any exclusively Indian settlement anywhere in Manitoba.

Very recently we have begun to hear of First Nations and First Nations people. I believe the term developed among Indian people negotiating with government in recent land claims as a way of emphasizing that they descend from those who were here before the French and English. If the French and the English wish to style themselves the Founding Nations then why should bands of those who descend in significant measure from the people who were here before them not style themselves the First Nations? The term stretches the definition of nation but makes a point which needs acknowledgment. I think First Nations people are best defined as those who perceive themselves as such on the basis of Indian ancestry of whatever degree. Its advantage is that it includes all aboriginal peoples, Indian and Inuit, Canadian and foreign. Its disadvantage is that it fails to resolve any of the ambiguities between aboriginal and part-aboriginal that some of the earlier terms distinguished. If the term is used integrally to a land claim settlement with government, it will require legal definition and may differ from the definition of status Indian under the Indian Act. The term half-breed or breed, which, as I said above, was generally though not always a disrespectful term, is little heard now. At one time it was used commonly to refer to people of mixed ancestry who lived and worked in the non-Indian community and who, though they often would acknowledge their partial Indian ancestry, firmly avoided identity as Indians. Many were prone to be considerably offended if they were taken by strangers to be Indian or if people who did know them made incautious reference to their make-up. These people were numerous and often a majority in many non--Indian communities in rural Canada half a century ago.

There is debate now between some Indian leaders and government about who should decide who is and is not an Indian and who should determine band membership. The first point is perhaps more easily decided than the second. The principle rationale for separate laws and programs for the people of mainly mixed ancestry whom we recognize as Indians is that because their descent was in significant measure from the people who were here when the Europeans first arrived, they are entitled to specific rights and benefits, often at a cost to public funds, not available to others. There has to be a law, applicable across Canada, which determines who qualifies for these rights and benefits. While government should certainly consult with Indian leaders on the criteria to be enshrined in law, ultimately Parliament must make the law. On the point of band membership, much of the benefit of Indian status is unattainable without membership in a band. There are a few such people, posted to a general list, but they have no right of residence on a reserve anywhere, no share in band funds nor in reserve-based resources. Until recently, the government determined not only Indian status but band membership as well. Bands now may establish criteria for and control their own membership and may admit to membership persons without Indian status. Federal funding to bands to support reserve or crown land communities, however, is based on the resident membership of people with status.

There have been many instances over the years in which someone's perception of themselves as Indians, and the perception of other Indians that they are Indian, has not coincided with the provisions of the Indian Act. They have perceived themselves as Indian, the law has said the opposite. Often this has led to life-long grievances, painful and irresolvable. In other instances, the sense of Indian identity (irrespective of the degree of ancestry) has been so strong that what the law says is a matter of complete indifference. Most painful of all have been cases in which people who perceive themselves to be Indians have been rejected by other Indians. Indian women who lost status on marriage to non-Indian men, under a provision of the Indian Act since amended, often found the loss painful; many have been further hurt when, on their reinstatement to Indian status, the leaders of their former bands have opposed their reinstatement to the band list.

I grew up in a community in the Cariboo country of British Columbia in which a majority of people were of mixed ancestry but firmly not identifying as Indian and visibly not of full Indian ancestry. I also frequently met Indian people, either fully or predominantly of Indian ancestry, from bands which had remained substantially isolated and separate. As a child, I thought the distinctions between Indians, part-Indians and white guys were straightforward and consistent. Then in my early twenties I began working for the federal government in Indian programs. I worked out of Kamloops, and if I had not had access to the band lists I would have wondered why so many white guys and half-breeds (no offense intended) were living on the Indian reserves. In the light of my previous experience, the number of people of mixed ancestry on the band lists in which the European influence stood out unmistakably was nothing short of striking. Only older people on the lists, and not all of them, looked predominantly Indian. I worked subsequently with bands throughout much of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory and I have met a number of Indians from other parts of Canada. I have seen photographs of Indian people in newspapers and magazines and in recent years I have seen many on television. The sum of my experience over sixty years in Indian country is that people in Canada whom we call Indians are overwhelmingly people of mixed ancestry, many of them predominantly European.

To non-Indian Canadians of younger generations who have no experience of people with full or near full Indian ancestry, it is easy to assume that anyone who looks different from Europeans in the direction of Indian appearance is an Indian. Without reference to a band list, the many people with Indian status but without noticeable Indian appearance simply are not recognized as Indians. In reality, not only is the ancestry among Indians already substantially mixed, it can only become more diluted as the generations go by. Looking different from Europeans will be increasingly less significant as an ingredient and indeed, many status Indians now cannot rely on their appearance as a marker. If ancestry and physical appearance are increasingly less reliable as cornerstones of who they are, by what other means may we know them? How will we respect an identity that is increasingly difficult to recognize and, indeed, is increasingly variable as cultural dilution proceeds at differing rates, but inevitably, across the nation? How will we make sense of distinctions in law if we cannot make distinctions in fundamental identity?

The implications of a genetic shift toward increased European ancestry are difficult enough to grasp; the confusion following on cultural dilution can be horrendous. I have known people barely recognizable, physically, as Indians who were culturally closer to pre-contact North American Indians than some others, visibly of Indian ancestry, who functioned in every respect in the wider society with no more grasp than any fully European or Asian Canadian of what it might mean to be Indian. Wanting to respect both, as you deal with the apparent white guy, you respect the fact that he perceives himself to be an Indian; as you deal with the apparent Indian, you respect the fact that he understands himself only as a white guy. If you imagine that somehow you can respect everyone by dealing with them as if they were all the same, you haven't spent much time in what these days is called a cross-cultural situation. Even setting aside the striking difference in physical appearance and material culture, the Aboriginal North Americans were a profoundly distinct people from the arriving Europeans. Their languages, beliefs and customs were incomprehensibly different to the Europeans then and to those of us who might try to look back now in search of understanding. Beliefs about the spirit world, about the relationship of mankind to the animals, land forms and water bodies, about kinship and kinship obligation, and about property were as close to being a world apart as could be imagined on the same planet.

The most extreme difference you might have found from one culture to another in the old world was nothing compared to the difference between any old world culture and pre-contact cultures prevailing in the new world. Even today, an immigrant can come to Canada from virtually any of the regions in Europe and Asia familiar to Europeans five hundred years ago and move effortlessly, in a generation or less, into the wider Canadian society, a feat which continues to baffle great numbers of people, however mixed their ancestry, who descend from the original North Americans. I once listened to a status Indian of about sixty, an hereditary and former elected chief of his band, try, with little success, to explain to a younger generation of elected band councilors, how different were the people who had been old when he was young.
I have forgotten the larger matter which made the issue important but I recall vividly how the older man kept repeating, in speaking of the old men who held the hereditary chieftainships when he was a boy, that they were a different people. Significantly, he was not speaking of how different were the old chiefs from the Europeans then and now, but of how different they were from the Indian people of his generation and from the generation of the band leaders to whom he then spoke. In the context, it was clear that the difference about which he spoke was the difference in beliefs and customs, in cultural values of every kind. He was, himself, visibly of mixed ancestry and the majority of the younger people to whom he spoke were indistinguishable, physically, from any European Canadians but this was a difference from the original people with which we were all so familiar we paid it no heed. His anxiety was to make it understood that this other difference, this profound difference in culture, existed every bit as much. Yet even those people of this younger generation who are as European in appearance as many a white neighbour in any non-native Canadian community perceive themselves to be different in some degree from other Canadians, a difference which derives, however distantly, from their ancestral links to the people who were here when their European forefathers arrived.

One may say, easily, in summary that First Nations or Aboriginal or Indian people-choose your term-are of mixed ancestry and hybrid culture, different, as a group, from both their Aboriginal and their European forefathers and widely varying, as individuals, from each other; that they must live, by and large, within their own culture as they perceive it but as well within the wider Canadian society, a society defined by others. Significantly, they look to their Aboriginal ancestors, not their European, for their sense of who they are. What that means, in practical application, is profoundly variable and perhaps impossible to grasp by anyone outside the fold. For most if not all Aboriginal people, it means functioning in two cultures. I have known many who function well in both. They have a strong sense of being Indian, whatever that might include in their particular case, and they deal effectively, with an obvious belief in their own worth, in the wider community. In many cases, these people communicate well in both their own language and in English, but not universally. I have known many people who are clearly comfortable with their Indian identity but cannot speak the language of their Aboriginal ancestors.

I have known many who have a difficult time in either culture. Often these are young people who find themselves unable to meet the expectations of the elders in their own community but who cannot, either, function satisfactorily in the non-native world. They receive negative messages about themselves wherever they go. In this situation, loss of language can be pivotal. Obliged to spend too much time in schools run by the dominant culture, they have not learned the language of their elders but neither have they become proficient in English. Even among those who go confidently about in wider society, the supports of their own culture may remain critical in ways imperceptible to the outsider. A student who did very well in school and enjoyed a quiet popularity with her non-Indian classmates once told me how much she always wished to have at least one other Indian person somewhere in her vicinity. In a classroom full of white kids she would suffer a manageable but persistent unease beneath the surface; yet if she discovered there was another Indian student in the class next door, she could be entirely comfortable.

Ancestral imperatives mix frequently with today's business in the wider world. A few years ago, the elderly chief of a West Coast band wished to develop a strip of reserve land to generate revenue for the band's account. The opportunity was excellent and the old man's plan well thought out. With the new annual revenue, the band could generate other enterprises to employ band members and generally raise the level of economic opportunity and security for everyone. The scheme was opposed by a former elected chief, a younger man, who successfully frustrated the older man's attempt to gain a majority support among the band members. Both these men were hereditary chiefs of considerable significance; they were heir as well to incredibly convoluted feuds between clans and powerful families going back beyond memory. Neither had any idea how the trouble had begun but each devoted much of his life's energy to its perpetuation. Neither displayed the least trace of their Indian ancestry in their physical appearance. The older man had blue eyes.

It is increasingly difficult for a non-Indian unfamiliar with the strength of this hybrid culture to understand that someone who looks white can actually be culturally someone else. I listened to a man of mixed ancestry try to convey this understanding to representatives of some commission or other who were visiting in the arctic community where he lived. You have to understand, he explained, that we are a different people. You might think we are some kind of bush white man but we are not. We are a different people. I found that simple statement particularly explicit because this man's father had been a bush white man. He had come into the country and adapted well. He had married a native woman and lived out his life with her people. Their children, of which this man was one, had grown up with his mother's people. On another occasion he had explained to me how he had often fought with the other children as a boy because they had picked on him for being white. Still, he could only perceive himself as an Indian and to explain this to others, he fell on the distinction that he was not just some kind of bush white man.

It must be left to Indian people to convey, as they wish, what it means to be Indian, to be rooted culturally somewhere between the societies of their aboriginal ancestors and today's wider society. As that story is told, and here and there it has begun to be told, it will reveal a profoundly rich mix of highly variable experience: from that of the few remaining elders in remote regions who lived as children in a nomadic life only marginally removed from pre-contact society, to that of others, generations on, moving apace in the wider society, often with little about them to reveal their ancestral ties. It will be a story of a cultural heritage richer than most non-Indian Canadians can possibly imagine without its telling, but a story as well of the ordinary and often too brutal human frailties which afflict us all. Virtually universal in this story will be the pain of having been belittled, communally and individually, for generations by an insensitive and dominant society. To have it forced upon you, irrespective of any truth, that you are inferior, that your people are inferior, to be humiliated, to be reduced to beggary in your own land, to be stripped not only of power but of dignity as well-these are beyond the imagination of those of us who take for granted the accidents of birth which give us a place at the larger table.

White Europeans have been, until quite recently and virtually to the last man and woman, a blatantly racist lot. Even the well intended and essentially decent among us perceived others as lesser breeds, in need of care which only we, in our wisdom, could provide. The worst among us treated those not like us with mean and despicable cruelty. Federal governments in Canada, by and large, though not always, have meant well by Indian people. Provincial and local governments have come to exhibit respect but historically they are better known for their bigotry. Ineptitude has figured more than malevolence in the federal government's contribution to the dismal side of Indian experience, the ineptitude often coupled with dreadful insensitivity in the public servants who carried out government policies and programs. For sheer meanness, look to the bootlegger, the greedy storekeeper, the exploitative employer, the racist proprietor of a cafe, the arrogant neighbour and aggressive young white men in pursuit of sex and violence.

Treatment of Indians by police forces throughout Canada has been chequered. Until recently, policing, particularly at the point of enforcement, lay in the hands of white men who took pride in being strong and tough. People who broke the law were a lesser lot, to be held in contempt, and none were lesser than Indians. Too often, individual police officers have welcomed the opportunity to use force, responding to spoken or physical resistance with rough treatment, on occasion with outright beatings. That said, it is also the case that the majority of police officers have dealt reasonably with Indian people and in many communities, particularly in remote regions, mutual respect and trust have led to good relationships.

It is easy to pass judgment in hindsight but I am not at all sure that many of those who now condemn the treatment of Indian people in Canada by governments, institutions and individuals over the last half millennium would have managed much differently had they been in charge. This is not to say that wrongs have not been done-wrongs have been done-but to point out the difficulty of being altogether sure that what we do now will stand well in the judgment of posterity. One could take the extreme position, which some do, that Europeans should never have settled, that when they discovered the New World, they should have had the decency to recognize it was already occupied and go home. If the Europeans had resisted their desire to occupy the newly discovered lands, however, one certain consequence would be that today's First Nations people could never have lived, since virtually all descend in part from those immigrant races. None of which is to say that today's Aboriginal people do not have legitimate grievances growing out of the historic relationship with the wider society, as well as painful difficulties living in modern Canada. Tragically, there are large numbers of these people for whom the experience of being Indian in Canadian society has been and remains dismal, all too often helpless, a violent and miserable existence.

Clearly, the wider society owes these people whatever affordable and effective means can be found to alleviate their misery. Those means are elusive and it is not at all certain that present initiatives to settle land claims and establish self-government will be of much practical help, for example, to the sexually abused children now sniffing gasoline and sinking into suicide. A danger in land claims settlements and self-government agreements is that these may enshrine in law differences between status Indians and other Canadians when real differences in race and culture are in fact diminishing. When people's European ancestry predominates to the degree you can't tell they're Indian without the band list in hand, arguing they have an essential right to hunt or fish without restriction because they are status Indians is going to seem specious to say the least.

Settlement should be reached with the descendants of the Aboriginal people who were here when the Europeans arrived, but these settlements should take into account the fact that these claimants are also descended from the arriving Europeans whose taking of the land is held to be compensable. (Paradoxically, many of the most effective negotiators on the Indian side in the land claims process are individuals obviously more European than Aboriginal.) The task is enormously complex, but it is not at all unthinkable that a day will come when the only way of telling Indians from non-Indians is by the special treatment those with legal Indian status receive from government. When that happens, it will be better if those special treatments are not irreversible.