More than 30 people attended a conference in Tsuut’ina, just outside of Calgary, to talk about the issues of people falsely claiming Indigenous identity. They have come to colloquially be called “Pretendians.”
Participants came from as far as Halifax to hear about how to deal with increasing false claims of Indigenous identity.
“You can’t be a part of the Indigenous community without being aware of the various people who pop up,” said Drew Hayden Taylor, who wrote an editorial after allegations that Joseph Boyden had been incorrectly claiming Indigenous identity.
Taylor is also the creator of a documentary called “The Pretendians” that looks at some of the reasons why people claim Indigenous identity.
He told APTN News that there are several reasons why people claim to be Indigenous.
“One is people like to belong somewhere. That is why people join the Boy Scouts. That is why they join the army. They want to belong somewhere and let’s face it in this day and age the native culture is cool,” said Taylor.
Taylor mentioned that other reasons may include people looking to gain benefits, such as scholarships and job interviews. Still others believe some sort of family lore without really looking into their past.
There are also people with distant claims to Indigenous identity who, once they find out, use that information to their advantage.
“As I say in my documentary my grandmother’s grandmother was Irish you don’t see me waving a shillelagh around,” said Taylor.
He thinks that these conversations about identity are just getting started and so gathering in groups for conversations about how to deal with Pretendians are important at the community level.
Jean Teilliet was one of the speakers who presented at the conference virtually. Teillet has written at length about false claims of Indigenous identity and in her talk, she referenced the academic Kim TallBear who has said that there may be up to 25 per cent of people falsely claiming Indigenous identity in academia.
“She emphasized this is an estimate only with no data to support it,” said Teillet who also told the room that this number could also translate to people who work in government, which still relies on self-identification.
“What I really want to bring to the conference is to assure people that there are ways to work with [verifying Indigenous identity}. It is not a problem we can’t solve,” said Teillet.
She said that there is a need for policies and procedures in institutions like government and universities.
“The way you deal with things is to create policies and then when you have one of these fraudsters in front of you, you have something to work with,” said Teillet.
She also shared examples of policies that organizations have developed.
André Bear, an articling law student who owns a company called Indigenous Nation Rebuilding, was one of the speakers at the conference.
Bear presented on the need to build up Indigenous law at the conference as a way to deal with allegations of false Indigenous identity
“My presentation was about the story of Indians and my experience in university as well as law school as well as how the revitalization of Indigenous identity is my answer to the issue of pretendians.”
Although some communities do have the ability to decide who counts as a member there is still a reliance on self-disclosure for many jobs and grants.
Bear told APTN that the program he was in for law school had a lot of people who were claiming to be Indigenous, including Amira Gill one of the twins who, as APTN previously reported claimed Inuit identity
“It became evident that non-Indigenous people were pretending to be Indigenous in order to get into law school and then they began applying and winning scholarships,” said Bear.
He said that the fact that this seems to be common has a very real affect on Indigenous people.
“It is heartbreaking to think we have something called a native studies program where it should be for Indigenous people who are actually affected by poverty and not being supported in the ways they need in order to succeed,” he said.
For Bear, he thinks that the answer in addressing false claims of Indigenous identity is to revitalize Indigenous laws.
“I don’t believe we can rely on colonial law aka Canadian law in order to solve the problem… we need to rebuild our nations and create our own laws which allows us to dictate who is an Indigenous person and who is not,” he said.