Community, Pretendians, & Heartbreak

This is likely to be the final excerpt for my dissertation that I will be posting here on the blog. I am in the process of assembling the final draft at my present moment and will not be posting anything else related to it until after my defence in the next couple of month.

I don’t much like the word community, I am not even sure I like the thing … If by community one implies, as is often the case, a harmonious group, consensus, and fundamental agreement beneath phenomena of discord or war, then I don’t believe in it very much … There is doubtless this irrepressible desire for a “community” to form but also to know its limit—and for its limit to be its opening.  One it thinks it has understood, taken in, interpreted, kept the text, then something of this latter, something in it that is altogether other escapes or resists the community, it appeals for another community, it does not let itself be totally interiorized I the memory of a present community.  The experience of mourning and promise that institutes that community but also forbids it from collecting itself, this experience stores in itself the reserve of another community that will sign, otherwise, completely other contracts.

– Jacques Derrida, Points … Interviews, 1974-1994

I was left behind with the immensity of existing things.

– Czesław Miłosz, Esse

My Nativeness, my Menomineeness, is complicated.  That is very much the point of my writing, and why I follow so closely Avery Gordon’s assertion that “life is complicated” is a statement of great theoretical and analytical import.  More than anything I hope that this is the lesson, the message, and “point of my research” that I am conveying, have conveyed, and continue to convey.  I grew up in Bermuda; you know this by now.  I was only able to spend time with my Native family, on my/our Rez, and around our culture during the summers of my childhood and pre-teen years; you know this by now.  I have not travelled back to the Rez in over a decade, and the last time was a time of family tragedy; you know this by now.  I consider myself both Menominee, because of how I was raised and who I was raised by, as well as diasporic, reconnecting, and liminally enrolled with a kind of half-status that is complicated to explain to outsiders, especially non-Natives, and non-Menominee, again because of how, and where, I was raised.  you know this by now also.

But so much of what this means reaches for something somewhat ineffable.  What does it mean to be?  To belong?  For those of us who exist under the signs of Indian, Native, Indigenous, Aboriginal, and Savage what does it even to live such a life.  What do we carry with us even in just the act of presenting ourselves to the world?  Our lives and lifeworlds are, at this time, this moment, totally subject to the all subsuming logics and rationalities of the settler state.  What it means to be live or to be, to present oneself as oneself, is totally subject the whims of a regime in so many ways foreign to us, even as we are born, live, and die under its eye.  There is no Native living today who is not, on some level, deeply weary of this.  But the words to describe such an existence do not so easily form from the tongue.  Many try.  But what even is the act of attempting to communicate to such things to those beyond them.  This is especially so in the settings of the academy where we are so often expected to be both experts on our own pain, readily and willing to split ourselves open to be examined, and also art exhibits of such a splitting open, demonstrating our resilience and the beauty of our struggle to simply be present.  But as Miłosz writes “It is impossible to communicate to people who have not experienced it the undefinable menace of total rationalism” (1953).

But still, I try, if for no other reason than my own desire to understand my own place within this thing that we call the world.  It is, then my chosen lot, to struggle towards some sort of giving of an account of the immensity of these things.  It is a project not always successful, and perhaps bound to failure

Native Affects

Being Native is not always easy.  The unfinished projects of conquest, genocide, and settlement circumscribe and delimit the potentiality of Native life.  They are arrayed as such to make a world in which the basic ontological condition of the Native is where their essential presence is incompatible with the world-as-is.  Always the Savage.  Always hostile.  It must, therefor, cease to exist so that the project of the world can cohere itself.  There is no place in this world that can thus be home, even as we are home on our own lands, in our kinships, under the cosmos.  At times, speaking for myself, but also speaking of what I know to be experience of many, it is a project of world-creation such that the fires of what we experience daily can overwhelm us, and where there seems to be at times no real reason to get out of bed in the morning.  Depressive, anxious, post-traumatic stress and obsessive-compulsive disorders seem to be the watch-words for many an Native’s mental health, where youth suicide epidemics leave so many at a such a loss for words that any attempt to enunciate cannot seem to do anything other than understate and underwhelm.

Sometimes the only way that seems to work to keep one making forward progress through the muck and mud is to try and joke about it.  A kind of morbid, cynical, and dark Native humour.  Here is one that I posted to Facebook regarding my own struggles with depression and anxiety while writing this:

Is it:

  1. Depression & anxiety as diagnosable, medicalizable, and chemically, as well as psychotherapeutically, treatable conditions?
  2. The weight of professional pressures, creative anxiety, political hopelessness, and intellectual blockage that seem to be bed-fellows of finishing highly personal academic work?
  3. The sense of “feeling bad” which constitutes the affective condition of a post-Fordist, neoliberal capitalist realism the colonizes all aspects of everyday life, even slowly degrading our ability to sleep, and which is seemingly set on racing over the anthropocene cliff towards climatic catastrophe and the memetic transmission of cancelled futures?
  4. Trying to live life as an Native in the midst of a world-building project of conquest and settler colonialism that seeks the total cessation of Native life, peoplehood, territoriality, and worldviews—where death hangs in the air like a persistent rumour—in sign, political, and libidinal economies of slow death and letting die?
  5. All of the Above?[1]

(The answer is E, “All of the Above)

Ann Cvetkovich writes:

for many of us (and “us” that includes a range of social positions and identities in need of specification), everyday life produces feelings of despair and anxiety, sometimes extreme, sometimes throbbing along at a low level, and hence barely discernible from just the way things are, feelings that get internalized and named, for better or for worse, as depression.  It is customary, within our [NB: euro-western] therapeutic culture, to attribute these feelings to bad things that happened to us when we were children, to primal scenes that have not yet been fully remembered or articulated or worked through.  It’s also common to explain them as the result of a biochemical disorder, a genetic mishap for which we shouldn’t blame ourselves.  I tend to see such master narratives as problematic displacements that cast a social problem as a personal problem in one case and as a medical problem in the other, but moving to an even larger master narrative of depression as socially produced often provides little specific illumination and even less comfort because it’s an analysis that frequently admits of no solution.  Saying capitalism (or colonialism or racism) is the problem does not help me get out of bed in the morning (2012:14-15).

I agree with her much in content, though perhaps less in feeling.  I agree very much so with Cvetkovich that there is something larger at play in terms of depression, my depression, than just a mere biochemical or personal problem.  Indeed, what she describes as the problematic master narratives in that regard find much confluence with Mark Fisher’s “privatization of stress” that has taken root firmly under the current regimes of neoliberal and capitalist realist globalization (2009:19).  I further agree with Cvetkovich that moving the frame of analysis up the structural latter towards capitalism, colonialism, racism (and, I am quite sure, we can here add others things such as sexism, homophobia, transphobia and all of their possible permutations and crossings-over such as misogynoir and transmisogyny) does not help to provide a reason to get out of bed in the morning when one is suffering. However I do believe that it can lead us down a path of uncovering a deeper affective functioning within our current society, following Fisher’s line of thought that “The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist [NB: and, we should add here for our specificity: settler-colonial societies] would suggest that, instead of being the only system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high” (2009:19).  This is not an answer to why one should get out of bed in the morning, or even a motivation that one should, but I do believe that this thinking helps to pierce the veil around the Real that is the current arrangement of capitalism and colonialism.  If our day-to-day sadness is not to lead down a road to future personal happiness, then perhaps it can at least direct us towards that path which will one day take us to that point.

To return to my joke though, that is maybe a little too morbid for a dissertation, but I am far from the only Native person on social media who shares jokes like that.  Indeed, I only post like that on exceedingly rare occasions.  As I have said before it is difficult to split myself open in front of others.  Some combination of settler coloniality and cisheteropatriarchy always tell me that others do not care, and that I would also be overly melodramatic to even broach the subject.  Twinned demons to have on one’s shoulders for sure.  However, perhaps luckily for me, others, with far higher subscriber and follower counts, post materials such as that nearly daily and I am able to find something vicariously through them, through reshares, likes, and comments.

I spoke once before about the affective burden that afflicts Native life, and we find it here again.  It is visceral.  Like a knot in the stomach, a weakness in the legs, a lump in the throat.  What even is a life that bears such a weight?  Where the last thought before sleep and the first after waking is often “what is even the fucking point?”  One does not have to live within or be from Belcourt’s site of bio-social and biopolitical catastrophe and perpetual mourning that is the Rez in order to feel this way either (2017).  For many Natives, this is the basic affective preconditioning of living a Red life under the regimes and technologies of settler coloniality.  Perhaps here the problem is one of an expectation of happiness itself, or more precisely what we imagine happiness to be.  Thinking through Sara Ahmed, and also back to the first epigraph for this chapter from Eugene Thacker, I certainly believe that there is a kind of colonial melancholia, or a colonial pessimism, that is part of the affective working of being Native under these colonial relations of power and knowledge.  While it may come across as morose, and perhaps it is, I echo Ahmed in believing, at least insofar as these conditions of life are concerned, that the promise of happiness (and, to echo her in the form of a question, cannot the civilizing-colonizing mission itself be reinterpreted and re-described as a kind of happiness mission (2010b:125) not just for the colonizer, but in some twisted, horrifying way for the colonized also?) can become:

a technology of self-production, which can intensify bad feelings by keeping them on hold.  Or, if someone feels bad and encounters somebody being cheerful, it can feel like a pressure and can even be painful: as if that person is trying to ‘jolly you up.’ … Happiness is precarious and even perverted because it does not reside within objects or subjects (as a form of positive residence) but is a matter of how things make an impression (2010b:43-44).

And goddamnit does living a colonized life more often than not make a bad impression.  However, there is a point in telling that bad joke, and of talking briefly, again, about the struggles of myself and countless other Indigenous peoples, and that is because there is something that many of us turn to for support, help, and just a simple feeling of not being alone.  We turn, or at least attempt to turn if it is available to us, to our Native communities.  Those spaces, collectives, and collective spaces in which we believe we be able to not only find a mirror of our lives and embodied experiences, but also a place, temporal as well as spatial, of respite from the outside world.

But what happens when we cannot?  What happens when our relations to our community/ies are frayed and fractured in such a way that our continuing ability to access them is damaged?  What happens when that fraying and fracturing is not because of us, or even because of the community as some inherent condition, but because of the micro-physical intrusions of settler coloniality into our spaces?

Community and the Parasitic “Insider”

This is the real point here, that is not always easy, and not for the reasons that may seem most obvious to most, such as lack of proximity to a community, be it urban or rural, or the perhaps exceedingly small size of a community that might be present.  Rather, the complication that I want to speak of here is also the final wrinkle in the first arch of this story that is this dissertation.  What I want to dwell on is the not new, but seemingly growing, or at least growing in attention, phenomenon of what I and many other Indigenous people have for some time called Pretendians, as well as the related, and very often overlapping, phenomenon of Fétis[2]This not-new phenomenon is, to put it perhaps overly simply, is the practice of settler individuals (and sometimes others, but primarily settlers) putting forth a false Indigenous identity, and placing themselves out in front of the world as Indigenous people, and sometimes even attempting to assert themselves in some way as a kind of voice of their supposed peoples.

Quite often this seems to be a cynical ploy towards some kind of anti-Indigenous political programme, as Darryl Leroux and others have demonstrated quite convincingly and handily regarding the explosion of groups in eastern Ontario, Québec, the Maritimes and parts of New England (2019) where quite often the absolutely astronomical growth in new claimants of Indigeneity can be clearly traced back to white supremacist, anti-Native, political projects in opposition to Aboriginal and Treaty rights.  The assumption of Indigenous identity, through the growth of the so-called “Eastern Métis” movement, is clearly, at least in terms of its foundational leadership and organizational nature, antagonistic at a fundamental level towards Indigenous peoples and livelihoods.  It is a deeply duplicitous move.  What we are seeing now though in eastern Ontario, Québec, the Maritimes, and parts of New England is hardly new.  For example, during the allotment era in Oklahoma, when the collective landholdings of the Cherokee, Choctaw, and other nations that had been death-marched to the former “Indian Territory,” were forcibly broken up and privatized through the intervention of the U.S. settler-colonial State, many settlers engaged in deceit, claiming kinship to these nations in order to access the land (Debo 1973; Stremlau 2011).  Over time many of these lies became forgotten as such, transformed into mythological family histories about supposed distant Native ancestors.  But they remain lies just the same, lies that harm Indigenous peoples, and lies that only a settler could tell.

These myths can cling though, stuck to people before they are even conceived.  They are born with them, raised with them, and for some, they can become a very core aspect of who they are.  I make no claims to people of this sort being any kind of meaningful strata within the Pretendian milieu; I am probably far too cynical and jaded for that.  However, much as I want to, I also cannot believe, because of this, that it is the case for all people that when they engage in Pretendian performance that they are intentionally setting out to harm Indigenous people.  George Tinker (2004), Vine Deloria Jr. (1988), Stephen Pearson (2013), and Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012) have all shown and discussed the fact that rumours of distant Indigenous ancestry are pervasive within settler society as family and community mythologies.  While overall these mythologies converge with one of the positive dimensions of Wolfe’s logic of elimination, in the self-indigenization of the settler, and quite often function as what Tuck and Yang refer to as “moves to settler innocence” (2012), at the level of the individual, I do not believe that it can be helped in some ways if one is raised to believe certain mythologies of place and origin.  The hope, obviously, is that eventually they may come to realize the falseness of their beliefs, and additionally the impact that these false beliefs have on actually-existing Indigenous peoples, but I find it hard to make an initial ethical judgement in those kinds of cases.

Regardless, as I said, there is an effect, intended or not, malicious, or not, on Indigenous communities.  And again, this is not something new, and neither is it all that uncommon if one knows where to look, knows the people to speak to, or the websites to follow.  For those of us in academia with a foot in, or knowledge of, Native & Indigenous Studies, at least two major controversies come to my mind immediately.  The first one I came to know was Ward Churchill, the now blackballed scholar who, still, claims Cherokee descent and a kinship relationship with the United Keetoowah Band of the Cherokee Nation on the reverse cover of all his published books.  Churchill is the author of many books on a wide range of topics from the mechanics of genocide, to ongoing Indigenous resistance.  He has been a high-level member of the American Indian Movement’s Colorado cell, and regularly finds himself listed on essential left-wing reading lists.  While I have certainly taken a lot from Churchill over the years, and indeed my shelf contains almost every book he has written[3], I have also been aware of the controversy surrounding his identity for almost as long.  For much of my awareness of it, I did not want to believe, because his work was so key to my formative years as a political Native, so I simply compartmentalized it for a long time, unwilling to face it.

More recently, we have also witnessed the downfall of the formally well-recognized and well-respected scholar and Indigenous feminist author Andrea Smith, whose work on the interrelations between sexual violence and the genocide of Indigenous peoples was for so long absolutely essential reading for many an aspiring Indigenous scholar, or grassroots activist in the trenches of decolonial resistance (Smith 2010; 2015)[4].  Like Churchill, Smith also claimed Cherokee descent, and also like him, controversies surrounding her Nativeness also dogged her for many years, though, at least in my experience, it was never as near the surface of discussions around and about her as it was for Churchill[5].  I had heard the whispers because I knew people who knew or worked with Smith, though I myself never did.  Still, the apparent truth of her non-Indigenous ancestry eventually caught up with Smith during the spring and summer of 2015, leading to the rapid dissemination of the hashtag #AndreaSmithIsNotCherokee on social media platforms, and the circulation of an open letter by a number of prominent Indigenous women, queer and feminist scholars addressing the matter (2015).

Beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower, these kinds of controversies have broken into, or been birthed entirely into the mainstream.  One can think of the controversy that erupted over the acclaimed (I wish I could add “formerly” to that) canadian author Joseph Boyden, whose account of his Indigenous ancestry has—unlike Smith and Churchill, who always stuck to a claim of Cherokee descent—shifted many times to many different nations over the years (Barrera 2016) . The revelations about Boyden I can say from my own conversations, have really hurt Indigenous people, because he presented himself through his bestselling writings as a voice of the Indigenous experience in Canada, while all the while he lied about his connection to Indigenous people.

Politically, south of the border, it is also impossible I feel to have not heard or read of the debacle that has been Democratic Senator, and 2020 Presidential hopeful, Elizabeth Warren’s claim that she is Cherokee[6].  It is probably not necessary to recount that entire story, including President Trump’s blitheringly racist act of calling her Pocahontas while speaking in front of a group of surviving World War II Native code-talkers (Merica 2017).  Showing her own reactive tendencies, Warren, rather than responding in a heartfelt and meaningful way to concerns from Indigenous peoples in the United States, went as far as to take a DNA test to prove her Indigeneity (Johnson 2018), a postmodern settler-colonial practice if ever there was one, and which Indigenous scholars such as Kim TallBear have been harshly critical of (2013).  That the controversy around her, at least within Indian Country, has not died down would be to put it somewhat minimally.

Finally, here in Canada, especially from Ontario eastward, there has been the rising issue of the Fétis.  I will not go into extreme depth here, in part because scholars far more involved in the scene, knowledgeable of it, and thus equipped to speak on it, have already put in the work to do so, such as Darryl Leroux (2018) and Adam Gaudry (2017), and also because a full accounting of the problem is well beyond the bounds of this dissertation.  However, to summarize it, the Fétis issue involves the complexities introduced to Nativeness in Canada via the presence of the Métis people of the Prairies and northwestern Canada.  Linguistically, the French term métis is a cognate of the Spanish word mestizo, which throughout most of Latin America indicates a person or community of mixed Indigenous and european ancestry.  In much of French-speaking Canada this meaning of métis as purely relating to the racial mixture of Indigenous and european has been mixed up, likely with some degree of intent, with the idea of the Métis as a distinct Indigenous people who emerged out an original admixture of european and Native on the Plains, but which underwent a process of ethnogenesis, birthing a new national Indigenous community with strong ties to their Native kin (Leroux 2018; Gaudry & Leroux 2017; Andersen 2014; Vowel 2016). Politically, socially, and culturally though, what we have seen in recent decades is an explosive growth in groups in eastern Ontario, Québec and the Maritimes who, through an abuse of Supreme Court of Canada decisions such as Powley and Daniels, are now claiming an Indigenous identity, challenging for their supposed rights in the judicial system (though, as of this writing, failing each and every time), and, probably most importantly, acting as a disruptive force with regards to the assertion of actual treaty and constitutional rights of Native nations in those regions. As Leroux recounts it, having spent hundreds of hours combing through archives, this is because many of these groups were founded on just such a basis, namely the failure to oppose treaty and constitutional rights on the basis of white rights, thus turning to an imagined Indigenous ancestry in order to attempt to find a better footing. More so, of these “Eastern Métis” as Leroux recounts, many of these organizations rely on small numbers of “root ancestors,” primarily women, in order to make these claims—ancestors, often upwards of four centuries ago, who their members claim descent from—however, as he has shown, in many cases these supposed root ancestors are verifiably not Indigenous (2018).

It is a mess.  But that is not necessarily why I mention the issues of the Pretendian and the Fétis in this discussion around Native racialization.  Not only have other scholars already done it in far greater depth than I could possibly imagine myself being capable of doing, but others, such as Patrick Wolfe (2006) and Eve Tuck (2012) have also demonstrated how these moves towards race-shifting and self-indigenization are entirely the outgrowth of the structures and ideology of settler colonialism.  No, the reason I bring it up rather is because, like so much of my dissertation, the confrontation with the phenomenon is something that I have had to contend within my own life.  To be more specific, in my experiences it is linked back with the affective condition of Nativeness under settler-colonial regimes, and more particularly with the ways in which Indigenous people often try and escape these conditions: through community.

And in this, in my experiences, I have recently come to a breaking point.  This past Winter 2019 term, while preparing the final writings of this dissertation and working on my first teaching experience, I decided I had finally had enough of the issue as it exists locally in Kitchener-Waterloo.  It was not that I had suddenly become aware of the issue, because I had known about it, and been suspicious of certain individuals and their claims to Indigeneity for some time.  Years in a few cases.  However, something simply broke inside me, and I decided to break my silence on feelings that I had been harbouring for quite some time.

What pushed me past that point though was not obviously associated with the presence of within our community, in various positions of prominence, of Pretendians.  Rather it was a failure to be able to take part in ceremony.  During the Winter term, my nekōqsemaw[7] and I had intended to attend a sweat lodge ceremony, along with other members of the University of Waterloo’s campus Indigenous student population.  However, because our relationship with the community was already in a strained state, because of prior issues, we decided at the last minute to not attend the ceremony.  Our reasoning was that while we both needed the medicine, the extent to which it would be actual medicine would likely be poisoned by the state of relations within the community.  I decided to speak out on my feelings, because they cut very deeply.

During that winter, my father fell ill with lymphoma and had to begin radiation treatment for it, while my mother shortly after his diagnosis suffered a heart attack and had to be medevacked by air off of Bermuda to Boston for emergency surgery.  I distinctly remember being jolted out of bed at 1:37 am in the morning from the ringing of my land-line phone.  No one ever calls that phone except my parents, telemarketers, people taking surveys, and a variety of telephone frauds.  Given the time I thought it could only be a con, so I did not answer and rolled back over to try and go back to sleep.  I could not though because seconds later my cell phone, which I keep at my bedside (as so many of us do, driven by late capitalism/colonialism/liberalism to unhealthy connection with our personal, portable portals to cyberspace) also began to ring.  So, I rolled over and saw that the caller ID was saying “Mom & Dad.”  I decided to answer and expected unwelcome news about my father, given his cancer, but it was actually him to tell me that he had just gotten back from the hospital, and that my mother was there.  I do not think I was able to fall back to sleep that night until the first light of dawn.  I spent those interim hours pacing my apartment, pulling drags from my vaporizer (I was, and am, trying to quit cigarettes; if any store near me had been open at such an hour I would have likely failed).  I thought that I was very much on the verge of losing everything.  During this time, my own struggles with depression, anxiety, and loneliness were also beginning to slowly tilt downwards due to the endless and unrelating pressure of being in academia and trying to push forward to completion.  So, to say that my emotional state was troubled, and my stress level was high would be to make a gross understatement.  Thus, I felt I really needed this medicine, but was denied it.  I needed my community, but that limb was already in the process of being severed.

One issue that I latched onto during what amounted to a public explosion of my grief, anger, loss, and frustration was that in the years since my return to Kitchener-Waterloo in 2014 I often felt that community leadership cared little, and moved even less, to help those of us who were in need of it.  What I felt I had detected and diagnosed was a condition of obsession with fame, or of being adjacent to fame.  I myself have generally cared extremely little for such things.  I even tend to recoil with a mix of shock, horror, and, to some degree, disgust when I am called a leader of some sort, and the same feelings follow me when writings of mine have been widely circulated.  However, if I am being honest about my experiences and my feelings over the past several years, quite the opposite often seems to be default stance of many local Indigenous leaders, and this has a trickledown effect with regards to other members of the community.

It has hurt a lot, and I have seen how it hurts others also.  I have seen a lot of suffering in this community.  People who have trauma.  People who have depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.  People who feel like their worlds are falling apart because of family illness and other problems.  People who are experiencing racialized anti-Native violence.  I have seen these people call out for help and support, only to be ultimately echoing into a void where there is supposed to be community.  I myself have had to step in on occasion to help care for people I love and care about, not because no one else will, but knowing that no one else has, is, or will.  And this hurts a lot also.  That I have already said.  It is almost a pain without name, because there is supposed to be this thing, we call an Indigenous community, where the everyday rhetoric is one of coming together and healing, helping, and holding onto one another, but in truth appears to be little more than a lie.  What has cut deeper though is watching the interactions of community members online, in the cases of people with fame or adjacency to fame, where they could simply be having a standard “difficult day” and the outpouring of sympathy becomes an absolute deluge.

Lauren Berlant, in her book of the same title, describes what she calls “cruel optimism” as that state, and a relation, that:

exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.  It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project.  It might rest on something simpler, too, like a new habit that promises to induce in you an improved way of being.  These kinds of optimistic relation are not inherently cruel.  They become cruel only when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially [emphasis mine] (2011:1).

In many ways, it is a crisis of the ordinary, of the everyday, when life is shaped by ongoing loss.  It is an impasse and an obstacle (2011:5; 10) in the structure of everyday life.  I mention this because I feel that my relationship to my community, or rather my desire for a relationship with my community, has become one of cruel optimism.  I seek community because I was to feel shelter like I have entered a safe harbour in the midst of a storm.  But that is not what happens.  If it has ever happened it has not been for an awfully long time.  My relationship to community is phantasmatic, incorporeal, spectral, or unreal; it is a nullity; it feels so real, but when I reach out to try and touch it my hand passes right through, and I am left unseen, unheard, unfelt.  Perhaps I am the ghost in this relationship, and in trying to call-out from the other-side I strain, and strain again.  My voice becomes hoarse and my body and spirit exhausted.  My community becomes like a phantom limb; it feels present but is not actually there.  And in all of this straining, the hurt that brought me to trying to find a sense of community only continues, like embers slowly burning, never being extinguished.  But the promise is there, and I continue to reach.  Maybe I should stop.  Maybe I will.  For me this is a relationship of cruel optimism par excellence.

And so, it began to seem very much so to me that the only peoples whose sufferings and calls for help that mattered was those who were most visible, or had the most access to power, fame, and recognition.  And after the failure of the sweat lodge ceremony, a healing ceremony that we both knew we needed, I just could not stay quiet any longer about the issues in my/our community.  While it began with a polemic against the state of community leadership, once the sluice gates were opened everything else poured out into the open.  Within days I decided that I also could no longer be silent about Pretendians and “Eastern Métis” types in our community.

When I decided to speak openly and candidly about my feelings and suspicions, I decided that I did not want to act like a shotgun and spray over the widest possible set of targets, and so I decided to only speak on two persons that I had, and still have, serious reason to be suspicious of when it comes to their claims of Indigeneity.  Indeed, one person I can say is someone regarding whom I have a very high degree of metaphysical certitude about.  This is because this is a person who was, at an earlier stage in my life, someone who was a close friend of mine, and someone who I thought I could lean on and call to for help.  Indeed, they were there to help me pick my life up after I thought I had overturned all of it in early 2014.  Because of this former closeness with this individual—including many personal and intimate conversations with his person on their porch—I came to know that they had some kind of remote Anishinaabe and Rotinonshón:ni ancestry.  However, thinking to the last chapter and my discussion on visual schema, they always said that because they did not look it (that is, they are an individual that people would identify as white-passing) and, much more importantly, had never been raised to know it, that they would never claim it and call themselves an Native.  I deeply respected that stance.  I thought it was thoughtful and considerate to other Indigenous people.  However, at some point, this person and I had a falling out and we stopped speaking for several years.  I only came back into contact with them again quite unexpectedly in 2018 as they had become the business partner of a white friend and colleague of mine, but in an Indigenous themed business.  The theme of an Indigenous business of course immediately raised my eyebrows.  After that I quickly learned that during the two or so years from when we had last spoken, this person had re-branded themselves with an Algonquin-Anishinaabe identity and was presenting themselves to the world as an Indigenous person, including being an invited speaker at a local Indigenous event  for which I was present and also spoke, an event which was a public protest against government anti-Native violence.  To say that I felt a pit form in my stomach, because of the fact that I knew this person, knew their story, and was now witnessing their act of racial-transformation, would be an understatement.

At the same time, I was also growing concerned about a local artist in Kitchener-Waterloo who sells themselves, and labels their artistic business, as being the work of a Métis person.  This person, who dances in regalia at pow wows, and who always seemed to find themselves with the contract to create new works of Indigenous art for local purposes, despite the presence of a number of other local, and extremely gifted young Kwe artists, also raised my eyebrow initially when I saw them sharing the statements of Sebastien Malette, an assistant professor at Carleton University and militant functionary of the so-called “Eastern Métis” cause[8].  The content of their social media posts was to demonize the quite lauded and important work of scholars like Darryl Leroux, and to say that Malette’s settler-colonial theft of Indigenous identity, and functionally anti-Métis and Atlantic Native politics, verifies their supposed family history.  At this point in my personal and political development I was already quite suspicious of the entire “Eastern Métis” cause, because of the work put in by scholars, members, and allies of both the Métis people of the Plains, as well as the various Indigenous nations from eastern Ontario, Québec, and the Maritimes who the Eastern Métis were beginning to encroach upon.  I did not put much thought into this person’s social media posts, though, until I happened to be exploring this person’s website for their artistic work and noticed that they referred to themselves as an Anishinaabe Métis with roots in two specific Algonquin communities in Québec.  By this point, I was aware enough that a claim to being Algonquin Métis, eastern Ontario Métis, or Québec Métis was cause for concern.  So, I made a quite simple decision, and decided to look do some quick investigations via Google.  I found myself rather quickly, and also unexpectedly, on the forums, looking at posts from 2005, and was able to verify, by way of personal information that they were giving out to the public, that this was local artist was a person posting on the forums, trying to dig up any possible Indigenous ancestry they could. They were talking about Cree, Anishinaabe and Métis potentially being in their family line, but their family story was a seemingly a series of holes and, as pointed out by another seemingly more knowledgeable person who replied to them, apparently ancestors who did not even exist.  Yet, here in Kitchener-Waterloo, fourteen years later, they have managed to ensconce themselves firmly within the local Indigenous community as not only an artist, but as an extremely prominent one, regularly featured, lauded, and treated as a person of significant local importance.

I should be clear about something though.  When I engaged in these simple acts of internet research, my intention was never to prove that the person was not Native.  Quite the contrary, what I always hoped to the find was evidence that I myself was incorrect, had made poor judgements, or was expressing some sort of internalized bigotry against white-passing Natives.  I had hoped, and always did hope, that they and other persons were in fact truly Native persons, but who perhaps were caught up in a misuse of linguistic identity signifiers.  I wanted very much so to be wrong.  To come out of the other side of it though with high certitude in my suspicions actually hurt much more than it made me feel vindicated.  Those feelings have not gone away.

When I did mention these things, after choosing to no longer be quiet, it blew up, though not in any kind of direct way.  It involved a lot of sub-tweeting and veiled posts that everyone knew was directed at me, and at others who had chosen to also speak up at the time, or just after, including my nekōqsemaw and some other young Indigenous people that I know.  We were accused—by Indigenous people with institutional power who, quite frankly, enable these local Pretendians and Fétis to get away with their race-shifting, and also grant them much of the prominence, fame, and recognition that they experience locally—of making this into a fight about blood quantum, or some other issue, choosing, as they did, to ignore what we were really saying: that these people are not actually Indigenous, and we should not be reaching for them hand-over-foot when we have our own people locally struggling, with mental health, with health generally, with depression, with trauma, with learning to reconnect, with finding themselves, with abuse and violence, and any other manner of things that Indians, Métis, and Inuit peoples face under the multi-modal regime of violence that is settler colonialism.

And that is the real reason that I have chosen to talk about this.  I believe, very much so after many hours of conversation, face-to-face, online, over the phone, etc. with other Indigenous people—with my mom, my brother, with my nekōqsemaw, with friends and other kin—that the presence of what many of us bluntly refer to as “fake Natives” in our midst takes away from where the focus of our community efforts should really be, which is on helping our own people, especially the many young Indigenous people who are hungry to reconnect with themselves, their ancestry and their community. Quite often it has been my experience within this and other communities that it is those people, the Pretendians and the Fétis who instinctually push to the front of the line to meet and speak with elders, take teachings, participate in ceremony, and get the best seats at community events.  Where this leaves those of us struggling to reconnect, those who us who are disconnected for one reason or another, is to stand there, politely, quietly, waiting for our turn to come so that we might be able to strike up a conversation with an elder we had until then maybe only seen from afar.

Settler Self-Indigenization and the Desire for Native Suffering

Here is a more recent story about exactly this.  I do not travel back and forth from the University of Waterloo campus much these days, beyond attending appointments or going to the library.  However, I did recently find myself on campus and decided to walk around a little further than I normally would, rather than heading directly home after my business was complete.  I eventually made my way over to St. Paul’s University College, one of the University’s christian affiliated colleges, and also home of the Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre.  As I walked around the halls of St. Paul’s I came across a poster for a past event.  It was for the “I Am Affected” campaign, which was one of the many post-Truth & Reconciliation Committee, pan-canadian efforts to educate settler individuals in this country about the effects and afterlives of this county’s residential school system, which many people have correctly labelled as a violent and genocidal government policy (Starblanket 2018; Churchill 2004; Milloy 1999).  While looking at this poster, which must have been there for some time, I noticed that in the bottom left-hand corner was a picture of the supposed local Métis artist I talked about above.  Next to the black and white image of them was the label “Algonquin Métis.”  I simply huffed to myself, rolled my eyes, whispered “figures …” and moved on.

Two days later however it slammed right into me seemingly from out of nowhere when the thought of the poster popped back into my mind: this really and truly offended me, that this person’s face, and, by their own social media admissions, “Eastern Métis” identity of “Algonquin Métis” had been on this poster, looking back into me, and saying “I too am affected by the afterlives of the residential schools.” It offended me because I live every day with the stated and unstated, affected and embodied, afterlives of the residential school system, or, to be clearer, the american iteration of it in the boarding school system which, while more military in organization, compared to Canada’s model which was more akin to a religious monastic order, had the same intent, purpose, and goal: to “kill the Indian, save the man.” Both of my mother’s parents attended boarding schools, as did my great-grandparents generation.  As I have mentioned before, it was the stroke of an boarding school agents pen that changed my great-grandfather’s blood quantum from “full” to “3/4th”, which has resulted in my own liminally enrolled status with the Menominee Nation today as a 1st Degree Descendant.

Neither my mother or her siblings attended boarding schools.  But the effects are, if we have learned anything in recent years, transmitted virally and mimetically from generation to generation.  Perhaps even genetically.  Because growing up a poor Native, raised by survivors of the boarding schools is hard, and because settler colonialism, in general, makes being a Native a trying experience, many of my family members turned to drugs and alcohol to find escape.  I will always have the deepest sympathy for them and will never hold them at fault for the choices they made, but I have lost many people that I love deeply because of this, even years after they got clean.  I think about them almost every single day, and because of this, I make an active choice every day to not drink alcohol or engage in hard drug use.  This is difficult, and at times alienating, when there is so little respect for such choices and people simply assume that they are welcome to bring alcohol to my apartment, or when I am simply in Bermuda, where the national pastime seems quite often, and indeed is even joked about, to be alcoholism.

I have to think about these things, and these choices day-in and day-out.  They are never not impacting me, whether they are at the forefront of my thinking or not.  Living a Native life is hard; living with the embodied, inherited, and intergenerational afterlives of the residential and boarding schools can make it that much harder.

And so, to back up slightly, I have to say that this black and white face of an “Eastern Métis” person staring back at me from this post-TRC event poster, proclaiming silently to me that the residential schools also affected them, doesn’t just offend me, but actually is something that I find profoundly hurtful.  It is one thing to engage in race-shifting and the theft of Indigenous identity.  That is old hat for many settlers.  Indeed, part of the hyper-solubility of Native racialization, which diminishes actual Indigenous communities through generations of miscegenation, is that it also ideologically allows the transference onto the settler the signifiers of Indigeneity, most importantly the claim to continental territoriality, through being able to make a claim to Native ancestry.  And, as Leroux and others show, because this positive aspect of settler colonialism, as theorized by Wolfe, which is the self-indigenization of the settler and the naturalization of conquest, is so essential to the project of settler colonialism, when actual Native ancestry is not accessible, it is quite often concocted through the retroactive race-shifting of settler ancestors in order to facilitate settler race-shifting in the present.

However, it is another thing—and this is perhaps simply my own emotional, affective, and embodied response to this poster—to actually claim the hurt and the loss of Indigenous peoples as yours.  This person, whose face bears down upon me in that image, is an “Eastern Métis” claimant, again by their own public admissions.  Thus, my first instinct is to dismiss it in general, knowing how much the so-called “root ancestors” of these people are fictitious, or their Nativeness an act of myth-making.  Even if I choose to be forgiving, and allow that yes, perhaps this person does have some degree of Indigenous ancestry, their own publicly archived and available discussions of the subject reveal that even by their grandfather’s generation it was whispered about as a family rumour, and that rumour was for an affiliation that is not the one this person now claims (having shifted from Cree to Algonquin).  Thus, even if granted to be true, I am left wondering as to whether those Natives that may be in their family line lived and died long before the residential schools were even implemented.

What do the residential or boarding schools hold for them?  What ghosts?  What horrors?  When I think of the residential schools, I think of Mi’kmaq musician Willie Dunn’s 1971 song for 12-year-old Charlie Wenjack, an Anishinaabe boy who fled the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School near Kenora, Ontario, trying to make his way home to Marten Falls First Nation:

Walk on, little Charlie
Walk on through the snow.
Heading down the railway line,
Trying to make it home.
Well, he’s made it forty miles,
Six hundred left to go.
It’s a long old lonesome journey,
Shufflin’ through the snow.

He’s lonesome and he’s hungry,
It’s been a time since last he ate,
And as the night grows bolder,
He wonders at his fate.
For legs are wracked with pain
As he staggers through the night.
And sees through his troubled eyes,
That his hands are turning white.

Lonely as a single star,
In the skies above,
His father in a mining camp,
His mother in the ground,
And he’s looking for his dad,
And he’s looking out for love,
Just a lost little by the railroad track
Heading homeward bound.

Is that the great Wendigo
come to look upon my face?
And are the skies exploding
Down the misty aisles of space?
Who’s that coming down the track,
Walking up to me?
Walk on, little Charlie,
Walk on through the snow.
Moving down the railway line,
Try to make it home.
And he’s made it forty miles,
Six hundred left to go.
It’s a long and lonesome journey,
Shufflin’ through the snow.

Charlie never made it home.  I think of him, and all of the others like him who never made it home the residential schools in which they were imprisoned and brutalized.  I think of 14-year-old Lizzie Cardish of my nation, the Menominee nation, who in 1906 set fire Menominee Indian Training School, a boarding school on the reservation, a “crime” for which she was convicted and sent to federal men’s prison (Davidson 2017).  I think of my grandfather, who also attended the Menominee boarding school, and at 17-years-old decided to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps, which culminated in his involvement in the Iwo Jima landings.  I think of the time I have spent in the Mush Hole, the former Mohawk Institute, down on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve near Waterloo, a place where if you know how to listen, how to see, how to feel, you will know is filled with ghosts.  And so, the question comes back to me: what ghosts haunt this person, this black and white image of a face, that stares back at me from this event poster?  What clings to them?  What weighs them down?  Who did they survive, and who do they live for?

Perhaps it seems harsh, or too judgemental, but the face that looked back at me from that image was not the face of those living in the afterlives of the residential schools, and who are today subjected still to daily genocidal pressures.  It may seem harsh, or too judgemental, but as Native peoples have to face these lived experiences daily, it is the only stance that I feel like I can possibly take, to safeguard not only myself, but also those who I love and care about.  My ghosts are with me always, both those of my own design, and those who exist before, beyond, and after me.

In these late days of settler colonialism, our communities need healing more than ever.  We need to heal ourselves and each other if we are ever going to actually find a path leading out of this situation.  And this is my final point, thinking still of that “I Am Affected” poster: what does it mean for us as healing Indigenous people and communities when people such as this come into our spaces, or have space made for them by those who enable them, and claim that they have the same experiences as us?  What seems to me to be the case is that space is made for them, and resources for healing re-allocated to count for their claim to needing healing experiences.  This can only come at the expense of actual Indigenous peoples.

These are my experiences, and my thoughts, but I know that they are also the experiences and thoughts of many others.  And so, the question should be, where are our community priorities?  Should it be with trying to become visible and socially adjacent to well-known fakes?  Or should it be with helping those of us in our kindship, friendship and communal circles who often are openly crying out for connection and support?  For myself, this is not even really a question, but it is one that I believe that our communities are truly faced with.  Likewise, we must ask ourselves how allowing these people into our spaces, when there is so much of a growing country-wide backlash against “fake Natives” and “Eastern Métis” from within Native circles, effects those of us who perhaps do not have status, or who were scooped up by the colonial State into the quite misnamed child welfare system, or other similar experiences, especially when the conversation turns towards accusations of arguing over blood quantum. I know this mentally affects many of us who struggle with those issues.  To even have to consider these things is, to be honest, absolutely heart-breaking.

But these kin should not have to even entertain those thoughts of “am I Pretendian?” Yet often they do, with the worry that they themselves may be “found out” one day.  I know this fear, because I have shared it in the past.  Because, as I have recounted already, I am 1/128th blood quantum short of being able to be a fully enrolled member of the Menominee Nation, instead being listed, alongside my brother and many cousins on the rolls of 1st Degree Descendants (what was called the ancillary roll when I was younger), I have struggled with this as well. This is one of the reasons that I have, for the past few years, every few months, called my mother to ask her how the “blood thing” is going, wanting to reclaim that 3/128ths more blood that I should have, allowing me to become a fully enrolled member, is because “I don’t want to be the next Ward Churchill.”

So, my long-standing worry about Pretendians, separating for a moment for the very real macro-scaled anti-Native politics and motives of many of the larger “Eastern Métis,” is how the presence of them within our community, and the enormous amount of space that they often consume and take up, may delegitimize the struggles to reconnect of those who are disconnected, whether statused or not. Or they may cause, and the conversation around them may cause, them to feel a sense that they themselves and the struggles that they face are not legitimate.

As the stories my friends and kin tell, that I tell, under such conditions of absolute colonial reality, in the dust of this white world, one simply cannot long-live sanely without help.  Without others.  Without love.  This, it seems, is luxury few of us are able to access.  As a community, in anything we do those who struggle to reconnect should be met with open and welcoming arms, and never made to feel like what they are is not their true selves.


[1] I am making allusions here not only to Ann Cvetkovich’s work in Depression: A Public Feeling (2012), Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, and Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2014), all works that are not always the easiest to read, but which have influenced my thinking on these questions.

[2] Portmanteaus of “Pretend” and “Indian” and “Fake” and Métis, respectively.  Pretendian, as a descriptive term, has been around most of my life, to the extent that I am not sure that placing its origin on the timeline is readily possible.  Fétis on the other hand appears much more recent, being used as shorthand in discussions around the issue of so-called “Eastern Métis” and others who have appropriated Métis in the wake of the Powley and Daniels decisions in the Canadian Supreme Court.  If there is a term to describe whites/settlers who falsely claim to be Inuit, and I know of at least one local Kitchener-Waterloo person who my Inuit friends are suspicious of, I do not know it.

[3] A glancing look at this dissertation’s bibliography will quickly show that I actually cite several. I, I will admit, always feel ambivalent now about citing Churchill these days.  There were times that I would have done it without hesitation, but those days are long since passed.  Now I only retain my personal set of Churchill’s books (without having added any of his newer collections and newer editions of old titles) only really for reference purposes.  Churchill’s work, I maintain, remains potent, at least insofar as his various historiographies of genocide and settler colonialism are concerned.  He always has had a way with words, and of viscerally placing one alongside the dead and injured victims of U.S. and canadian colonialism, and so, for those reasons, and those reasons alone, references to his various works continue to find their way into my writing.  Perhaps one day this will change; perhaps it should.

[4] My continued referencing of Smith’s work follows similar contours, and evinces similar anxieties, as my uses of Churchill’s work, as noted in the previous footnote.

[5] This is, of course, strictly speaking from my own experiential perspective. Given my association for many years with a kind of haunted Marxist-Leninist activism, I was always aware of, and at various junctures rather supportive of, the American Indian Movement (AIM).  AIM split in the early 1990s into two competing factions, the American Indian Movement—Grand Governing Council, and the Confederation of Autonomous Chapters of the American Indian Movement.  Churchill, along with other major figures such as the late Russel Means and Osage theologian George Tinker were associated with “Autonomous AIM” and due to the extreme bad-blood that existed between the two claimants to the AIM name and legacy, the AIM—GGC made their suspicions of Churchill’s of Nativeness explicit.  For clarity though, AIM—GGC also has a long-standing bad-jacketing campaign against Churchill, by which I mean (using left-wing activist jargon) that more than believing, and making said beliefs well-known, that Churchill is non-Native, they believe him to actually be a government agent (AIM—GGC website n.d.).  I consider this secondary claim to be much more spurious however, and consider it be a hold-over and manifestation of what I personally consider to be the worst elements of First World and northern bloc “micro-Leninism” (the tendency of very small left-wing organizations to believe that they are, and promote themselves as such, the vanguard organization which will usher in revolution).  Regardless of such, this is why I was aware for much longer of the questions regarding Churchill.  Perhaps if I had been more directly involved in Indigenous feminist activism or attentive to its associated scholarship then the suspicions regarding Smith would have reached me sooner.

[6] While Churchill claims a connection to a genuine Cherokee community in the form of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, and both Smith and Warren claim a kind of generic Cherokee identity, it is worth noting the scale of the problem in the United States in terms of actual organized groupings claiming some kind of Cherokee-ness.  By my own last count, which is admittedly not carried out in any kind of manner other than in casual passing, there are over two hundred groups in that country making claims to being Cherokee, quite often organizing in states far from either the traditional Cherokee territories of the american southeast, or Oklahoma, the terminal point of the Trail of Tears.  There are, for example, organizations such as the “Cherokees of California”, the “Cherokee Tuscarora Nation of Turtle Island” in Washington, D.C., the “Cherokee Nation of New Jersey”, and the “The Cherokee Delaware Tribe of the Northwest” in Oregon, amongst many others. Some states, such as Arkansas and Missouri contain well over a dozen such groups.  While the Cherokee are the most overrepresented Indigenous nation whose identity is stolen and taken up by settler groups, there are, in addition to those ones, on the order of twenty-five groups claiming to be Lenape, seventeen Shawnee and twenty Anishinaabe.   I sometimes count myself lucky that, unlike my fellow Algonkian kin those nations, there are no organizations falsely claiming a Menominee identity.

[7] Sister (Menominee)

[8] A true story about Malette’s role in this movement would be the great time and effort that he put in in attempting to have a friend of my nekōqsemaw and I, an Anishinaabe student, expelled from Carleton University for publicly calling him a “fake Native” and drawing attention to Malette and the movement that he is part of. But that is a story that can be detailed, with his permission, another time.

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