Stand before a mirror. What do you see? What do you want to see? The colour of your eyes and hair, your skin, the marks on your face tell a story about you – who you are, where you come from, where you believe you “belong”. You might ask yourself: Why are my eyes this color? Why is my skin this color? Why do I look the way I do? And you may even ask – Why am I here?
From the last century and beyond, Indigenous issues of community and belonging have been coloured red by the furor stirred up amongst the people through the imposition of ideas such as “blood quantum” promoted through Canada’s Indian Act. Blood quantum is an imposed mechanism for establishing peoples’ connections to reservation communities and enables those in power to determine who has access to resources. So, in essence, identity is about getting one’s share of the figurative “pie”.
No doubt Indigenous conceptions of identity have been weakened through over a century of colonial and federal policies. These undermined the power of native groups to determine their own membership. The Indian Act created the legal fiction of ‘Canadian Indian’ identity along with categories or degrees of Indianness. Infused with foreign understanding of identity, these policies distanced Indigenous peoples from traditional notions of belonging.
Over the last few days I have been watching my community implode as members try to stop a woman from building her home. Why? Because she has a non-native husband. This issue brings out the worst in our people, and social media is hot with hate. Characterized by some as “a Nazi witch hunt”, this debacle is difficult to watch, yet much like a train wreck, it’s hard to look away, and that all the more so because my own family is affected. Community members are submitting names to a list of individuals living with non-natives in the territory and my sister and her partner are second down the line.
The list is now over 200 names (the total population is over 9,000). When complete, letters will go to each household, from the Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Council and a group of community members, essentially stating that they have to leave. In 2010 when the issue was raised, those with offspring were excluded from the list. This time, no one is immune. Children will be the collateral damage and that includes my niece and nephew.
The issue has shifted. Formerly it concerned unequal treatment of the sexes (sort of resolved by Bill C-31, and a Moratorium on Mixed Marriages where those married before 1981 could reside in the community). Currently it is about maintaining Mohawk blood or racial purity.
Though the 2003 Kahnawà:ke Law on Membership tried to move away from measuring membership eligibility by blood quantum, the issue has not gone away. Rather, it was camouflaged as ‘lineage and descent,’ i.e. the number of Kanien’kehá:ka great grandparents a person can claim. The concept has proven difficult to apply.
What does racial purity mean? And where did the current conflict come from? Over 500 years of colonization Indigenous identity has been externally defined. Imposed Indian status based on race departs from non-racist Indigenous membership practices. Currently, band membership laws tend towards criteria with strong racial undertones. These practices derive from colonial policies that are ramified in contemporary membership legislation like the Canadian Bill C-31 and the Kahnawà:ke Law on Membership. Current academic and political discourse and the current eviction issue highlight the ongoing conflict between individual and collective rights. The incorporation of this classificatory process of membership differs from Indigenous membership and citizenship practices that are color-blind and flexible. Let me explain.
Traditionally, identity was about being from a given place. Mohawk people were described as people of the flint, Kanien’kehá:ka. Meaning people of the place where an abundance of flint was to be found. In contrast, some say our identity is about our language. Some also say identity is about our beliefs and ceremonies. Yet, we can’t agree. Our ancestors never had to examine the issue of identity to such a degree as we do today. It was simple. You were or you weren’t Onkwehonwe – the original people, and that had nothing to do with purity of blood. Life and belonging to a community was about survival. As such, membership in communities was color-blind.
But, as Mohawk scholar and mother Orenda Boucher-Curotte pointed out in her Facebook post dated August 8, “because we are in 2014, that means we are well aware that lineage purity is essentially blood quantum reframed, and that’s a colonial way of thinking. There is no such thing as racial purity in Kahnawà:ke. We are ALL products of colonization whether we choose to believe it or ignore it. We have simply renamed what the Canadian government has forced us to adopt, in the name of resource protection.”
We have moved so far away from what we used to be about, which is nation building and living in peace and harmony. Colonization has taught us to label people so easily. We’ve taken on the reservation’s man-made boundaries so literally that we describe many things as ‘on reserve’ or ‘off reserve’ or even ‘us and them’. Well, we are no longer about ‘us’.
Long ago our ancestors found ways to survive the influx of Europeans. Through the Kaienerekowa or Great Law of Peace, they permitted people of “other nations” to join in the collective through adoption. The word konkwe’tarakwen describes this idea. Literally translated it means ‘a person who has been chosen and kept’. Blood quantum played no role in this concept. The philosophy encompassed in the Law is represented by an ever-growing white pine with roots that spread in all directions.
In the past few days I’ve often heard “History is not important. We are in 2014, adoption won’t work anymore”. Yet it is our ancestors who gave us that very means to let others join us. Our history, in other words, presents the alternative to tearing families apart.
Also relevant to acceptance of “others” is the Two Row Wampum devised by our forebears. Though many in the community believe ethnic cleansing adheres to its principles this is not so. Rather, it is about respecting differences and living well, side by side.
The big picture on membership and identity includes colonization, the Indian Act, and Residential Schools—all harmful to our very survival. What’s happening in Kahnawà:ke now—anger towards non-natives living here— is a symptom of this.
In the same way that colonization is about divide and conquer, we now argue about who is more ‘Mohawk’ than the other. But in doing so, we ignore our ancestor’s wisdom. By their rules, outsiders were gladly adopted, though that privilege came with certain rules: they had to respect the Kaienerekowa and learn the culture and language. Many did and many stayed. Their descendants still live among us. Under the Great Tree of Peace there were no DNA checkpoints.
If we think about our community like a forest, we have to remember that all trees fall down and die at some point. Yet, in doing so, they feed new forest growth. Life is cyclical like that. Mother nature has her way of surviving. And if we learn by her example, we have to remember that the leaves that are ripped from our family tree by these evictions will form their own new roots and ultimately replenish the forest. The trees may look different but together will continue to nourish the air we breathe. With that in mind, I have no doubt that we will survive. We just have to put our minds together and think with peace, kindness, and an open mind as our ancestors did.
Dr. Kahente Horn-Miller is a mother and scholar from the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community of Kahnawà:ke, near Montreal, Quebec, Canada. She currently holds the position of New Sun Aboriginal Visiting Scholar at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.