Michelle Latimer directed Inconvenient Indian which debuted at TIFF this year | Image source: Toronto International Film Festival
All Indigenous people have their own unique experiences living in a colonial state. Some are well connected to their homelands others not, some can speak their languages and practice ceremony, while others have grown up with little knowledge of their ancestry due to adoption or dislocation. One is not better than the other. Each brings different strengths, stories, and skills to the table based on our life experiences.
Over the last couple of days, I have witnessed a barrage of online commentary accusing Indigenous people and communities of “lateral violence” and “being haters” because they are calling for accountability when individuals such as Michelle Latimer knowingly misrepresent their Indigenous ancestry. Making these accusations is wrong, racist, and upholds the white supremacist ideal that Indigenous communities don’t possess inherent authority to determine their own citizenship. When several media outlets consulted legitimate leadership in Kitigan Zibi – where Latimer claimed to be a member- they clearly communicated she was not. In addition, they relayed that they take false ancestry claims seriously due to the negative impacts of cultural appropriation.
The events that have occurred in the last couple of days aren’t isolated. This has happened many times before, and it won’t be the last time it happens. Events like this reveal what we already know: some people will stretch the truth and lie to benefit themselves and advance their careers. Often ancestry claims go unquestioned as many Indigenous people fear being rude, insensitive, and accused of “lateral violence”. After witnessing this over and over again, it’s time to normalize asking critical questions and holding people accountable from the beginning. Holding someone accountable is not lateral violence.
As an Indigenous person growing up- when I wasn’t in my community of Pikwakanagan, I was surrounded by White people and White communities. My family was poor, so it was especially hard growing up surrounded by middle-class White people who were plainly afforded privilege and more extensive opportunities. This is just one example of what it’s like being an Indigenous person of color growing up in Canada. Nowadays we have White people claiming Indigenous ancestry and taking away resources for Indigenous artists.
All Indigenous people have their own unique experiences living in a colonial state. Some are well connected to their homelands others not, some can speak their languages and practice ceremony, while others have grown up with little knowledge of their ancestry due to adoption or dislocation. One is not better than the other. Each brings different strengths, stories, and skills to the table based on our life experiences. That being said, we are each responsible to locate ourselves in a truthful manner. If you have little connection then just say it! With little to no connection –use common sense and do not attempt to tell the stories of others or become a spokesperson for Indigenous communities. It is wrong to lie or misrepresent oneself and take up space in marginalized communities – especially if you have not done the work to confirm this with the community you claim to be from.
Our people have suffered enough while settler-Canadians continue to benefit from the wealth of Indigenous land. We do not need any more White people taking away the limited opportunities earmarked for Indigenous creatives. What’s worse is when White people do this, they misrepresent Indigenous people. From the perspective of their dislocated, colonial lens, they often paint two-dimensional Indigenous characters and write stories that perpetuate harmful stereotypes, causing more harm than good. Often for the sake of making Indigenous stories and art more palatable for White consumption.
I’m done with ‘just’ surviving in this colonial state. Indigenous Peoples can and must tell our own stories. We can and must create our own narratives and be recognized for it. As Indigenous people, we should not be afraid to stand our ground and make sure fellow artists get the same opportunities that are afforded to settler people. Confirming questionable claims to Indigenous ancestry is not an act of “lateral violence”- it’s actually quite the opposite. It’s ensuring our communities’ authority to determine our membership while holding up the storytellers whose voices need to be heard. We are ready to thrive.