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Preventing the pretendian problem

Courtesy University of California, Berkeley

Earlier this month, Elizabeth M. Hoover, an environmental health and food sovereignty professor at the University of California, Berkeley, made a public apology for having falsely claimed to be Indigenous, when she is in fact white. 

Hoover had spent the entirety of her life claiming to be Mohawk from Kahnawake through her maternal line and Mi’kmaq through her paternal line. According to Hoover, her parents raised her with the understanding that she was Indigenous, and that her family had become disconnected from their culture because her maternal great grandmother had married a white man and lost status. 

According to Hoover, she grew up attending powwows and ceremonies in Akwesasne – a community that had graciously treated her as one of their own, under the pretense that she was. 

She even wrote a book entitled The River Is in Us: Fighting Toxins in a Mohawk Community about Akwesasne’s efforts to combat pollution from industrial agriculture. 

Her claims of Indigenous identity afforded her access to spaces and teachings that were foundational to her research, her career, and her material success. 

“I am a white person who has incorrectly identified as Native my whole life, based on incomplete information,” writes Hoover in her apology.

“Before taking part in programs or funding opportunities that were identity-related or geared towards underrepresented people, I should have ensured that I was claimed in return by the communities I was claiming,” said Hoover. 

Hoover is not the first academic to engage in Indigenous identity fraud, or to be a ‘pretendian,’ as it is known colloquially.

Last month it came to light that two Toronto twin sisters, Amira and Nadya Gill, went as far as to fraudulently gain status as Inuit, receiving thousands of dollars in scholarships and bursaries meant for Indigenous students to attend Queens University. 

Now-disgraced judge and lawyer Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond was named the inaugural director of the University of British Columbia’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre – a position she would later resign from after a CBC investigation called into question her claim that she was Cree.

Since then, Turpel-Lafonde has been stripped of or returned numerous accolades, including an honorary degree from McGill University – one of 11 honorary degrees bestowed upon Turpel-Lafond by Canadian universities throughout her career. 

Similar cases of white academics professing Indigeneity have shaken academic institutions countrywide, from Emily Carr University in Vancouver to Memorial University in St. John’s Newfoundland.

One of the most high-profile cases took place at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), when an October 2021 CBC report showed that Carrie Bourassa, once considered one of the country’s leading experts on Indigenous public health, had no Indigenous ancestry. 

Bourassa had been claiming that her name was “Morning Star Bear” and that she was “Anishinaabe Metis.” Alongside her position as a professor in USask’s College of Medicine, Bourassa was also the scientific director of the Indigenous health arm of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

USask acted fast. In November 2021, just one month after the revelatory report, the university decided that it would create an all-Indigenous task force to determine how it would respond to and prevent cases of Indigenous identity fraud. 

“My philosophy is always ‘how do we create something that keeps us in a proactive manner as opposed to a reactive manner?’” said Angela Jaime, vice provost Indigenous Engagement (interim) at USask – a role that she had just begun when Bourassa’s identity fraud was revealed. 

The task force was comprised of Indigenous knowledge keepers, students, and faculty from First Nations located near the USask campus, as well as Inuit and Metis members, and began meeting in January 2022. The group met every two weeks for five-and-a-half months, with each meeting ranging from three to four hours. 

“It was a lot to facilitate, but it was so incredibly rewarding, and to have the knowledge keepers there… because we knew we were on the right path. We had great intentions, and we were using the seven sacred teachings to help support us in that work,” said Jaime.

“Our basic fundamentals of the policy itself has always been about the Indigenous governance in their communities determining what documentation would be accepted by their members,” said Jaime. “It’s their inherent sovereign right to make those determinations, and we’re living that truth and reconciliation.”

What followed from months of collaboration and deliberation among the task force was the University of Saskatchewan’s policy on Indigenous membership/citizenship and an accompanying implementation plan – a living document, allowing for changes to be proposed by Indigenous stakeholders in an ongoing commitment to grounding the policy in sovereignty.

“The name of this policy ‘deybwewin (Saulteaux)| taapwaywin (Michif)| tapwewin (Cree)’ means truth – truth to self, truth to each other, truth to the ancestors, and truth to the land,” reads a statement published by USask. 

An integral part of the implementation plan is the online verification system: a portal developed by IT staff at USask based on the university’s virtual vaccine verification system. It allows people who are Metis, Inuit, First Nations, as well as international Indigenous students and faculty to submit documentation to verify their identity. 

The portal includes a list of Indigenous communities complete with what documentation is required for each, accounting for variation across communities, and in doing so, grounding the verification process in those communities’ sovereignty. 

There are myriad reasons why a student or faculty member may not have “status” as outlined in the Indian Act. Perhaps their family was impacted by the 60s Scoop, or they are Metis or Inuit – who have historically been cast aside by colonial systems of documentation. 

In conversations about status and documentation, there is a risk of replicating colonial measurements of Indigeneity. By grounding membership in Indigenous communities’ own citizenship systems, the system developed by Jaime and her team aims to uphold sovereignty and self-determination. 

Jaime has been surprised by the system’s uptake, with nearly 500 submissions in the first  two months – most of which were from students. 

“We could hardly keep up,” said Jaime, adding that most of the submissions so far have been from students. She said the attitude of Indigenous students at USask has largely been, “I’m not seeking anything, but I want to be a part of this system. I want to be part of this because my community needs it.”

The system developed at USask is the first of its kind at any institution on Turtle Island, according to Jaime, and its novelty has meant that organizations, both private and public, have been looking to Jaime’s office as an example as they strive to ameliorate this ever-growing issue. “I lost count at a little over 60 presentations,” said Jaime. 

“It’s the Indigenous way to share and collaborate and to work together,” Jaime said. 

At McGill, Celeste Pedri-Spade, the associate provost of Indigenous Initiatives, has brought this collaborative spirit to her work on the university’s plan to resolve the pretendian problem.

“The proposed plan was really this idea of a process led by Indigenous people, for Indigenous people,” said Pedri-Spade, adding that it would be a process of looking inward at the institution, but also looking outward at the myriad Indigenous academics working on the issue both within the academy and elsewhere. 

Like USask, McGill has convened a task force to develop a holistic response to the problem, which include Kanien’kehà:ka Melanie Howard, Ann Deer, Michael Mitchell, Patricia Oakes, and Michael Loft, who is Kahnawa’kehró:non. They’ve been meeting on a biweekly basis since February, with an aim to have a working policy by the beginning of the upcoming academic year, Pedri-Spade said. 

She  said that the dialogue by members of the working group has generated ideas for how verification could “start as a person comes into relations with McGill,” with opportunities for candidates to include “self-location statements,” or by ensuring that there are Indigenous faculty on hiring committees for roles that relate to Indigenous studies or work directly with Indigenous students. 

“It’s really about harm,” said Pedri-Spade. “Universities should not be adding another layer of trauma to Indigenous students. All universities need to do better. We have to have better outcomes for Indigenous students.”

A separate process will be undertaken for determining verification processes of Indigenous students, with Indigenous students at the forefront of its stewardship and development, said Pedri-Spade.

As part of McGill’s process of looking outward, Pedri-Spade met with Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) grand chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer last month to discuss the issue of Indigenous identity fraud and what can be done about it in post-secondary institutions. 

“If you don’t have land, lineage, and language that you can tie yourself to, you have no business calling yourself Indigenous,” said Sky-Deer, adding that it should be up to First Nations to determine citizenship. 

She described the pretendian problem as yet “another slap in the face” to Onkwehón:we. “Someone’s got to step up and put a stop to it,” said Sky-Deer. 

Nicky Taylor
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