With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and both the governments of Canada and British Columbia adopting the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, more people are wanting to ‘Indigenize’ their work with images and voices to reflect the new way of seeing presented through reconciliation efforts. Considering the diversity of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, this process has raised the question, “What does Indigenous look and sound like?”
In my position at Indigenous Perspectives Society (IPS), I have interviewed many individuals, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. When interviewing Indigenous applicants, it has been my experience that they come from a range of cultural backgrounds and immersion. Some have been raised in traditional families with cultural teachings, values, and experiences. For others, many have been displaced from family and cultural rearing by the child welfare system, and some never taught their culture out of shame instilled by the dominant mainstream society and colonization. The gift offered by these varied experiences is a diversity in the stories shared by applicants.
In one interview, an Indigenous applicant in her introduction of herself shared the words “I know I don’t look Indigenous.” While I did not say anything in the moment, at the end of the interview when I provided her feedback I shared with her that when she identifies as an Indigenous woman, to do so with pride and unapologetically. Having said this, it did get me to thinking that this was not my first experience with an Indigenous candidate who felt the need to explain why they did not look a certain way. I hold the Canadian government, our mainstream stereotypes, as well lateral violence in Indigenous communities responsible for this.
With the implementation of the Indian Act in Canada, the Canadian government exploited Indigenous identities by dictating that the government and the government alone was the only body that could confirm whether an individual was in fact an Indigenous person. With this colonial exercise came mainstream and societal expectations and the stereotypical practice that an Indigenous person ought to look a certain way so that they could be easily identifiable.
Worse yet, these societal stereotypes found their way into Indigenous communities whereby community members then resented their counterparts who didn’t quite look like them. Skin being dark enough, hair straight enough and linguistic patterns became a way to separate and divide Indigenous communities.
We know that Indigenous looks and sounds differently depending which nation, group, or community you are part of. We also know that heritage and blood lines contribute to what Indigenous looks like. In the spirit of reconciliation, I encourage non-Indigenous allies to honour self-identification and to remember that Indigenous can look and sound as diverse as anyone in the world.
Rachelle Dallaire, Executive Director, Indigenous Perspectives Society