Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Some Things We're Learning: More about IPH4YP

Once An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People was out in the world, we heard from reviewers and other readers about topics they would have liked to see covered in the adaptation. Their suggestions included attention to Two Spirit people in Indigenous history, and to relations between Native peoples and Black people in what's currently called North America, from colonization to the present. 

We hope to one day be able to have a second edition of IPH4YP, where we can make those kinds of additions. But it's uncertain whether that will happen. Meanwhile, we're reading and doing research so we can write meaningfully about those subjects.

For about a year, we've maintained a companion website for the book, at We hoped people would go there to let us know what else they think should be part of IPH4YP, but the Comments section hasn't had a lot of action. 

We've decided to be more proactive. We're planning a series of posts on IPH4YP, to share what we learn about some of the topics suggested by readers. 

The first very large topic we're looking at is Native-Black relations, starting from questions and thoughts that come up as we do a close reading of Tiya Miles' Ties That Bind: The Story of An Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and in Freedom (Second edition).  If a second edition happens, we will draw on those to create new text. If there's no second edition, the posts can still be resources for educators, parents, and other readers who want to go beyond what's in IPH4YP. These posts will be pretty informal and will include information from our readings on the topics, plus questions we're asking ourselves for further study, and lists of resources people can use to follow up on their own. We'll direct them to some of our favorite research rabbit-holes.  

We invite you to take a look at our first entry in this project, which went up on 8/18/2020. "Slavery and Early Treaties" takes off from Dr. Miles' text, with a look at how some early treaties between the US and Native Nations talked about and positioned Black people. Future posts will look at things we find out about other treaties, British colonizer use of propaganda to influence Indigenous peoples against people of African descent, enslavement of people of African descent by Native people, and the experiences of "Black Indians". 

We hope you'll go there, and read and comment. What you have to say is likely to help us think more clearly about the topics at hand, and how we might eventually incorporate them into a second edition.

By the way, Ties That Bind is giving us lots to think, talk, and write about, and we think many of you might have the same reaction, so do see about getting a copy if you haven't read it. It's not a book for children, but Miles' scholarship, her ways with words, and the importance of the topic make it essential reading.  

Monday, August 17, 2020

The Monster That Eats Villages: White Anti-Indigenous Raceshifting in Canada

by Jean Mendoza

Pre-COVID, when Durango and I took road trips with our grandkids, they often asked to hear our storytelling CDs by Dovie Thomason (Lakota/Kiowa Apache). One of her creepiest stories, from Wopila: A Giveaway, is a tale that begins when some men, on the way home from hunting, hear a baby's cry. One man follows the sound, and returns to the group carrying an infant. The others are wary about this, but he insists that they take the baby to their village. 

There, the child is welcomed and given to a young woman to raise. But that night, she notices something strange about the sleeping child: echoes of human cries and screams seem to emanate from him. Soon, it's (quietly) determined that the "baby" is actually Iya, a shape-shifting monster that gains access to villages by trickery, then swallows them whole. 

I won't spoil Dovie's gift by giving away the ending. But I do want to talk about how that story intersects with some scholarly reading I've been doing.

Darryl Leroux's Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity (University of Manitoba Press, 2019) takes a close look at a particular set of non-Native people who claim Native identity. 

As you may already know, that phenomenon has been around a long time on what's currently called North America. The perpetrators tend to be white, and have a variety of motivations for their claims. Some "admire" Native people and view Nativeness as a space where they can somehow belong just because they want to. For some, it's a career boost. It helps them to stand out from other white people in otherwise crowded fields. Maybe it helps them get a job in academia or with a Native nation, or garners them extra attention as an artist, novelist, or speaker. Sometimes the motives (and the individual's confidence that they won't eventually get called out) are hard to figure out, as with white writers like Joseph Boyden, "Jamake Highwater," and John Smelcer who have falsely claimed to be Indigenous. Recently, Native and mainstream media covered a case of faux-Indigenous identity with an especially sick twist: a white person essentially created the persona of a Native scholar, and posted on social media under that identity for several years. This masquerade became public knowledge (though some, especially Native scholars, had long suspected it) when the perpetrator decided to kill off the alter-ego via COVID, and the "death" couldn't be confirmed.

Then there are the faux-"tribal" organizations that a white person in what's currently the United States can join, often for some amount of money. Many of these provide cover for non-Natives seeking personal gain, such as through lucrative government contracts that give priority to businesses owned by BIPOC.

Those fakeries are not a part of Leroux's research. Though they are examples of what he calls "raceshifting," what Leroux has studied takes the identity fraud to a whole different level. Leroux is not Native, by the way. He's looking at what amounts to a movement, in which large numbers of French-descendant white Canadians have begun "self-Indigenizing" with very particular anti-Indigenous goals. This practice, Leroux says, has been growing by leaps and bounds for the past 20 years. Though it's not confined to white-presenting people of French descent or to Canadians, his primary focus is on people who claim to be "Eastern Métis" (or sometimes "Quebec métis), a category that Leroux notes has no real historical basis.

To be clear: there are peoples with legitimate Métis identity. If what I say here is incorrect in any way, I hope Métis readers will jump in and correct me. Their homelands mainly are considered to be in what are currently known as Canada's Western provinces, and parts of the northern US. Their culture and language are based on kinship relations between early French-speaking settlers and the Plains Cree, Salteaux, Assiniboine, and Dene peoples. Métis in French is equivalent to the English word "mixed." According to what I've read about the language (Michif), it combines elements of French, Cree, and some Ojibwe, and has a complex grammar and syntax. It is considered an endangered language. 

The true Métis identity comes with a history of struggle, bloodshed, and heroism. You can find some of this history woven into the graphic novel series A Girl Called Echo by Katharena Vermette. We've recommended Echo books on AICL. 

But the self-Indigenizing "Eastern Métis" have no interest in that history. They do not claim to be descendants of people stolen from their Indigenous families by boarding schools, "adopting out", or other government policies and practices. They're not trying to find a way home. If they were, Leroux points out, First Nations have mechanisms for dealing with their circumstances.

Instead, these raceshifters tend to be openly contemptuous of Indigenous peoples. They hold (one might say they cherish) negative stereotypes and blatantly white supremacist beliefs about First Nations. They have no interest in traditions (unlike white New-Agers in the US), or in revitalizing endangered Native languages. French is the only language they express concern about preserving.

Their sole interest lies in Native rights -- specifically, in getting those rights for themselves. Hunting and fishing rights are particularly important to a number of the raceshifters. In fact, Leroux found, hunting and fishing organizations are where a great many of them got to know each other.  Some have met through white-rights groups. Leroux found them openly, actively committed to opposing Indigenous land and territorial negotiations. They make no secret of these goals -- not in online forums, in court, nor in their conversations with Leroux. You might say they are deeply and proudly committed to making sure the part of the world they're in stays as colonized as possible.

They have no real understanding of the background of the legal relations between Canada and First Nations and Métis, nor do they care about it. What they know is that the First Nations people seem to have some things they feel should be theirs (e.g., the right to hunt or fish freely in certain places over which Indigenous people -- with good reason -- have jurisdiction). They saw that the quickest way to get those things would be to claim Indigenous ancestry.

So how do these proudly white-presenting raceshifters go about making themselves Indigenous? 

They can't simply claim that Great-Grandma was an Ojibwe princess; that doesn't work any more. Instead, Leroux found, they use circuitous genealogical and legal-system maneuvers. They comb through genealogies -- readily available partly because of the long-standing French Canadian interest in European heritage. They manage to trace their lineages to a few specific 17th-century women. Those women's birth records, marriage records, etc. indicate that they were French immigrants to what is now called Canada. But (sometimes with the help of genealogists of questionable repute) the raceshifters concoct Indigenous identities for the women, "discovering" that this or that ancestor from the 1600s was Ojibwe, Wendat, or some other Native identity --even when records clearly show that the supposed forebear was born in France, to French parents. Often with encouragement from others on online forums, aspiring "Eastern Métis" sidestep or ignore or flat-out lie about evidence that in fact their ancestry is purely European. Some have gone so far as to claim that there were obviously TWO persons named X in a given area in the 1600s, and THEIR ancestor of that name was Indigenous. 

All of this might be comical if the raceshifters didn't pose a threat to the political well-being of First Nations/Métis peoples. The (white) "Eastern Métis" number in the thousands. One of their manufactured "tribal" identities has some 20,000 members. There may be enough of them to turn the heads of elected officials who need Métis votes. Leroux recounts a situation in which they worked hard to mobilize local residents against the Innu and Mi'kmaq First Nations. Raceshifters may even get elected to office themselves, with direct power over the interpretation of First Nations' rights. 

Leroux's Raceshifting Web site includes a map showing the locations of faux-Metis organizations, and lists the court cases they've been involved in. In none of those cases were the fakers seeking greater rights for actual Indigenous people. Invariably, they saw those rights as illegitimate, and sought to erode them.   

At first, I was reading Distorted Descent in the end-of-the-day calm when I could take in Leroux's careful scholarship and the complexities of his research (not having encountered words like "haploid" for many years). But after a certain point in the book, I was so angry and horrified it was hard to fall asleep. My dreams were populated by monsters and I was unable to shout to spread an alarm. 

It seemed to me that in those dreams, the faux-Métis were the monsters -- like the evil Iya in Dovie's story, they disguise themselves in order to destroy and devour. Their unapologetic contempt for actual First Nations and Métis peoples, their self-justification, their racism, their trickery, and their ultimate goals, are infuriating and terrifying. Now I read Leroux's book in the full light of day, in small doses. Horror has never been a good genre for me, and Distorted Descent is, to me, a real-life, research-based horror story.

So why talk about this academic work on AICL? Because I have no doubt that before long, someone who claims to be "Eastern Métis" will write a children's book in what purports to be an authentic Métis voice. Readers, educators, librarians: be wary. Be informed. 

By all means, read Vermette's A Girl Called Echo series! And buy Dovie Thomason's CDs, and go see her in person when the COVID monster is vanquished.  

I'm not done reading Distorted Descent yet. Not wanting to make any unwarranted negative judgments in this post, I skimmed the conclusion to see if at least some of Leroux's subjects found a conscience and moved toward more ethical behavior.  I am sorry to say that -- as is the case with the monster Iya -- the antagonists in this story have no redemption arc.