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Pretendians: Indigenous Identity Fraud

Indigenous identity fraud has become so common that there is a “Pretendian List” circulating on the internet that includes Canadians and Americans.  The term “Pretendian” is used to call out a person who has falsely claimed Indigenous identity.  Many sectors of society and in particular universities are facing this fraud and the injustice it brings to Indigenous communities, students, staff and faculty of educational institutes. 

Identity is complex and hard to define. Individuals have multiple ways of identifying. The roles we have shape many of our identities and may change over a lifetime. Forms of identity include, but are not limited to, gender, ethnic, cultural, and religious. 

All identity is constructed in relationship with others. An individual identity is constructed with others such as family.  Social identity can be a religion, for example. Collective identity can be one’s association with a cultural/ethnic/political group. However, collective identity requires more than merely claiming to be or self-identifying as a member. It requires recognition of the individual by the collective to establish the relationship. Many Indigenous individuals also add a legal identity which is externally imposed by Canadian law such as the Indian Act.  

They are answering the question: “Who are your people and where do they come from?”

All levels of identity are about relationships, especially with respect to Indigenous identity. With the exception of the colonial court and government created Indigenous identities, there is a reciprocal recognition by the relevant Indigenous collective of a relationship with an individual who self-identifies as an Indigenous member.  Without the collective’s recognition, individual self-identification is questionable.

There seems to be a belief that personal identity cannot be challenged. But that thought is not consistent with Indigenous practices. Indigenous people believe they have a responsibility to inquire.

Indigenous peoples are not a race; they are cultures and nations. They have traditional ways of understanding Indigenous identity, which they see in terms of an individual’s relationship to family, culture, and nation and is placed in a geographic territory.  For example, I am Switametelót, my name is Patricia Victor.  I am Stó:lō and a member of Xwchíyò:m First Nation.  From my maternal side of the family, my great grandfather is Switamet and is Stó:lō from Squiala First Nation.

When Indigenous people introduce themselves in a traditional way, they state their identity in relationship to family and place and linking to named relatives. They are answering the question: “Who are your people and where do they come from?”

Indigenous identity exists in relation to cultural ancestors and to existing Indigenous societies. If Indigenous identity is understood as a relationship, it is not distinct from Indigenous membership.  Self-identification is necessary, however is not sufficient.  The community needs to acknowledge that individual as one of theirs.

Our shared history reveals a broken relationship between Indigenous peoples and the rest of Canada.  Public school education told a one-sided story of our shared history, and stereotypes of Indigenous people were typically negative; sometimes romanticizing the narrative; sometimes vilifying the “savage Indian.”

Since the Truth & Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action and the move towards reconciliation, being Indigenous is now shown in a more favorable light. Today we see education, health, social justice and other sectors of society developing strategies to “indigenize” and to “decolonize”.  Many opportunities opened in the form of education, research grants, leadership positions, and scholarships to Indigenous people.  The narrative of being Indigenous changed from a negative to a positive and even a lucrative opportunity for personal growth, recognition, and compensation.

“has this identity been constructed in relationship with a community?”

The only criteria to be considered for these opportunities were to tick the box that you identified as Indigenous.  Self-identification was not questioned, and the identity fraud was launched into full force!  The definition of fraud is “wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain.” Non-Indigenous people who fraudulently claimed to be Indigenous began to take the places of Indigenous people, pretending to speak for Indigenous people, taking up Indigenous leadership positions; receiving grants and scholarships that were for Indigenous scholars. 

Some pretendians that have been exposed include author Joseph Boyden (2016), director Michelle Latimer (2020) professor Carrie Bourassa (2022), judge Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond (2023) and Buffy Sainte-Marie (2023). Each one received awards, honor and prestige.

Some of the ways why fraud of Indigenous identity is unjust include: 

  • Their actions further traumatize Indigenize people by minimizing their lived experience.  Elders are humiliated when they realize the pretendians used them to authenticate their presence.

  • When the pretendian gets the job, the honor and the accolades, they do so by pushing out legitimate Indigenous professors, judges, authors, artists and musicians out that space.

  • Students of pretendians in academia are deeply affected as they will begin to question everything they have learned.  Students may withdraw from the educational institute that had hired the pretendian and potential students will not consider a school where a pretendian had been on staff. 

Indigenous identity fraud is one more step of colonialism as it demoralizes what it means to be Indigenous.To overcome this fraud, as a society we need to grow in our knowledge and understanding of Indigenous relationships.  We need to question the validity of their identity story and address any perceived flaws or gaps.  One question you could ask yourself when you’re dealing with this topic is, “has this identity been constructed in relationship with a community?”  We need to grow in our relationship with Indigenous people and let go of long-held stereotypical beliefs.

As we grow in knowledge and understanding, we will realize that because of displacement of Indigenous peoples through 60’s Scoop, Residential Schools and other colonial efforts, not every gap in an identity story is fraud.  We need to walk in love and humility and community even as we ask the questions. As truth prevails, justice prevails.  


Today is National Indigenous People's Day!  Check out resources from the CRC's Indigenous Ministry.

Photo by John Middelkoop on Unsplash

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