N is for Native

Satirical ad created by Stupid Time Machine

Oxford Living Dictionaries defines a ‘native’ as “a person born in a specified place or associated with a place by birth, whether subsequently resident there or not.”

In Canada, this term gets to be confusing.

While ‘Native’ is the somewhat derogatory term given to Indigenous peoples, many settler Canadians also claim to be ‘native’ Canadians by dint of being born here. And then being native Canadian (as in born in Canada) becomes conflated with being Indigenous.

Recently, I have had a couple of conversations wherein I have been told that genetically, pretty much everyone in Canada has Indigenous ancestors and is therefore Indigenous themselves.

This is definitely one of the more popular “moves to innocence” we Settlers like to use. Tuck and Yang (2012) define these “moves to innocence” as “strategies or positionings that attempt to relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility without giving up land or power or privilege, without having to change much at all” (p. 10).

Image via Joe Svetlik

For starters, this idea that we all have Indigenous ancestors is just not true.

It is very unlikely that new immigrants to Canada would have Indigenous ancestors. Even Settlers like myself who can trace their ancestors back a few generations in Canada are unlikely to have too many Indigenous ancestors. I certainly can’t find any in my own family tree. Neither can my husband. So this idea that we all have Indigenous ancestors just because we have lived in Canada for a few generations is wrong.

But even if I could find a long lost Cree great-great grandmother, it would not make me Indigenous.

The UN’s working definition of Indigenous peoples (2004) is “those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system” (p.2).

I am definitely from the dominant sector of society and no ancient genetic link to Indigenous peoples is going to change that. I am also not tied to any ancestral territories. No land or Indigenous community claim me. In this regard, genetics and blood quantum are significantly less important than land, language, culture, community and historical continuity.

Based on this UN definition, neither I nor anyone with a long lost Indigenous ancestor, is Indigenous. However, that has not stopped this idea of Settlers as Natives from persisting. Alfred and Corntassel (2005) call this a “bogus ‘we are you’ agenda” (p. 602) part of the “shape-shifting” nature of settler colonialism. This shape-shifting is an essential component of settler colonialism because by claiming to be Indigenous we can attend to our own crisis of legitimacy. If we accept that our nation has been built upon the theft of Indigenous land, the oppression of Indigenous people and has lead to an entrenched imbalance of power, the easiest way to get ourselves on the righteous side of this equation is by claiming to be Native ourselves.

John Ralston Saul (2008) uses just this type of logic in his widely acclaimed book A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada. “Perhaps in some way or many ways, we also are Aboriginal” (p.5). Saul goes on to argue that the Settler expressions of sympathy and guilt towards “Aboriginals” are due to our self-denial of our own Aboriginal identity, which makes us dysfunctional.

I had to reread that a few times but that is actually the argument he is making. We feel sympathy and guilt not because of the horrendous historical and contemporary treatment of Indigenous peoples. No, we feel sympathy and guilt as a twisted expression of our own self-denial of our own Aboriginal identity.


But this Settler-as-Native magic is not just confined to national polemicists, it is also a very popular narrative device. It seems we Settlers love living vicariously through this type of identity metamorphosis.

We love movies like Avatar where the White protagonist is adopted into a Native community, saving both himself and the entire community. Dancing With Wolves is another example. Then there is the museum in Prince Albert National Park dedicated to Canada’s most famous Settler-turned-Native, Grey Owl/Archibald Belaney, the British-born author who fabricated an Apache identity and became famous while living in Northern Saskatchewan.

One of the most recent examples of this type of conversion is in the TV series The 100, which presents a post-apocalyptic iteration of colonialism. The premise of the show is that after a nuclear war has destroyed civilization on Earth, a spaceship housing humanity’s lone survivors orbits in space, waiting until Earth is safe enough to re-inhabit.

After close to a century, the spaceship’s life systems begin to fail and the leadership decides to send 100 juvenile delinquents back to Earth in the hopes of possibly re-populating the planet (think colonization of Australia). What they find is two things: one, that Earth is safe to re-inhabit and two, that it is not empty (terra nullius) as they had imagined. As it happens, there is a significant human population on Earth that has not only survived the nuclear destruction but also the subsequent abandonment, and has continued to live there. This group is called the Grounders.

What follows becomes a classic re-enactment of Settlers (the 100) becoming Natives (Grounders). In the conflict between the two groups that follows, the leader of the 100 engineers the following identity switch.

“This is our home now. We built this from nothing with our bare hands! Our dead are buried behind that wall in this ground! Our ground! The Grounders think they can take that away. They think that because we came from the sky, we don’t belong here. But they’ve yet to realize one very important fact: We are on the ground now, and that means we are Grounders!” – Bellamy’s speech (season 1, episode 12)

Settlers like myself love this kind of stuff: identity switches based on effort and time rather than history or fact. We can be whatever we want to be. With a little time and effort, any identity is available to us. In terms of our crisis of legitimacy, this is much more convenient and expedient than accepting the historical record regarding the privileged position we now hold. Becoming Native conveniently obscures our colonial privilege and the questionable ways that we have come to live in this place. We are all Grounders now.

But deep down we know that this does not work. We know that our history has not gone anywhere. We know that our claims to this place remain questionable.

“It is impossible for [the colonizer] not to be aware of the constant illegitimacy of his status…. A foreigner, having come to a land by the accidents of history, he has succeeded not merely in creating a place for himself but also in taking away that of the inhabitant, granting himself astounding privileges to the detriment of those rightfully entitled to them…. He is a privileged being and an illegitimately privileged one; that is a usurper. Furthermore, this is so, not only in the eyes of the colonized, but in his own as well” (Memmi, 1965 as cited in Barker 2009, p. 326).

This self-denial that Saul talks about is not a denial of my rightful Aboriginal identity, it is a denial of my illegitimate privilege. This is the psychological dysfunction at the heart of Settler identity. We want to be good. We want to be noble. We want to be helpers. But we know that this nation was founded on theft, starvation and trickery and that these forces persist. The massive inequity between Settler living conditions and Indigenous living conditions speaks to this. And frankly, it is insulting to use a genetic sleight-of hand to dismiss these significant issues by claiming that we are all Native now.

Time and effort spent on masking our Settler history and identity will never make us Indigenous. We need to find other, more useful ways of attending to our crisis of legitimacy and responding to our feelings of guilt and responsibility for our current state of affairs.

Trying to become Native ain’t it.


Alfred, T. & Corntassel, J. (2005). Being Indigenous: Resurgences against Contemporary Colonialism. Government and Opposition. 40(4), 597-614. Retrieved from: http://corntassel.net/being_indigenous.pdf

Barker, A. (2009). The Contemporary Reality of Canadian Imperialism: Settler Colonialism and the Hybrid Colonial State. American Indian Quarterly. 33(3), 325-351.

native. 2017. In Oxford Online Dictionaries. Retrieved May 14, 2017 from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/native

Rothenberg, J. (Writer), & White, D. (Director). (2014). We Are Grounders: Part 1 [Television series episode]. In J. Rothenberg (Producer), The 100. New York, NY: Alloy Entertainment.

Saul, J. R. (2008). – Saul, J. R. (2008). A fair country: Telling truths about Canada. Toronto: Viking Canada.

Tuck, E. & Yang, W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society. 1(1), 1-40. Retrieved from: http://decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/view/18630

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (19-21 January 2004). The Concept of Indigenous Peoples.

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