For many Canadians and Americans, there is something attractive about being a “little bit Indigenous” and being able to claim to be Indian or Metis.
For instance, according to the 2016 Canada census, people claiming to be Metis rose exponentially from 2006 to 2016, with places like Nova Scotia seeing increases of over 200% and the overall indigenous population rising by over 500,000 across Canada. In the US, the 2010 census showed more than 5.2 million Americans self-identifying as Native American, but at the same time, data from the Bureau of Indian Affairs lists the total population of members and descendants of the 561 federally recognized Indian tribes to only be about 1.9 million. So, why the discrepancy?
The easy answer is that being Indian (or indigenous) is cool, but the actual answer may be more difficult and complex.
For some, the claiming indigenous ancestry might be used as a way to further their career (like author Joseph Boyden, or US Senator Elizabeth Warren), for others it might be used to basis to apply for scholarships or to get minority status for their business, while others might have more noble (albeit misguided) reasons such as a retreat from white guilt.
Both Canadian and American scholars are researching this phenomenon. Canadian researcher Darryl Leroux has long researched what he calls race-shifting and aspirational descent, whereby people in eastern Canada and the northeastern US are claiming indigenous status based on one (or a small handful) of Indian ancestors – some of whom might not even be indigenous at all – as a means of staking claims and seeking indigenous rights for themselves. In the US, scholars like University of Texas anthropologist Circe Sturm are examining the same issue. In her 2011 book “Becoming Indian”, Sturm wrote that for many people, whiteness is seen as being responsible for indigenous dispossession and the lack of societal connection that characterizes modernity and it indigenous people are seen as having morals and virtues that transcend many of the modern problems of our industrialized world. Both Leroux and Sturm believe that people who are claiming indigenous identity without prior affiliation or identification (i.e. race-shifters) are actually people seeking some connection to an identity outside whiteness – despite the flimsiest of evidence – as having some connection that can assuage the discomfort of being a white settler, erase their personal history as settlers, and reinvent themselves.
While such ideation is relatively harmless, some race-shifters take the quest for an indigenous connection to the extreme. Knowing that they lack a real connection to an indigenous community, they sometimes strive to join “pop-up” groups that claim to represent indigenous people. These “tribes” or “Metis” organizations are often run by some of the more vehemently outspoken race-shifters who often give themselves the rank of “chief” – sometimes even giving themselves outrageously ridiculous Indian names. These groups often charge money – up to several thousands of dollars – to people seeking recognition of their indigenous claims, and they promise the right to exercise indigenous hunting rights, to apply for things like scholarships, to possess raptor feathers, and even to not pay taxes.
The growing popularity of do-it-yourself DNA test kits has only made things worse. While the tests can show ancestral DNA, they definitely cannot prove genetic affiliation with individual tribes and in some cases can give a false result because there is such a small sample of actual Native American DNA to compare against in DNA databases. Even if a person might show some measure of Native American DNA in their profile, it probably wouldn’t satisfy any actual criteria for tribal citizenship with any recognized tribe. This is because most tribes require direct descent from individuals listed in historic government “Indian rolls.” More so, the notion that an individual can discover their tribal affiliation through a DNA test reinforces the white supremacist notion of race as a biological trait tied to a specific gene – as it renders indigenous identity to an individual issue rather than a group, political one.
For more information on this phenomenon, Metis Nation News suggests readers look to some of the following articles and publications: