Thursday, December 15, 2022

"What's your Nation?"

"What's your Nation?" That's one of the first questions I got asked in the First Nations Longhouse shortly after I was hired at UBC in 1996. I'd been invited to a board meeting with other Indigenous staff and faculty at the Longhouse (a monthly occurrence in those days). The meeting was in the afternoon. It was my turn to pick up my twin sons from kindergarten (it was half day in those days). I mentioned to the person calling me with the invite I would have my five year old sons with me,  which they simply ignored and said they looked forward to seeing me at the meeting.

Later that week I arrived at the meeting, sons in tow, and proceeded to have the perfect distracted parent experience as my sons settled in as any five year olds might when they'd rather be somewhere else.  It was in the midst of that meeting that the question came up.  Back home folks locate each other by who we're related to, in the university context where people come from all over the place and the chance of knowing each other's relatives is a bit less likely, identifying by our Nation is more common. Just the same I find a lot of folks I'm related to in Indigenous circles on campus, on staff, in my classes, and occasionally even among faculty. "What's your nation?" is a shorthand way of figuring out who one is and how one might be connected.

Being willing and able to locate oneself in a Nation and a family is a critical part of being Indigenous. Previously I have described this form of identity following Cherokee academic Jeff Corntassel take on Indigenous Identity. He defines it through a 'peoplehood' approach:  connected, committed, and claimed. That is a person is related in some manner through family and history to an existing First Nation. This person is involved in their community and maintains active linkages. The community itself acknowledges them as a member and claims the person as their own. People outside that intersection of 'c's might have Indigenous 'heritage' but, by this model are not Indigenous qua Indigenous. 

There are a lot of folks who might be connected but not claimed. They might be claimed but not connected. They might even be very committed to the cause (but not actually connected). This is often the place in which a university administrator shakes their head and says, "but it's so complicated" and then stays silent and inactive.  

I am well aware of the complexity of these matters professionally and personally.  Professionally I am an anthropologist and much of what anthropologists study is how people form themselves into meaning making groups built around identity and practice. Personally I am an enrolled member of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska (a US federally recognized Tribe) and a Status Indian member of Gitxaała Nation in Canada. My mother was from a settler family. My father is First Nations. I grew up in town, not reserve. All of these things shape my personal sense of identity and play a role in the social reality of being Indigenous. Complex, but not really complicated.

Complications and complexity are insufficient rationales for administrators to remain silent when people occupy these spaces by pretending to be something that they are not. The question needs to be asked, "What's your Nation?"

This becomes particularly important when scarce resources -student fellowships and awards, research grants, positions of employment- are allocated in accordance with one's putative identity.  It should not be taken as an affront to be asked "What's your Nation? especially if it is part of how one is positioning themselves to gain access to things marked off for Indigenous people.

UBC has an obligation to own their own actions, not to go silent or pretend an Indigenous identity was not part of their consideration. Yet time rolls on and UBC remains silent at the upper levels compounding the ill effects caused by their continued inaction. 

No comments:

Post a Comment