Wrongfully claiming Indigenous heritage is harmful to Indigenous communities

By:
Tasheal Gill (@tashealgill)

Acclaimed filmmaker Michelle Latimer’s identity has recently come under scrutiny, as her claims of Indigenous identity were called into question. 

As a famous Canadian director, Latimer has positioned herself as a major figure in the Indigenous film community, breaking into the scene with Rise, a documentary series about Indigenous people protecting their homelands and rising up against colonization across North America. 

She is most famously known for adapting Eden Robinson’s novel Trickster into a television show, and her documentary Inconvenient Indian, which is an adaptation from another renowned Indigenous author, Thomas King.  

These various Indigenous artists that allowed Latimer to adapt their novels into films, trusted her claims and her identity. When somebody claims Indigenous ancestry, the last thing the community wants to do is accuse them of deceitful behaviour. There was no reason to doubt Latimer, or to assume she was claiming this heritage in a way to advance her career. However, that’s exactly what happened. 

Latimer was trusted because Indigenous communities are often protective over their stories, and for good reason. 

Many have experienced the trauma of displacement, and choosing to trust fellow community members by believing their stories and not questioning their origins when there is a history of trauma involved is a vital part of healing and connecting. Latimer has been supported and trusted by the Indigenous community with the belief that she was able to tell stories pertinent to Indigenous people and their distinct experiences, as a trusted “Indigenous woman”. 

With that trust, the acclaimed director has amassed a large number of awards, grants, and recognition for being an Indigenous filmmaker -- a title that has recently been uncovered as a lie. 

Through much of her 20 years in the industry, Latimer claimed to have Métis and Algonquin heritage, based on “oral history” of her maternal grandfather, as relayed by CBC. In previous interviews, Latimer has said that her father is French-Canadian, and that her mother is Algonquin and Métis.  

Further, in a September 2020 interview about her current film and TV projects, she stated that her mother had a complicated relationship with her mixed-race identity. 

Last month, Latimer’s Indigenous identity came into question during a National Film Board press release, announcing the release of her film Inconvenient Indian, in which she specifically stated a connection to the community of Kitigan Zibi in Quebec, which the community denies.

In an investigative piece published on Dec. 17, CBC News revealed Kitigan Zibi members refute Latimer’s claims to be of “Algonquin, Métis and French heritage, from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg (Maniwaki), Quebec.” 

The news outlet also examined census records showing that Latimer’s grandfather was not Indigenous or Métis as she previously claimed, but French-Canadian. A genealogist and researcher with expertise in French-Canadian families independently also examined Latimer’s heritage to reveal she has only two Indigenous ancestors who lived in the 17th century. 

All other family members were “easily identifiable as French Canadians, Irish, Scottish.” In other words, she is white.  

Kawennahere Devery Jacobs, a Mohawk actor from Kahnawake, Quebec, spoke out about Latimer’s claims. She took to Instagram and said “blood quantum is not an accurate way to measure someone’s Indigineity. There are many ways to be Indigenous, but having two ancestors from the 1600s is not one of them."

CBC News exchanged emails with Latimer over a two-month stretch, asking her to properly address the roots of her identity claims. She denied all requests to interview, and instead wrote back in the emails that she had believed she had a legitimate connection to Kitigan Zibi, but claimed she made a mistake by not researching the link to the Algonquin First Nation. 

Elder Claudette Commanda, one of the most prominent Elders in Canada who is from Kitigan Zibi, said that Latimer’s statements were an “insult”. 

“Why are you claiming you are from Kitigan Zibi? What do you have to gain from this?” Commanda said to CBC.

She told CBC she has seen a recent increase in ancestry claims to Indigenous communities without confirmation, and such acts threaten the identity of those who have survived in the face of trauma and displacement.  

“Why is it that they just want the fame and glory, but they don’t want the struggles that come with it?” said Commanda. 

Many other community members and Indigenous filmmakers expressed their pain and anger over the incident. Some have compared Latimer’s lying by omission to others who have claimed Indigenous ancestry without evidence to prove it, such as Johnny Depp or Elizabeth Warren. 

Claiming to be Indigenous when you in fact are not is harmful is so many ways. Typically, the people making these claims have white privilege fuelling their professional craft -- there is no PTSD from residential schools, no internalized shame, no intergenerational trauma, no complicated impacts of colonization that has had lasting effects to this day. 

This is also something that Latimer herself has talked about in her films and interviews, previous to her identity allegations. Her documentary Inconvenient Indian is all about how a white settler lens has framed Indigenous people since the dawn of cinema. 

In an interview with Straight, Latimer broke down why representing Indigenous people, culture, and authorship is important -- a belief she so blatantly violated by pretending to have Indigenous roots for so long. 

“This is something that our Indigenous communities have been dealing with for a long time,” said Kawennahere Devery Jacobs, whose detailed response to the Latimer expose on Twitter has since gone viral.

She told Variety that if a person needs a genealogist to tell them they have a small amount of “Native blood”, then they are not Indigenous. 

“Native American ancestry is not just race. It’s not just DNA. It’s society. We’re sovereign nations and we have our own right to self-determination and in determining who is from our communities. To simply peg it off as, ‘Oh, I’ve hired a genealogist and I have a native ancestor from the 1600s does not mean that you are part of that community,” Jacobs told Variety.

“Right now in Canada, there are so many grants and so many different forms of reparation, that lot’s of people are coming out of the woodwork who have a small amount of ancestry [but] have never grown up with the experience of being an Indigenous person, and are seizing these opportunities for their own personal gain. And I fundamentally believe that’s wrong”. 

I wholeheartedly agree with Jacobs. These types of claims pose a threat to Indigenous peoples and communities because they undermine the systemic and traumatic hardships of Indigenous identity. 

To claim to be a part of a community you don’t truly belong to is harmful, because there is an undeniable history of displacement through residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, land theft, the foster care system, and other present-day effects of colonialism that have  disproportionately affected those communities. 

Indigenous nations have defended their sovereignty and have resisted genocide and settler colonialism, which were designed to thrive on the violent dispossession of everything Indigenous people are. Pretending to be a part of those communities when in fact your ancestors are white settlers is dangerous, disappointing, and frankly, disgusting. 

Reflective of the culture and vast history behind Indigenous people in Canada, the Indigenous film community is constructed on the values derived from the teachings and rich history many have cultivated from years of discovering what it means to belong after being heavily displaced.  

Indigenous people in the film industry have had to fight for sovereignty over their own stories because throughout the entire history of filmmaking, there is an overwhelming amount of stories about Indigenous peoples that are told by non-Indigenous people.  

Latimer is no different. The Indigenous film community is now contending with the reality that one of the most successful Indigenous filmmakers in Canada is in fact, not Indigenous, but rather a white settler who wants to reap the benefits of Indigenous identity without experiencing the adversity and traumatic history. 

The Indigenous community deserves better than this. There is rich culture to be recognized, celebrated, and honoured by consuming art and stories that are told by the Indigenous community and Indigenous storytellers. Here is a link of powerful films to watch, created by Indigenous women that tell truthful stories about the Indigenous community. 

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About the author: Tasheal is a screenwriter and poet who believes creativity fuels true happiness. She is studying her first year of Film Production at UBC. Tasheal first discovered her passion for telling stories when she typed up old manuscripts for her dad at the ripe age of 9. Ever since, she has fell in love with the art of storytelling. Tasheal is an Aquarius who uses sarcasm as a defence mechanism and enjoys binge-watching Frasier on a regular basis. Find her on instagram at @tashealgill

5X Press is a forum for opinions, conversations, & experiences, powered by South Asian youth. The views expressed here are not representative of those of 5X Festival.

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