Negotiating My Identity…who am I?

IMG_1577Who am I?

Who am I and where am I from? Whether it is at a family function, public event, workplace or in the schoolyard everyone to some degree has experienced the uncomfortable once-over (first known use of the word according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary was in 1913), either from a single person or group of people.

I have been to a lot of small towns all throughout Ontario and that feeling of being placed by someone is oh so familiar. You are walking down the main street and turn into the local restaurant or coffee shop and It’s almost as if every one at that moment stops and turns in their seats to watch you walk into the joint. Best way I can describe that feeling to you is, it’s like being in a movie about racism. Maybe a movie you’d see at a film festival in Canada rather than a Hollywood version of overcoming adversity and being different, like Footloose.

“Hey Kevin Bacon it was against the law for us to dance long before your movie.”

Sometimes we have done the very same thing to others. Speaking of othering we have to ask ourselves if we have been othered? Or othered others? That’s a lot of othering! This conversation is beginning to sound like a paradigm.

Well regardless there is the obvious once-over and what motivates and informs these physical gestures people use everyday? Hmmph…There is glance over the shoulder, full body scan of someone, the big fake smile, look in the eye, firm handshake please to meet you analyzing engagement. Even though this is proper business etiquette it almost feels like something else. Are we trying to determine if they are safe?

Here’s a funny incident I am not sure where to file it; maybe under bad manners. I remember being with my family in the food court and I ran into this former upper echelon of privilege who greeted me with a big smile, considerate conversation, firm handshake, commented on how wonderful my family looked. Then right in front of everyone proceeded to wipe his nose with one hand and then wiped it on my left shoulder. It wasn’t just one wipe either, he made sure the snot was off his fingers and onto my jacket. As I recall I watched his hand while he was doing it, ha ha.

According to Body Language Expert Mark Bowden’s analysis of the Trump and Trudeau handshake this engagement is an engagement of dominance “Who can suppress the other, who’s in control.”

I am certain there are numerous examples we could ponder. Am I locating the locator and what does that mean for me? What does it mean when we locate someone silently according to socio-economic status, race, and gender?

Are we observing their skin color, their ethnicity, how expensive their clothes are? Are we evaluating their vocabulary? What are we thinking about the person if they didn’t go to University?


The Ontario Human Rights Commission defines racism and discrimination somewhat on their website.

Discrimination is not defined in the Code but usually includes the following elements:

  • Not individually assessing the unique merits, capacities and circumstances of a person
  • Instead, making stereotypical assumptions based on a person’s presumed traits
  • Having the impact of excluding persons, denying benefits or imposing burdens.


In the past two years I have had the honor and privilege of traveling across this beautiful country as a guest in many places, speaking to the Indigenous narrative.


During my presentations I pose a question to the audience. “If you seen me standing in line for a coffee at your favorite coffee place would you be able to identify me as being Indigenous, First Nations or my personal favorite Anishinaabe (Ojibway)?”

Mind you the question is a set up to help people unpack their misconceptions and stereotypes. I have posed this question numerous times with slight variations in answers from grade school to professional learners. It was very interesting to watch non-Indigenous people assert themselves as experts. Most leaners were certain about their expert knowledge of Indigenous culture, ceremonially outfits, dance regalia and the physical traits of over 1152 Nations in North America.

Most common responses from learners who could not identify me:

  • “You look normal.”
  • “You have short hair.”
  • “Your skin isn’t dark enough.”
  • “You look White.”
  • “You are wearing nice clothes.”
  • “You are well dressed.”
  • “You look educated.”
  • “You look like you are from South America (Columbia).”
  • “You’re not wearing buckskin or fur.”
  • “You’re not wearing beads and feathers.”

Most times I try my best to respond to answers with humour.

“Trust me you would not see me in traditional ceremonial attire grabbing an espresso gazing upon the horizon as I wait in line trying to look especially stoic. Or even better yet picture me running on the treadmill with a feathered headdress sweating profusely!”

So my question is, why do you expect us to look like that now?

There is a time and place for ceremonial attire and dance regalia usually ceremonies or celebrations. Traditional attire is usually adorned with special symbols of nationhood, beadwork, quillwork, family clans and sometimes spirit colors (spirit protectors). It can take years to make traditional outfits, ceremonial attire and dance regalia so I am not just going to wear it downtown on the subway. just imagine how long my moccasins would last on the concrete?

What is normal? What are people normalizing? Are they normalizing white privilege?

The reason I ask learners these questions is because I really want to help them understand what sorts of stereotypes and misconceptions they may have about Indigenous people. Believe me these misconceptions have found a nice cozy comfortable place on my identity many times, sometimes of my own doing!

As a young man I remember being proud to wear a Cleveland Indians T-Shirt like it was somehow part of my identity and culture. As far as I know the caricature Chief Wahoo isn’t my cousin or an ancestor of mine but for some ridiculous reason people think he is really Indigenous. Just like the misconception that all Indigenous women are “Indian Princesses.” As far as I know Indigenous people did not have a monarchy, so this fictitious identity created by the dominant society has unfortunately informed the world about what Indigenous people should look like.

One of the conversations I have found myself in way too many times is about my own identity and what I should look like as an Indigenous man. I have debated and even negotiated my own identity with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Why do I have to defend my ancestry?

“I swear I really am First Nations, I am Ojibway and Cree.”

I believe this persistent racist ideology from Canadians, Americans and the world are not going away anytime soon. It is almost like the stereotypes and misconceptions created for Indigenous people are the measuring mechanism for identity. Guaranteed some of these notions are being passed on right now as we speak to the next generation Canadians and Americans.

North American Society has been made to feel ok about stereotyping Indigenous people and mocking their culture. The usage of inappropriate logos, mascots, mocking gestures at athletic events, schools, summer camps are usually defended with an argument of paying tribute, honour and respect to Indigenous People.

When we still have professional teams like the Cleveland Indians, Washington Redskins and the Edmonton Eskimo’s there’s absolutely no question and no need to point fingers as to who’s perpetuating this racism. I mean did it all start with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha in 1855 or was it Sir James Matthew Barrie’s Peter Pan?

Passage from: I am not the Indian you had in mind, By Thomas King

I’m not the Indian you had in mind I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him ride Rush of wind, Darkening tide With wolf and eagle by his side His buttocks firm and well defined My God, he looks good from behind but I’m not the Indian you had in mind

The Indigenous narrative has not been at the forefront for most Canadians. Bonita Lawrence and Enakshi Dua draw attention to how Indigenous people are most times left out of the conversation. I feel that Indigenous people are always left out of the conversation because most of society doesn’t even know that Indigenous people still exist.

“So Canada what are we celebrating?”


Which brings my thinking to Sir John A. MacDonald and Duncan Campbell Scott. Were they and Canada partially successful in assimilating and getting rid of the Indian problem? Are we the Halluci Nation? I have heard many Indigenous people state that they feel invisible in the big cities.

Unfortunately most Canadians young and old are emotionally invested in the stereotype and objectified images of an Indian as well as absurdly thinking we all still live in teepees. Don’t even get me started on those thanksgiving celebrating Americans and their investment of that holiday. I think I am going to lose it if I see another Indian with feathers for my children to color. Let’s not forget Halloween and the appropriated racism (Pocahontas, Indian brave and maiden costumes) running rampant door to door for treats.

For the most part when I visit a school I have to be very hyper sensitive and always on the lookout for the Indigenous presence.  How are Indigenous People represented in this space? Are there a paintings, relevant books, posters or a display? I try to call on my childhood hero Bravestarr “Eyes of the Hawk!”

Helpful filter 7 Myths about Cultural Appropriation

This year during one of my school visits I walked into the library and seen this diorama sitting on the shelf. The diorama was supposed to represent the Algonquin/Algonkian people. I took it off the shelf and literally blew the dust off of it.  I put it on the table for  all the students to see. I asked them what was wrong with the diorama? They couldn’t really see anything wrong with it. So I pointed out everything in the diorama that was misrepresented; the Canadian Flag, the teepee, a totem pole and a plastic Aztec figure by a birchbark canoe.

Beside the obvious errors in the diorama the students and I got into some discussion about who Indigenous people are today. I asked them if someone should do an urban Indigenous diorama? Maybe with a professional Anishinaabe in a suit working for an Indigenous organization, a leader, an actor, a First Nations hockey player playing in the NHL as a goalie for Montreal (Carey Price) or a maybe member of parliament (Wab Kinew)?

I told them before I left that it is very important for us to learn about the past and what has happened but as Canadians we should learn about who Indigenous people are today.

Who am I? I am Anishinaabe ( John Trudell – Being Human ) and  “We are Still Here.”


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